My OSTP Blog Comments on Changing the PRA

Posted By on June 18, 2009

I have just now started contributing to Phase II of the Open Government Directive. CrisisCamp pretty much took up all of my spare time, but I’m going to try making up for it in the next few days. Here’s my comments I just made on fixing the Paperwork Reduction Act.

The movement toward two-way, participatory government is a significant shift in government processes and service delivery. Nowhere is this more evident than the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA). The PRA, originally written during the Carter Administration and enacted right after Reagan was sworn in, codifies the notion that one-way government is the ideal state – that the Federal government’s job is to provide the service and the citizen’s is merely to receive it. Perfect government in PRA-speak is really a one-way communication, where the only thing the government should be requesting of the public is what additional information it wants. Anything else asked of citizens is considered a “burden”, and must be quantified, and ultimately, eliminated to the greatest extent practicable. There are goals embedded in the PRA that request this burden to the citizens be reduced each year.

The movement toward two-way participatory government introduces the notion of an “opportunity” for the citizen (and perhaps even a new civic responsibility). More so, it dramatically shifts the govt-service provider/citizen-receiver relationship. In short, in a transparent, open government, the PRA as its currently enacted is no longer valid. Time expended by the public in “generating, maintaining or providing information to or for a Federal agency” is a key part of participatory government. Furthermore, the notion of a collection of information, as defined in the PRA is no longer valid. Previously, collections of information (facts or opinions for reporting or recordkeeping requirements imposed on ten or more persons, or answers to questions posted to agencies) were part of a serial decision making process – one in which the process of gathering input truly was burdensome on both the citizen and the agency. Surveys, which used to be incredibly cumbersome, are now far more often quick hit question-answer-instant “public results” type things we see on every participatory website on the internet. Asking the same question to more than 10 people is no longer a “burden” in the sense it used to be.

One needs only conduct a quick analysis of the Federal Registry to see that the implementation of the PRA has turned into nothing more than a “Check the box” function to ensure the law is being followed. The vast majority of the new information collection requests to OMB are just re-submittals due to their mandatory expiration after 3 years. Worse, OMB’s guidance and yearly reports say in effect, “We know we weren’t very diligent in responding previously, but we’ll do a much quicker job today.” It appears as if very few of the resubmittals are ever rejected – which begs the question whether there is any real review taking place. As the interactions with the public increase, the problem will only get worse. OMB probably only has a fraction of the capability today needed to do a the thorough job prescribed in Statute – they certainly won’t have the situational awareness or requisite variety to do this in an open government model.

So what is the Remedy? I think there are both some short and long term things we can do to fix the situation. Long term solutions involve significant revisions to the statute. Here’s some options. (more…)

Gov2.0 Privacy Issues for PrivacyCampDC

Posted By on June 16, 2009

EDIT: This has also been Reposted on the PrivacyCampDC Blog

In looking toward participating in PrivacyCampDC this Saturday, there are a number of privacy issues I’m concerned about regarding the movement toward open government.  While I am totally in favor of transforming government through transparency, participation and collaboration, I think it puts privacy at greater risk.  Whatever our answer in addressing this, it will involve tradeoffs.

What’s Changed? The movement toward Open Government changes the nature of the relationship between the government and its citizens.  Previously, the government was responsible for providing services to citizens, who merely consumed them.  Now we are entering an era of two way transparent participation and collaboration, in which citizens will be responsible for assisting Federal Agencies with sensemaking, priority setting and policy making.  In short, citizens are being asked to roll up their sleaves to help the Federal Government in providing the right services.

How does this Affect Privacy? I would contend that like many statutes, the movement towards Open Government renders the operational details of the Privacy Act problematic at best.  Two way participation and collaboration is often based on trust. This has implications both for the privacy details of the citizen and and the government employee they are engaged in discussions with.  As long as the citizen is merely a receptor of a government service, a citizen’s identity is often not needed.  Two-way participation implies a relationship, which more often than not may necessitate giving up privacy data.    Worse, as more and more government services are web-enabled, the citizen will be forced to provide their personally identifyable information (PII) in more and more places.  The opportunity for data spillage and identity theft is only going to increase.

