Picture for a moment what the official White House website, would look like with a President Obama at the reins: there would be the usual news, issues, photos, but also perhaps an interactive blog, a policy wiki, video feeds from meetings, a tracking tool to see whether we're on budget (or not), resource links for free Internet use, and a robust social networking engine. Indeed, a new era of open source government could begin in January if Barack Obama continues to walk his talk on issues of transparency.
Transparency continues to be a theme of the Obama campaign (including inspiring a series of supporter-driven party platform development events taking place beginning next week), although it has generally garnered little press. Obama"s plan, listed in extensive detail on the campaign website, uses the term "open" thirteen times and outlines how the administration would hire a chief technology officer who will be responsible for, among other things, placing a "specific focus on transparency." Joe Rospars, the campaign's web strategist, has written previously that "My.BarackObama.com has an unprecedented public utility for supporters." The plan is to expand the tools and techniques that have worked to bring the public into the campaign to create an online community that does the same for government.
One of the most interesting parts of the Obama plan is the proposed five-day public comment period, where anyone can provide feedback online on any non-emergency legislation before it is signed into law. What happens to the feedback citizens provide is of course undetermined, but even so, it's a far cry from the current lame duck of a White House site and particularly the "White House Interactive" page, where the latest citizen Q&A was posted 26 March 2007. With Senator Obama encouraging supporters to engage their local communities in the policy dialogue via the Obama site on issues such as FISA, he is laying the groundwork for what whitehouse.gov could become.
The concept of open government enabled by technology is not new, of course, and has been adopted in various forms around the globe. One of the most notable large-scale pushes for advancing the concept came about during the development of global information and communications technology (ICT) policies through the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society process. Over a multi-year period, delegates from countries and organizations engaged in a virtual dialogue via web sites, email, and a policy wiki to draft the policies that they then adopted in person at the summit events. The Plan of Action that came out of the summit included an e-government component that would "promote transparency in public administrations and democratic processes."
Robert Guerra, Director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, an organization that participated in the WSIS process, has been on the forefront of global information technology policy issues including open government. Guerra explains that the goal is to draw the curtain on how government actually works -- and doesn't work -- but also to "ensure that all voices in all populations are represented, including those not online." Guerra references the office of the British Prime Minister, where "they have done some really remarkable things in terms of providing a medium where citizens can interact" via the interactive site, 10 Downing Street. "If people can converse in a non-polarized fashion, that will be a big achievement for the next [U.S.] administration... what's important is that people engage," he said.
Senators Obama and McCain share a track record of support for increasing transparency. The first federal bill listed with Obama's name on it was the "Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006," which created usaspending.gov, a site that tracks government tax spending for everyday users to follow. John McCain co-authored the bill.