One of the most-repeated stories of last year's presidential campaign was the fundamental role that technologies like the web and social networking played in the contest, especially in Barack Obama's winning campaign. But precious little attention was paid to the use of technology for actually governing, not just raising funds or getting attention for a candidate.
Amazingly, the Obama administration's use of web technologies has accelerated since Inauguration Day. And with an aggressive and wide-ranging new set of web initiatives, the current White House has achieved an improbable goal: The Executive branch of the federal government of the United States has become the most interesting tech start-up of the year.
How did this happen? By focusing on fundamentals. Instead of merely using web technologies to promote the present administration's agenda, a new community of policy-makers has worked to make the web and social technologies a fundamental part of their way of doing business, reflecting their comfort and familiarity with these technologies. While it's still early, the promise of much of these efforts is a new set of tools that transcend an individual administration or any particular partisan goals, and instead offer a new way for those within the government, in the private sector, and in the non-profit sector to collaborate using the same types of tools they use in their personal lives or to run independent businesses.
Show and Tell
While we could point to dozens of specific examples, a quick glance at a few of the new sites that have popped up give a strong idea of what this new "Startup.Gov" community is trying to accomplish:
Data.gov provides information feeds of valuable raw data generated by the Federal government, powerful tools for exploring that data, and hundreds of data reports organized by geographic area. The site has rapidly gone from just providing a few dozen bits of info to thousands of feeds, in the span of just a few months. And all of this data is completely free, instead of requiring companies or individuals to pay the exorbitant fees that middlemen used to charge for packaging up government data.
USAspending.gov lets any of us to drill down into the details of spending from various federal agencies, examining how our tax dollars are spent by state or by program. There's even the ability to examine spending down to the level of individual contracts that are awarded. Developers and experts even have a simple but power programming interface (API) to access arbitrary sets of data.
Recovery.gov lets those who are curious about the economic recovery and our various Federal bailout efforts examine the details of how resources from the Recovery Act are being allocated. Just as importantly, anyone who is interested in seeing how the Recovery Act could benefit their business can find the appropriate resources with just a few clicks.
Apps.gov is the newest of this cohort of sites, bringing the power of something like Apple's signature App Store for the iPhone to the world of government workers, letting them pick from a broad range of powerful web applications with just a few clicks. Now our government agencies can use the same tools and web services and cloud computing resources that we put to work in our private businesses, often for free or low cost, instead of building expensive custom tools and going through lengthy and expensive procurement processes.
There are many other ways that new .gov sites are opening up government, from obscure communities of interest to particular niches of the wonk world to the increasingly high-profile WhiteHouse.gov. But perhaps one of the most remarkable traits of these sites is that they're useful to almost anybody, regardless of affiliation. If you support this administration's goals, then the fact that these sites make the government more effective and efficient is something to celebrate. And if you don't, then the fact that these sites make the administration radically more transparent and accountable than any past web efforts by the government should be a powerful opportunity. Better government? There's an app for that.
Our government's embrace of the same web technologies that have radically improved productivity while lowering costs in the private sector represents a permanent and fundamental upgrade in the way our government functions. We're moving away from a world where "publicly available" data is something that requires a Freedom of Information Act request, where access to government information is too slow or inconvenient for a business to rely on, and where government websites seem like relics from the last millennium.
These new sites are the equal of some of the best sites coming from Silicon Valley and elsewhere when it comes to usability, aesthetics, and utility. And it's likely that soon they'll be platforms that spawn their own ecosystem of developers, users and applications, just like Facebook or Twitter or the iPhone. When that does happen, we can safely say that dot-gov is the new dot-com.