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Gov 2.0 Summit: Tom Steinberg on .gov Sites as Public Goods

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, September 9 2009

I'm attending the Gov 2.0 Summit today and tomorrow, and the program is thick with great speakers and topics. Posting may be in snippets.

Here's my favorite from the first hour. Tom Steinberg, the intrepid guiding force behind Britain's invaluable MySociety group, which makes brilliant, easy-to-use and highly effective sites aimed at improving how government works like FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou*, gave us a powerful new way to argue for turning government websites into platforms for civic engagement. I'm paraphrasing slightly:

"If the government said that people can't drive on the roads to go to a rally to protest something, because it would lead to bad press, everyone would protest. Yet when government says that it can't let people using government websites connect to each other, in order to challenge the status quo, no one says anything."

He's talking in the context of Britain's experiment with enabling e-petitions on the Prime Minister's website, 10 Downing Street. When MP Tom Watson was involved in the Labor government, there was some talk of going the next step, and allowing petitioners to connect to each other. (Sadly, that initiative appears to be a victim of the Labor Government's larger problems.) Steinberg argues that if government websites offered this function, a vibrant array of new NGO groups would spring up, offering fresh competition to the existing NGO sector.

He's right. As long as government websites simply act as neutral platforms, there's huge civic potential here that right now is being left on the table, unorganized and untapped. Steinberg has just given us a powerful and simple new way to change that.

*Tom, this quote's for your encomium file.

P.S. I donate $10 a month to UK Citizens Online Democracy, mySociety’s parent charity. If you agree with me that their work is invaluable, you can join in supporting them by clicking here.