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New media advocates see cracks in Obama's open government push

President Obama was criticized during the presidential campaign for promoting himself as a community organizer. It could be even harder to prove he's an online community organizer in executing his open government project, say new media advocates outside of Washington.

"The Beltway seems to have caught the transparency bug, but it is imperative that this issue be made real to everyday citizens," said Steven Clift, a consultant in Minneapolis, Minn., who specializes in the use of the Internet in promoting democracy. "What good will open government be if more and new people don't show up?"

On May 21, Obama launched the first leg of the open government initiative he promised to implement the day after taking office. The plan includes three phases of public involvement, mostly via the Web, to devise recommendations for creating a more transparent and participatory government.

Clift suggested that throughout each stage of the process Obama should encourage individuals to sign submissions with their real name, city, state and organization, if applicable. "Then we will be able to see if the nation is speaking or just the Beltway," he said.

"Using aliases as a default -- no one knows you're a dog -- accepts Internet culture over effective and open engagement that matters," he said, referring to a New Yorker cartoon in which a dog sitting at a desktop computer says to another dog, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

Obama kicked off the brainstorming part of the project on May 21. Online discussions about the most compelling of those ideas are slated to start on June 3. On June 15, the citizens will flesh out more formal recommendations for agency action through a wiki, a Web page that allows users to add and edit content.

The compressed timetable for public input "will be tough to allow the wiki way to emerge as being useful," cautioned Andrew Lih, a new media academic based in Beijing and author of The Wikipedia Revolution, a nonfiction account of the rise of the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

He also said the layout of the open government brainstorming page was "confusing for a newbie." The page is not hosted on a .gov domain and it is unclear where a visitor should go after reading the introductory text, said Lih, who serves as a Wikipedia site administrator. "Facebook has kind of upped the ante, where we expect the front page to be a control showing all kinds of things that are happening in the community," he added.

He commends the White House's effort as compared with initiatives undertaken by the Bush administration, which was not as tech savvy and not as interested in open government, Lih said. "This is a plus. ...They are very willing to embrace external controls," he noted. "In the first 200 days, you're getting something out there that is quite advanced."

Other new media specialists observed that the slow development of Recovery.gov, a site established to provide data for tracking stimulus spending, does not bode well for this new endeavor. "I've seen some of the reporting architecture developed by federal officials, and it looks really good," said Eric Kansa, executive director of the Information and Service Design Program at the University of California Berkley School of Information. "There are really good people who know how to do these things, but there seems to be some breakdown in leadership."

Leadership "is going to become a much bigger issue when you get into something as a big as an open government initiative and something like a Data.gov," he added.

The open government launch coincided, intentionally, with the release of Data.gov, a free site that strives to provide raw federal statistics in formats anyone can download and manipulate. "In order for Data.gov to be a success and for the open government initiative to be a success, agencies in the federal government need to embrace Web-style [network] architectures," said Kansa, who studies ubiquitous online access to research data.

The government is "coming from the world of mainframe computing," where enterprise-style architectures were best suited for such highly specified, highly controlled kinds of environments, he said. But enterprise-style architectures require elaborate standards and messaging that are not conducive to collaborating, Kansa said. "In the Web style, the heart of it is very, very simple kinds of communication," he noted. "The model of the Web is that you basically publish a resource at an address."

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, who is developing Data.gov, said more data feeds will be posted online in the coming months and government networking is moving toward Web-style architectures. "What happened in the '90s is that government webbified itself," meaning agencies placed "mirror copies of existing systems in the digital world -- creating 24,000 Web sites," he said. "How is the average American supposed to navigate those Web sites?"

Kundra said the administration is urging agencies to embrace cloud computing, or shared Web-based software programs, to present the government as one cohesive online offering. "That's why I'm pushing cloud computing, [to define] government as a platform," he said of the new branding.

Critics noted that with Obama articulating such grand visions, there is now a standard to which to hold him. "So far he hasn't lived up to those expectations, [but] at least those expectations are there," Kansa said. "I didn't see this in the last administration."

In contrast, Craig Newmark, creator of craigslist, the popular community-moderated classified ad site, has nothing but praise for the Obama administration's transparency efforts. He noted the open government initiative is akin to the 1787 Constitutional Convention that gathered statesmen to draft the U.S. Constitution. "It is something of similar spirit," he said. "Apparently the events of Nov. 4 got a lot of people to realize that this social media stuff is for real."

Newmark said he wants to contribute to the open government project by becoming a champion for government Web managers, the "nerds and wonks" in the White House and the innovative public diplomacy officials at the State Department "who are making it happen."

"Customer service is kind of like public service, or it should be," he said. "I have an opportunity to expand this customer service far beyond craigslist. They don't need my help making it happen. They do need the help of people who can bear witness to that."

Newmark routinely publicizes the federal government's foray into social media on his blog and at public speaking engagements. "The only way you can get tens of millions, hundreds of millions involved in a conversation, is through some mechanism where millions of people can talk to each other and filter out the worst of the stuff and filter out the best of the stuff," he said. "Maybe the tool that people use is going to be the Ideascale thing," referring to the new site that lets citizens contribute and vote on ideas.

Craigslist recently came under fire for inadequate filtering. Detractors say the site allows illegal ads and inappropriate users, including a man who allegedly murdered a masseuse he sought out through the site. "My politics should be a mystery to everyone," Newmark said. "Normally, I wouldn't want to be bothered by politics. I'm more of a couch potato. The thing is that this moment in American history is too important ... and I don't have any agenda except to make this happen."

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