Low Level Participation & Collaboration: For the lowest levels of participation, such as “What question do you want the President to answer?,” there is no need to request PII, such as name, email address, etc.   But even at a “Level 1” Identity Assurance level (as definined by OMB M-04-04 as “Little or no confidence in the asserted identity’s validity”), we can imagine scenarios where a user who wants his/her privacy maintained still would want to maintain an ongoing profile to continue participation in a conversation.  An example of this would be if a citizen submitted an idea in Phase I of the Open Government Directive, and then got asked follow-up questions – this would mean they require a persistent identity that exists over multiple sessions.

508 Compliance: Stop Enforcing, Start Innovating

Posted By on March 27, 2009

In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.  Now known affectionately as Section 508, it directs all Federal agencies to ensure that their websites and electronic information are just as accessible to people with hearing or vision impairments so that we don’t create second class citizens when accessing government information.

sisyphusEnforcing 508 Compliance

This is a laudable approach, but in practice, enforcing 508 compliance has been an uphill struggle, and will continue to be for the forseable future.   Here’s a headline from 2007 that explains the basic problem: “Web technologies outpace accessibility law and require a major rewrite of 508 standards“.  The pace of innovation always outstrips our standards.  This has been and will continue to be an ongoing issue.  Complicating things further is in practice, many website efforts start by envisioning fancy interactions only to be stymied later in the development process when they realize their tool of choice isn’t compliant.

Enforcement costs lots of money:  Even with the existence of a wonderful site that explains all aspects of 508,  many companies now exist in large part for the sole purpose of helping Federal agencies understand and implement 508 compliance.  A myriad of different types accessibility checkers have been developed.  If you conduct a Google search on 508 Compliance, it returns 394,00 documents.  GSA has been tasked with the tough job of enforcing 508, but as late as 2008, found that over 80% of the solicitations for electronic and IT development contained no provisions for accessibility.

~The Right Goal~

Make the Web Fully Accessible to Everyone

Currently the problem frame is that we haven’t been able to enforce 508 compliance standards on Federal websites.  Even if we become 100% successful, the best we get is accessible Federal websites.  This still leaves large swaths of the internet less accessible to those who are completely blind, color blind, or hearing impaired.   The best we can do is “hope” that commercial products and websites test their software for 508 compliance, and that others worry about what is essentially a long tail concern.

~The Solution~

Innovate on the Browser & End-User Hardware Side

We’ve been tackling the wrong side of the equation. Instead of spending millions on education and enforcement, we should instead spend the money and prompting innovation in the browser and specialized hardware.  Web accessible innovations in web browsers and associated specialized hardware solutions could make the entire web fully accessible to those with disabilities.   My guess is even if we spent 10 million prompting innovation through contests similar to the Wearable Power prize or the DARPA Grand Challenge,  we would still be saving lots of money overall.   Even if the resultant solutions require subsidies to reduce purchase costs, this would be no different to what we currently do with providing motorized wheelchairs to those who need them.

Examples of Possible Innovations: There could be a variety of innovations that address specific disability concerns.  Examples might include:

  • Color Transform Browser Plugins for Color Blind users: If someone has red-green color blindness for instance, wouldn’t it be great if the browser automatically changed colors in graphics and text into colors more easily seen?  We could imagine a control panel that allowed the user to choose which colors they wanted to see instead.
  • Braille Displays that Display Graphics by Converting Each Color into Different Depths:  Imagine a blue-yellow-green Venn diagram concentric circle graphic that’s so prevalent in business – only this time the colors are represented as a different height in the braille display.  Translating colors into heights make them accessible.
  • Automatic Speech to Text Translator plugins:  Imagine if YouTube videos and podcasts could automatically create mostly accurate subtitles.

Again, my imagination is limited – I’m sure true innovators could come up with far better solutions.

Federal Accessibility Challenge: The Federal Government should unleash the power of innovation by creating a Federal Accessibility Challenge, where a million dollars is awarded to the best browser solution for each disability category (color blindness, hearing impaired, for instance), and perhaps a three million dollar prize for the best hardware solution for hearing impaired or blind web users.  In both cases, the money should be doubled if the solution is an open-source software or open source hardware design.

