Coding HTML By Hand in Government

Gwynne Kostin has written about how efforts like the Online Presidential Town Hall can reveal larger problems. In her article, she mentions that world-class government web sites, like the Centers for Disease Control, hand-code web pages.

Most large-scale web sites use some sort of content management system (CMS) to publish and organize their web sites. Even small-scale web sites (like this one) use a CMS for their work. This site runs on WordPress, for example. I don’t need to know code to update my site; I just have to type into a box on a web page. Continue reading “Coding HTML By Hand in Government”

Why Doesn't Government Use the Web to Organize Its Work?

I’ve been reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. It’s a brilliant book on the information revolution that we’re going through. He believes that this revolution is as momentous as the development of the printing press, which triggered the Reformation and religious wars. The rise of amateurs and the expansion of consumer choice has meant the end of seemingly unassailable institutions like newspapers.

Seeing how the world is rushing to adapt to the web, I had a practical question. Why doesn’t the government use the web to more efficiently accomplish its work? For example: Continue reading “Why Doesn't Government Use the Web to Organize Its Work?”

Vivek Kundra at FOSE on Transforming Government

Vivek Kundra is the newly appointed Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the federal government. He is the first federal CIO ever and previously served as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the District of Columbia. He spoke this morning at FOSE, the major government technology tradeshow in Washington, DC.

I wanted to write up my notes before they got overtaken by events. Kundra spoke briefly, a little more than a half-hour and, to me, at least, he seemed distracted. I’d never heard him speak before but he seemed to be rushing through his presentation, almost by rote. His main points were:

  1. The IT Revolution is on a scale comparable to the Industrial Revolution. It will expand opportunities for mankind.
  2. The federal government can lead in technology. After all, the government sent a man to the moon, created the Internet and unlocked the human genome. Government needs to embrace a different self-image. It can be innovative and creative.
  3. If you want to know where he wants to take government, check out It is a model for the type of transparency and citizen participation that he would like to see emulated across government. Another model is the Human Genome Project, how they made data available to the public. He wants to do the same on and wants to bring these principles of openness down to the agency level.
  4. Government will embrace consumer technology. Why should government pay more for big enterprise-level solutions when off the shelf products are cheaper and more flexible? He also wants .gov to be more involved in cloud computing.
  5. The processes of government must be rethought. It’s silly to replicate some 19th Century procedure using 21st Century technology. He’s not interested in process, he’s concerned about outcomes – as are citizens. 
  6. Government employees and citizens must be freed from bureaucracy. He’s met countless smart feds interested in Web 2.0 who are stymied by outdated regulations. This must change. Also, data should be made open to the public. We must tap into their ingenuity.

Kundra took a couple questions from the audience (about IT security; he thinks it can coexist with innovation) before departing.

He might have been distracted by the FBI raid on the DC CTO’s office. This is really unfortunate.  Those in government who oppose transparency, consumer tech and citizen involvement will all use this as reason to delay and fight his efforts. They’ll say, “This is why we shouldn’t loosen regulations. Experimentation inevitably leads to malfeasance.”

I think malfeasance exists no matter what system is in place; people are way more creative than government rules. Additionally, by making government more transparent, more open to public review, we lessen the prospect of such fraud. If every government employee knew that they were doing their work in public, and subject to public accountability, I think there would be less fraud, waste and abuse.

Chris Anderson on "Delivering on the Promise of Gov 2.0"

Chris Anderson, of Wired magazine and “The Long Tail” fame, was the keynote speaker at FOSE this morning. He spoke on “For the People and By the People: Delivering on the Promise of Gov 2.0”.

Anderson started off with an interesting example – the infamous Twitter fail whale. Countless users have bemoaned the unreliability of Twitter, though in fact, the service has been down only occasionally and it’s gotten dramatically better of late. He contrasted this with a couple of stories about government sites. In the first, he had to pay taxes in Delaware for his corporation but their web site was down for the entire weekend before his taxes were due. In another example, he wanted to pay a traffic ticket he received in Truckee, CA, but the town did not take credit cards online, something a teenager could’ve set up. These are much more critical tasks than updating your Twitter feed.

Four Web Rules of the Google Generation

In Anderson’s view, the Google Generation (those who grew up with the Internet) expects government sites to work as well as commercial sites. But I think any regular user of the web thinks this way, no matter the age. He listed four rules of the Google Generation. This is what they expect:

  1. Everything should work all the time. 
  2. If you can’t find it on Google, it doesn’t exist. 
  3. Meet us where we live (Facebook, Flickr, Twitter).
  4. We want to interact with your content.

Unfortunately, as Anderson listed in his Delaware example, not everything works all the time on .gov sites. Also, while optimizing your content for Google is a great idea, not all .gov sites do this and some government content is hidden in databases which Google has a hard time searching. There are just a few examples of government in Facebook or Flickr though this is a common practice in the .com and .org worlds. And the idea of people discussing, rating, ranking and remixing government content on a .gov site is something I’ve never seen before (but would love to). Continue reading “Chris Anderson on "Delivering on the Promise of Gov 2.0"”

Friday's Links

Here’s what’s interested me this week:

Government 2.0: The Midlife Crisis
Hard truths about the difficulties of implementing Web 2.0 in government. 

