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Crowd sourcing can supplement whistleblowing, experts say

As public portals for information sharing improve, fraud and waste scandals that were traditionally broken by whistleblowers inside government will increasingly be sussed out of aggregated data from frustrated citizens on the receiving end of federal work, a transparency advocate predicted Friday.

The website Seeclickfix.com, for instance, which has been adopted by about 500 cities, allows local governments to aggregate citizen complaints about, say, unfixed potholes to spot a problem in the streets department without an insider ever stepping up, said Micah Sifry, an open government blogger and author of WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, which was published in March by Counterpoint.

Sifry pointed to the aggregated oversight power of the U.S. public at large if they devoted just a few minutes a week to online reporting of state, local and federal government failings.

"Even if you just shift by 1 percent people's TV watching time into being online and interacting . . . [in the aggregate] that's the equivalent of 200 Wikipedias," he said after the panel. "If some percent of that is going into people reporting problems -- with potholes being the gateway drug so to speak -- that's going to change what government does because they're going to see all of these complaints piling up."

Sifry was speaking at an event on whistleblowing in the federal government sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation, a transparency advocacy group.

The government generally has been slow to adopt Web-enabled crowd sourcing models for oversight, he said, either out of clumsiness or from a fear of pointing out its own failings.

The website Recovery.gov, which tracks spending from the Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus bill, has been praised for helping ensure a historically low rate of waste and fraud, generally placed at less than 1 percent. Sifry criticized the site, though, for inviting public participation only through toll-free numbers and online forms.

"We had MyBarackObama.com; we could have had Myrecovery.gov," Sifry said. "If you wanted to post a private message to an [inspector general] you could have. Or if you wanted to make your complaint public you could have done that, too, and then you could build this community of civic watchdogs that have a relationship with this agency -- a whole citizens' auxiliary."

Panel members at the Sunlight Foundation event generally criticized the government for not leveraging internal whistleblowers as a method to save taxpayer money by heightening oversight.

Whistleblowing by private sector government contractors through the False Claims Act saved the government about $3 billion last year, according to Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, another transparency advocacy group.

Panelists also criticized a proposed cut of roughly $600,000 in funding for the Office of Special Counsel, which oversees most whistleblower complaints by federal employees, in the House version of the fiscal 2012 budget.

"It's a speck of dust in the federal budget," said Carolyn Lerner, the recently confirmed director of OSC and a panelist at the discussion. "In terms of really being a robust, effective agency, we need resources to do that."

The White House's proposed budget would have raised OSC's appropriation to $19.5 million from its fiscal 2011 appropriation of $18.5 million, Lerner said.

On a global level, Sifry touted the work of OpenLeaks.org, a relatively new project by former WikiLeaks programmers, which, he said, aims to manage leaks more democratically by linking anonymous or semianonymous leakers inside organizations with citizen analysts and number crunchers and with a variety of news organizations that could publish the information.

"WikiLeaks has a lot of power and it's all centralized in the hands of one individual who is, let's say, a bit controversial and has his own agenda about what information should be used for," Sifry said, referring to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who's been accused of failing to vet State Department leaks to protect the lives of informants and who's been dogged by a series of sexual assault cases. "[OpenLeaks'] goal is to make it easy for lots of organizations to receive information, verify its validity and make it available to responsible media."

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