The bottom line is the goal should be that those with disabilities should be able to get as much benefit and satisfaction out of using the entire web as the rest of us.  We should shift the approach from enforcement, and instead spend our energy on innovating.

Communication Evolution: Letters to 140 Characters

Posted By on March 26, 2009

Then:  Once upon a time when it took up to three weeks to delivery a communication, people would write long, multi-page letters to one another.  These letters provided a series of intertwined thoughts and emotions that conveyed everything a person was thinking, feeling and wondering, all within a semi-coherent narrative. Over time, the means of communication have changed.  Partially based on technology innovation, but to address new problem spaces and an ever tightening integration of society,  the modes we as a society use continue to evolve.

Now:  In the dawning of the age of Twitter, we have moved from long, elaborative thoughts crafted for a single person to single-purpose statements broadcast to a collection of potentially interested people.  From hand-written letters, to telegrams, to the sedentary telephone, to faxes, emails, BBS systems, IMs, texting, blogs and now Twitter, the messages have gotten shorter and unidimensional.

Why the Trend? Complex systems always have many different strands one can point to as reasons for why something occurred.  Here’s my thoughts on some of these:

  • Commercials trained people to think in 15 minute chunks: With the advent of radio and television as the primary means of mass media consumption, generations of people learned to cope with massive interruptions in cognition.  Every fifteen minutes, our train of thought is jarringly interrupted with completely different sounds, pictures and ideas.  So much so that people developed coping mechanisms.  People had to prepare themselves for jarring breaks in logic.  Over time, people learned to either tune out completely, or pay attention in short bursts.  Attention Deficit Disorder is now a term we all understand.
  • Ever increasing societal integration leads to ever increasing rate of  communications:  As society has become more and more integrated, the number of communications the average person has per day has increased dramatically.   Our degree of connectedness with one another has increased exponentially – so much so that we can now feel “connected” with people we have never met who live in places we have never been.    We’ve gone from a time where most people were tightly connected to a select group of family and friends to where many people are loosely connected with hundreds, if not thousands of people.  Lots of loose connections require many more communications than a few tight connections.
  • Co-evolution of Man and His Tools has led to an ever increasing rate of technology innovation:  Building upon the  significant research into the impact of tools on hominid brain development, many now look at societal evolution as a co-evolution of man and his tools, in which the drive towards integration leads to an ever increasing abundance of new niches to be filled.  In a real sense, people have evolved to become natural-born cyborgs.  As we plug the net into our thinking processes, we look for more information, more breadth, and more context all at once.  From the perspective of the tools, the drive toward personal broadcasting leads to more diversity of options, which leads to more innovative tool development, and even more powerful communication choices. Technology innovation is a positive feedback cycle which continues to feed recently developed innovations back into the hopper as grist for yet more innovations.

These are just three potential strands.  What other factors do you see?

Putting Citizens on Par with Lobbyists

Posted By on March 16, 2009

The Transparency and Open Government memo states that “Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policy making and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information.”  While this is an important goal for the Executive Branch, it is just as critical that we do the same for the Legislative Branch.  Currently, most would agree that lobbyists have significantly more influence than citizens in crafting legislation.  An essential goal for the Open Government community should be to find ways to increase citizen influence on the legislative process to be on par with lobbyists.

While lobbyists certainly influence policy through campaign contributions, they have other methods that are often far more persuasive  – they build up credibility as a trusted and useful subject matter experts with their counterparts on the hill.  Slate’s John Dickerson talks about this in his 2006 article, Lobbying and Laziness:

…the dance of influence is subtler than people think. If it works right, a member never has to say, even to himself, “I have to vote for this subsidy because lobbyist Jack (Abermoff) has just put a check in my pocket.” That happens on occasion, but usually only when a piece of legislation comes up suddenly, or if a lobbyist goes off script. The more effective scenario, for everyone concerned, involves the lobbyist becoming friendly with members of the Congress member’s staff, who research issues and advise him or her what to do and how to vote.

