Wow, I am really excited. Something amazing happened yesterday, Dec 11, 2007, for the American people, democracy, and my work. I will try to break it down for you in a simplified way. The story is pulled from several statements, 60 plus pages, and a Senate Hearing. Here it is:
A Congressional Hearing was called by Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins to discuss the state of the web, our government, and web 2.0. They invited Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia), Google, the OMB, and the Center for Internet and Democracy.
The session was all about opening up our government websites to the people of America (and the world) by introducing collaboration and transparency into the process of democracy. Senator Susan Mullins, in her opening remarks, states that the internet has been around for 20 years, but the “federal commitment to the web…is only 5 years old” (see E-Gov, 2002). Meaning that they have a lot of catching up to do.
First on the agenda was search engines. A Pew study conducted in 2004 shows that 77% of Americans get information about their government via search engines [1, pdf]. Furthermore JL Needham, of Google, stated that, “we can assume that this already impressive number has risen farther” since 2004. I can easily imagine this number today being in the 90th percentile.
The speakers go on to demonstrate that a surprisingly large amount of publicly available government information is not searchable. They cite various reasons, one being that websites are using *robots.txt* files, which prohibit search engines from “crawling” the data. The conclusion and recommendations from all was that this needs to change. Senator Lieberman, even questioned whether this was an accident or just simply “not going the extra mile”.
Imagine what resources could be made available to anyone using a search engine once this issue is resolved. We are talking about science reports, emergency information, available grants, and much more.
The second recommendation was for the government to embrace collaboration and openness. Not only within the government but with the American people. In the words of Senator Lieberman,
“Today, we will also examine how new collaborative technologies can strengthen interaction among government agencies and the public. Jimmy Wales – the founder of Wikipedia, the most thrilling example of what collaborative technology can produce – will walk us through the concepts behind Wikipedia and how similar technologies can be applied to government for greater information sharing, collaboration, and communication both within government and with the public.”
That was his opening line! To his credit, Mr. Wales impressively laid out the business process and features of Wikipedia in a clear and simple way. Making sure to answer some of the more controversial aspects of the online encyclopedia, while also providing examples of how the process can be used for government agencies.
His prepared speech impressed me the most and I recommend reading it (pdf). In it he discusses how the First Amendment, freedom of speech, is being both protected and fulfilled in Wikipedia, and how this very same process can,
“…improve our government’s ability to gather and share information for increased security, for increased governmental responsiveness in our open society, and for the preservation of democratic values.”
His final recommendation was for the American government to use wiki’s, both internally and for the public. The public wiki angle excites me the most as this is something I have been asking for and speaking about for a while. Engaging the American people in a dialogue about our laws, amendments, problems, programs, and more using a wiki can have a tremendous impact on democracy in America. I can imagine our laws being drafted in a public wiki, and citizens can directly edit, discuss, and impact the laws of our federal, state, and local governments.
Forget, “get out the vote”, lets go with “wikify the government”.
I know things like this will definitely take time, but this is an important first step. Having the right people, saying the right things also helps too. What an exciting moment and an invigorating era to be alive in!
Further interesting observations:
Who knew lobbyists, or rather Google lobbysits, would be pushing for this?
Even more so, who knew that in 6 years a little known project called Wikipedia that called for “free access to the sum of all human knowledge” would be before Congress asking them to join in?
Senator Lieberman – Both the Legislative and Executive branches must “increase its transparency and expand its interactive relationship with the public “ [2, pdf]
JL Needham – “Making publicly available government information more accessible and useful to citizens…makes our democracy more transparent, accountable, and relevant to its citizens.”
Mr. Needham, again – “In the Web 2.0 world, where more and more citizens are using blogs, wikis, online mapping, video sharing services, and social networking sites to communicate and collaborate with each other, there will be even more demand for government to bring information to citizens where they are through these new platforms. This information will also help serve as a core component of the user-generated content that is driving the deeper engagement of Americans with each other, and with our democracy, through the Web.” [3, pdf]
President George HW Bush – “…expanding the use of the Internet and computer resources in order to deliver Government services, […] for a citizen-centered, results-oriented, and market-based Government.” 
Jimmy Wales – “it is important that governments use technology wisely to communicate with the public, and also to allow the public to communicate with the government.” [5, pdf]