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Panelists push Web-savvy, open government

Fast-forward 10 or 20 years and you might see a Congress that passes "wikied" legislation created by millions of Americans, a president who submits a daily diary via video, and a vast online repository of all the Freedom of Information Act requests ever submitted.

Rewind back to today, and you'll see a handful of innovative tech experts discussing these ideas at Google's Washington headquarters. During a panel discussion today, a packed room listened to Internet-savvy people within Congress, from the presidential campaign and third parties weigh in on how President-elect Obama should use the Web to promote open government.

The discussion centered on the ways Obama's transition Web site, change.gov, has used the Internet to encourage participation and transparency. But Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for the National Security Archive, said that while the Obama team's efforts to allow commenting on its site is a good start, the administration will need to do more. Making federal information more readily available online would be a huge improvement, she said, over past standards of transparency.

Chris Barkley, an aide to Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., acknowledged that the government is not that efficient at "packaging information," but that lawmakers can, at the very least, be good at making that information available. Coburn helped pass, along with then-Sen. Obama, the "Google for government" legislation in September 2006, which mandated the creation of a search engine and database that tracks federal spending. Peering over at the moderator, Google government affairs director Andrew McLaughlin, Barkley quipped that his presence on the panel meant the company didn't mind the senators using its name to promote the bill.

Concerns were raised both in the audience and among the panelists about "white noise" -- that participatory government conducted via the Internet could ultimately create a scenario where no opinion is effectively conveyed because so many voices are clamoring to be heard.

But while these concerns remained unanswered, Barkley stressed the importance of experimenting with the Web, considering the myriad different possibilities it presents for democratic engagement. The government should, in the short term, "throw as much as we can against the wall," and look to "folks on the outside" -- third-party groups that focus on government transparency -- to "package it," he said.

Fuchs argued that any effort to increase government transparency would be a positive step forward, but that this would be a formidable challenge. "The main obstacle is the mess that is being left behind not just by the outgoing administration, but all past administrations," she said.

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