When the member of Congress goes to staff for information, he wants it fast. A staffer can read all available material on the issue, think through the policy, and balance what’s right against the member’s political interests—or he can call his friend Smitty the lobbyist. Smitty knows all about this complicated stuff in the telecommunications bill…Smitty has a solid, intellectually defensible answer to every question. He also knows how an issue is likely to play out politically for the member back in his home district. In a hectic day, Smitty makes a staffer’s day easier…It’s easy to rationalize relying on lobbyists for this kind of help. In asking lobbyists to help them understand technical issues, staffers are doing the same thing journalists do every day—and in fact, journalists often call the same lobbyists for the same reason. They find someone who understands the issue, figuring that they’re smart enough to use the information that rings true and discard the spin.

While there are already armies of citizen interest groups combating the corruption problem, far less scrutiny has been devoted to addressing the lobbyist access and trust issue.  In truth, the world of crafting legislation has become so complicated that lobbyists often play a valuable role in providing context and subject matter expertise on a given issue.  Staffers, who are often working under tight deadlines, can use the old “Crossfire” method of gaining information, where they ask opposing lobbyists for their opinions in order to become informed on an issue.  White papers and research are provided by lobbyists, which help the staffer construct an early draft of the proposed language.   While competing lobbyists might be a useful way of gathering detailed information in a pinch, it leaves the American citizen out of the process.  Far too often, issues critical to the public at large are never included in the initial crafting of the legislation.

The Five Day Review and Comment Period is Not Enough: The press has been awash with President Obama’s pledge (and whether he has already broken it) to give the public the opportunity to review and comment on non-emergency bills via a five day waiting period.   Even if we institute and follow this pledge, at best we are only providing the public the opportunity to galvanize enough outrage for really horrid breaches of trust.  At the point the waiting period is enacted the legislation is all but finalized.  If we truly want to include citizens policy making, the low hanging fruit starts at the beginning of the process.  (more…)

Office of Government Engagement Needed?

Posted By on March 13, 2009

The new Administration has put significant effort into the Transparency and Open Government effort.  There have certainly been examples of progress towards an open government, such as  HUD’s Recovery Act site, which already has some great data on where their Recovery Act dollars are going. While there has been a lot of work, time and effort devoted to figuring ways that citizens can participate in this process,  the question of how to get government employee participation is perhaps a harder problem.  One concern is whether government communication structures have ossified over the years.  Formal lines of communication between agencies and the White House staff, between agencies and Congressional representatives, and hierarchically within an agency can often be described as slow and opaque.  Detailed coordination between all stakeholders is the norm in these communications.

Government Needs Nimble Communication Structures: If the goal is to move toward an open government, one that is responsive to the public to the point that it actually invites the public to participate in policy making, this almost assumes that underneath the covers, a nimble government is able to quickly take in diverse points of view and course correct.  If this be the case, than certainly we are assuming that within government,  the cycle time for communicating important ideas across the Federal government can be accomplished in under 30 days, for instance.  The Transparency and Open Govt memo has a 120 day countdown for soliciting recommendations – we are already at 50 days.   At this point, how many agencies have even been able to take the OMB memo and turned it around into an agency-specific implementation?  This is of course important because most people follow guidance from their specific organization’s interpretation of OMB guidance, not from OMB itself.

I recently had a conversation with someone who did not know of the memo,  and pretty much said, “I would know about this if it was important.”  There meaning was clear – the message of Transparency and Open Government hadn’t made it to the official places they look for important information to show up.  As we move towards a more open, participative, collaborative and transparent government, this problem will get more visibility.  Bottom line, the internal channels of communication that are the lifeblood of the government coordination and response process are not sufficient to support open government.

Insight instead Oversight: The broad answer of how to address this problem seem clear – in the same way that we are looking to galvanize participation and collaboration with the american public, we too need to do this on the inside.  Just as the barriers to informal, non-official communications with the public need to come down, so too do the barriers to using informal communication channels in government.   Informal communications in a successful, smooth running open government setting would take place regularly.  This would include all levels across the Executive branch to include OMB and the White House.  But open government also implies trust.  The current model of hierarchy is often built on notions of oversight – meaning it is OMB’s job, for instance, to figure out if each Agency is actually doing what they asked.  This approach is replicated at the top of each agency to their lower level components.  In practice this means that the lower level organizations are very careful when communicating ground truth.  The coordination process towards sending an official communication forward is laborious and time consuming.   To truly move to an informal, trust based communication model, the higher-level organizations within agencies and at OMB need to move toward “insight” instead of oversight.   This is a change to choosing the carrot over the stick, and a movement towards a risk-based model of governance based on trust and transparency.

