Much has been made this year of how the presidential candidates have expanded their use of the Internet, particularly for raising money, organizing supporters and sharing videos. But what happens when the campaign is over? Whether Barack Obama or John McCain wins or loses, do their online operations cease and just close up shop the day after the election?
A conference of Internet experts and devotees just met in New York for two days to consider, among other things, how to switch the focus of campaign Internet activity from partisan politics to governing.
Is it possible to translate the online expertise developed during campaigns into running the federal bureaucracy? To take the energy that goes into manipulating voters to win elections and convert it into listening to voters and being transparent, accountable and accessible?
The subject matter explains the title of the conference, “Rebooting the System,” which was held by the Personal Democracy Forum, a group that focuses on how technology affects politics.
“Looking over the horizon, we think it’s time to start giving more attention to how networked people are starting to change governance,” Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry, the moderators of the forum, wrote in an introductory pamphlet.
“For all the attention we pay to the Web’s impact on the process of electing people to office and running advocacy campaigns,” they added, “were seeing real changes beginning to happen in how public officials interact with citizens and in how both groups are using social software and the social Web to try new approaches to addressing big problems.”
Changes are already happening on the local and state levels, but perhaps the greatest challenge remains with the United States government, one of the biggest bureaucracies, and biggest disseminators of information, in the world.
If those at the conference have their way, pressure will increase on Obama and McCain to make “e-commitments” before the election about things like opening up federal data, making federal agencies more responsive and making broadband access a priority. (Most perceive Obama as miles ahead of McCain on this score.)
The conference included reports of some interesting developments in other countries. In Britain, for example, it is easy to keep track of what is said in Parliament through theyworkforyou.com, which provides transcripts that allow readers to click and see video of that part of each speech.
One of the most popular sites, petitions.pm.gov.uk, allows citizens to petition the prime minister directly. Even little Estonia has made several advancements. Citizens there can slide their state I.D. card into a computer, for example, and see the private data held about them in 75 different data bases and when it was last accessed, according to Steven Clift of e-democracy.org.
“Maybe 50 years of Communism made them realize they needed to give their citizens these rights,” Clift said. In a true democracy, he said, everything should be online “unless the law says otherwise.”
The United States government certainly has Web sites – more than 24,000 of them, with 24,000 different designs. They grew like topsy over the last decade, without any kind of Web strategy. Some are downright bizarre. The Department of Defense, for example, has a site about herding cats on military ranges.
“This calls into question whether were really managing what we have out there,” said Sheila Campbell, the manager of best practices at usa.gov, which tries to help citizens navigate the federal bureaucracy.
She questioned whether herding cats was “a core government task.”
As a government emissary, especially one with a sense of humor, Campbell was a popular speaker on various panels at the conference. Many attendees were surprised that the government was putting much effort into the Web at all, and she was swamped with questions.
In addition to overseeing best practices, she is co-chair of the Federal Web Managers Council, made up of more than two dozen senior Web managers from the government who are trying to improve federal Web sites and who serve as the steering committee for the Web Content Managers Forum, a group of nearly 1,300 government Web managers. We sat down with Campbell and with another representative from the government, Sam Gallagher, who is the departmental Web manager at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to find out a bit more about what they do.
Campbell, 41, came to her job after serving in the Peace Corps, in Togo, and then working on an internal Web site for Peace Corps employees.
Gallagher, 43, was involved in print publishing for a nonprofit group in Washington. Neither of them had technical backgrounds.
The chief things that people want from government Web sites, Campbell said, are to get a passport, apply for a business loan, find affordable housing, find ways to reduce energy costs and get a government job.
“There is a real cost to not being able to get these things done, in trust and productivity,” she said. “If it takes you 20 minutes to download a student financial aid form, that’s a real cost to our economy.”
But there are several hurdles to improving the sites and keeping up with new technologies. These include legal and policy restrictions as well as security concerns and a lack of resources (and difficulty in planning ahead, given the federal budget process).
Another problem is in using video, which they desperately want to do. But the American Rehabilitation Act, regarding people with disabilities, means all government video has to be captioned, which takes time and money.
“We want to speak to the public in the places they are,” Gallagher said. “Our Web site gets 2 million visitors a month; YouTube gets 75 million. If we’re going to talk to people about home ownership, we have to go to YouTube. The audience is there.”
Another delay in putting up videos, he said, is in finding the right tone for them and “not sounding like a bureaucrat.”
Some sites are becoming more consumer-oriented instead of being organization-oriented. One surprise, at least to us, was the Web site at the Transportation Security Administration.
The government had been inundated with so many complaints about airport security measures and the T.S.A. was so unpopular that the agency started a blog to try to address the anger. It also made a video explaining why it had started the blog. (Officials say in the video that they want to explain what they’re doing so that passengers will trust them more and they can spend their time maintaining security rather than arguing.)
“This epitomizes the future of open government,” Campbell said. “Many agencies are looking to the T.S.A. as a model of success.”
The T.S.A. even uses Twitter, which raises another challenge: figuring out what technology to use in what circumstance.
“This is why we have 24,000 Web sites, because we all rushed out and made them, and there were no standards and no strategies,” Gallagher said. “We don’t want to go through that again. The public is not served by 50,000 public blogs.”
Some of the Web managers just had a conference call about the task of boiling down government information so it can be accessed by mobile technology.
Campbell and Gallagher said their immediate goals include streamlining information and creating common urls on various agency sites so that they all give out the same information on, say, the recent tomato recall or the California wildfires or a hurricane.
More broadly, they hope to help people complete common tasks efficiently, get rid of redundant, outdated and trivial information, and ensure access to underserved populations, including those with disabilities and limited proficiency in English.
In their introduction to the conference, Rasiej and Sifry seemed to sense the scope of the undertaking ahead. “It may be too soon to talk about the rise of Government 2.0,” they wrote, “but it’s time to start that conversation.”