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Carl Malamud Takes the Long View

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, September 7 2010

Photo credit: James Duncan Davidson

Carl Malamud isn't particularly worried if open government, of the tech-enabled sort that has been the topic of some discussion in recent years, hasn't yet set the wide world afire. "In matters of style, swim with the current," said Malamud this morning in his speech at the Gov 2.0 Summit this morning, quoting that American philosopher Thomas Jefferson. "In matters of principle stand like a rock."

When Malamud gave, to a standing ovation, a speech at last year's inaugural Gov 2.0 conference in DC, an address that he called "By the People," he layed out a vision for how the publishing of data and the opening up of government systems might transform the relationship between the people of the United States and the government that's meant, by design, to serve them. But, he followed up this morning, he never said it was going to be easy. Or much of a party.

That said, only the most short-sighted amongst us doesn't recognize that American history is full of stories about how a few, lonely, rock-like people toiling both inside and outside government can, if they work hard and hold on for a while, have transformative effect. To wit: in the late 1880s, a USDA chemist named Harvey Wiley has amongst those investigating the rather sordid state of food safety in America. Add an agitator -- in the form of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle -- and perhaps some enlightened bureaucrats, and, said Malamud, you get the Food and Drug Act of 1906. The lesson, perhaps, is that if it's naive to believe that such change is possible in the United States, than it's at least as ignorantly cynical to believe that it's not.

So, the road will be a long-one. Malamud has a three part vision for what it will look like. The first, he says, is to "finish the open gov revolution," but getting more existing government data online and accessible.

The second taps into a Malamud favorite tactic: scanning. "If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can launch the Library of Congress into cyberspace," he said, and he wants considerable resources backing up such a commitment. Malamud argued that the U.S. should be spending at least a quarter of billion dollars each year for the next decade on a national scanning initiative.

And the third step, argued Malamud, is an "open systems revolution." Here, Malamud's historical example is one Estes Kefauver, the mid-20th century Democratic Senator from Tennessee. In the wake of the Thalidomide disaster, Kefauver went after the capture of the FDA by the pharmaceutical industry. Employing a bit of programmer lingo, Malamud said that Kefauver "flipped the bit so drugs had to be proved safe instead of proved unsafe." Or, to put it in terms more familiar, perhaps, Kefauver managed to get passed his Drug Efficacy Amendment in 1962 that changed the presumption that said that government would let drugs go to market unless it had an appalling reason not to do so.

The analogous bit-flipping for the 21st century, detailed Malamud, was creating a presumption that government uses open-source software systems. Malamud had some harsh word for government tech contractors selling the government proprietary products. "The President should call in the federal tech staff and tell them what Lyndon Johnson told the FDA regulators," he said, "when he got in their face and said 'let the venal and the self-seeking and the tawdry and the tainted fear to enter your building.'"

Wrapping up, Malamud offered attendees a vision for a promised land, a time when open government is, indeed, a party, or at least conventional wisdom on the American landscape. "If we believe we can make government more efficient, more effective, more just, we must practice our craft until we can swim with the currents of our time," guided Malamud, "for if we remain anchored to the deepest rock of principle, then we will see 'justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.'" That's the Bible, Amos 5, I believe.

The full text of Malamud's speech is here.