Office of Government Engagement: In moving toward a more open and transparent government, I think we should consider something akin to an office of Government Engagement.  This office would have the responsibility to evaluate and transform the official communication channels within agency hierarchies and between agencies to become more nimble and responsive.   This in part goes back to Kundra’s notion of Outcomes over processes.  Our formal communication processes in government have long since ossified, and its probably not productive to look at modifying them in a Lean Six Sigma type approach.  A more transformative approach would be to focus on outcomes, and figure out what new process could meet the outcome.  So if, for instance, the goal was to have the entire Federal Government aware of a Presidential memo within 48 hours, with concrete steps to address it within two weeks,  how would that occur?

The other responsibility this office might have would be to enculturate everyone internally to both accept and use informal communication channels that aren’t dependent upon the chain of command.  Yes, many things absolutely require coordination and formal communication, but the problem in Federal government communications is that most everything seems to go through those channels.  This has to change if the Federal Government is going to rise to the challenge to be transparent, participative and collaborative with the american public.

Open Source Government Transparency Projects

Posted By on March 8, 2009

A whole cadre of folks inside and outside government are awash with figuring out how to address the government transparency question brought on by the President’s Transparency and Open Government memo. At the end of last weekend’s TransparencyCamp, Clay Johnson, Director of Sunlight Labs, brought up the issue of bringing open source developers into the process of making government data transparent to the public. Open source developers are comprised of consultants, folks working at open source companies, and many others who spend their spare time working on open source development projects on a variety of topics. The question involves how they could be organized to work on government transparency projects.

I volunteered to look into how the SmartBuy effort in Government might possibly assist this. In the process of examining the larger problem, we are now investigating a two-forked approach:

1. Finding an easy method for allowing open source developers of all stripes to bid for jobs under the GSA schedule. This appears to be a relatively easy problem to solve. There needs to be a company willing to take on a “holding bin” type function with a simple contract that open source developers could sign on to in order to do work. This company could be newly formed, or far better, could be an existing company that already has IDIQ contracts with GSA. The real constraint is finding a company who will assume the risk associated with bringing potentially unknown developers into their contracting process. Bottom line, this appears to be a workable problem.

2. Finding a method to allow open source developers to work on free open source style transparency projects for the Government. This one may be harder. Perhaps Kundra, the newly appointed Federal CIO, already has an approach to this as part of his effort (someone post if that’s the case), but I haven’t seen it yet.

Open Source Government Transparency Projects (Twitter hash #osgtp): The idea here is that we need to find a method in Government to set up open source projects to make data available and transparent to the public.  Data in this case includes both the facts, figures and other details in consumable format that citizens and interest groups are interested in, and any software coding associated with extracting this data.  The advantage here is that resource-constrained agencies could create an open source projects to get their data more accessible to the public. If set up properly, those in the open source community could easily grab the data (or proto-data as the case may be) remotely work on stuff and post it back, to a site like Early investigation points to an approach where we have a government belly button for agencies to send their requests into, and perhaps may need a non-profit on the private sector who sets up the modern equivalent of a jobs posting board which developers can register for to work on the project.

The level of coordination required isn’t certain yet, nor is the legal details of how to make this work. But the advantages are clear. This would:

  • Provide resource-constrained agencies a method of meeting the Transparency & Open Government Directive.
  • Would allow citizens to participate more fully in the government transparency process.
  • Would allow the government to take leverage the power of the open source movement to make openness and transparency a reality.

We are just getting started on this (less than a week’s worth of effort) so if there is already a larger effort in place, someone point me to it! If not, is there any interest in this idea? If you want to join in the fun (govt and industry), now’s the time. What do we need to do to make Open Source Government Transparency Projects a reality? Twitter hash for this is #osgtp

Cross-posted on