It’s Time for Governance
Even more hard truths, this time about professionalizing web site management in government. 

Wil Wheaton Interview on Lulu
Interesting article on why a blogger went the self-publishing route. 

Apple Store Coming to DC

DCist Exposed
One more day to see this photo show at Flashpoint.

More Thoughts on Transparency Camp 09

Some more random thoughts about Transparency Camp 09. Here are my big take-aways from the conference.

Excitement: There’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm among enlightened advocates of government transparency, fueled by the election of Obama and the mainstreaming of Web 2.0 tools like blogging. There’s a real can-do spirit, which is in marked contrast to continuing bad news about the economy. 

The Importance of Free Beer: How do you get people to hang out after the formal sessions of a conference, for a further exchange of ideas? You offer them free beer, of course (courtesy of Peter Corbett). I saw this at SXSW too. The convivial sharing of booze leads people to make connections they never would’ve made.

Twitter is Useful: This micro-blogging service was a great utility during the conference. Attendees tagged their tweets with #tcamp09, which enabled anyone (even people not at the conference) to see what attendees were saying about the sessions.

Macs are Everywhere: I was pleased to see so many Macs at the conference. The facility at GW had outlets at every table and wifi was available as well, which led to a proliferation of laptops, the majority of which were Macs.

Education is Needed: Advocates of open and accessible government need to learn more about the near infinite complexities of government policies and procedures. A host of rules limit what government can do online. Also, there’s not “one government” as Jeff Levy from EPA repeated over and over. Different government agencies have different IT policies and requirements. Pity the poor developer who wants to create a web application for all of government. 

As someone with a background in government and nonprofit web sites, I got a tremendous amount out of this conference. Attending events like this, you come away with renewed excitement about the possibilities of the web and a host of new ideas to explore.

Transparency Camp 09: Pushing Government Forward

What’s Transparency Camp?  

This un-conference is about convening a trans-partisan tribe of open government advocates from all walks — government representatives, technologists, developers, NGOs, wonks and activists — to share knowledge on how to use new technologies to make our government transparent and meaningfully accessible to the public.

In practice, this meant a very smart and dedicated group of government and non-government techies devoted their weekend to collaborating, brainstorming and scheming new ways to make government more open and accessible to all of us. What was unique about the un-conference was that it was open and collaborative, where the people in the audience were just as smart as the “experts” presenting. It was also made up as it went along, as topics and panels were put together on the fly, in response to the interests and passions of the attendees.

I attended because I used to be a government web site manager and think that government sites can be better. And that they should be better, for they are paid for by taxpayers. In one session I was in, the question was asked, “What can the public do to make .gov sites better?”

My answer is to keep pushing. There are numerous barriers to improving government sites, from IT security to policy, that can only be overcome through public pressure. The public needs to demand sites that are easier to use and more efficiently managed. Why can’t .gov be like Google?

Perhaps more importantly, the creative, risk-taking spirit of events like Transparency Camp needs to be encouraged within government. There are a lot of very talented people within government who want to blog, use Twitter, publish data in open formats, create mashups and experiment with new technology to better serve taxpayers. These people need to be empowered so that they can more effectively communicate the work of government to the public that pays for it.

Pimp My Nonprofit: Student Movement for Real Change

Last night, I attended “Pimp My Nonprofit,” an event by NetSquared DC designed to help a worthy nonprofit better use technology. More than thirty people with a wide range of online marketing skills and interests took part in this meetup at the Affinity Lab in Adams Morgan. Drinks and snacks, key to any brainstorming session, were provided by GeniusRocket.

The nonprofit to be pimped was Student Movement for Real Change (SMRC), an organization that was founded to connect American college students with schools in Africa that need assistance. Students apply for internships that, “provide college students on-the-ground development experience, cultural immersion, and the necessary leadership skills to develop sustainable projects that address local needs through a 6 or 8 week internship (depending on the community) in developing communities” to quote the SMRC web site. Continue reading “Pimp My Nonprofit: Student Movement for Real Change”

Government Web Sites Grapple with YouTube

YouTube is ubiquitous. Millions of people visit the site every day. For the Wired Generation, it’s the functional equivalent of television. Yet, despite the vast audience of YouTube, many government agencies do not make their videos available on the site. Some are even worse – and ban their employees from even visiting YouTube.

By withholding their videos from YouTube, government agencies are shortchanging their key mission, which is communicating to the public. Taxpayers paid for those videos and they shouldn’t be hidden away on some .gov site. They are in the public domain and should be made available in every venue possible, including the one that everyone watches. To not post your videos to YouTube is like saying, “Please don’t show my content on TV.” Continue reading “Government Web Sites Grapple with YouTube”

Rise of the Goverati

“Rise of the Goverati.”  Isn’t that the new Terminator movie?

No, “goverati” is the term Mark Drapeau uses for:

people with first-hand knowledge of how the government operates, who understand how to use social software to accomplish a variety of government missions, and who want to use that knowledge for the benefit of all.

This includes people inside and outside of government who wish to apply Web 2.o principles and technologies to the not always transparent work of government.

And, as a former member of the goverati, I got to say, it’s a great term.

Government 2.0: The Rise of the Goverati – ReadWriteWeb .