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W.H. Open Gov Lead on Why She's Headed Back to Academia

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, January 11 2011

Beth Simone Noveck; photo credit: Joi Ito

As Beth Simone Noveck cycles out of the White House and back into the academic life, she offers a peek into what life looks like after serving as the first-ever deputy U.S. CTO for open government. She'll be heading north and returning to New York Law School to teach law, but also to engage in the open government field from from the outside -- under a grant from the MacArthur Foundation meant to fund the development of, according to a school release, a "multi-year interdisciplinary research agenda to gauge the impact of digital networks on institutions and how we can use such technology to strengthen democratic culture."

Or, as Noveck tells it, she'll be studying and measuring and bringing people together over the exact sort of work she did during her stint inside the Obama administration, as well as the work being done to advance participatory democracy elsewhere in the federal government, in local civic life, and around the globe.

Why not, I ask Noveck, study/measure/convene from her perch inside the White House? Noveck has an answer. "The reason to do this from academia," said Noveck," is to be able to take the time to study the effects and effectiveness of what we're doing" in the field. "One thing in the White House is that we're so privileged to do this work, [but] don't have the time to stop and assess the work. You're so busy 'doing' that you don't have the ability to communicate the details, not only what's going on in the White House, but across the agencies." Besides, she adds, bringing together people over open government from across silos and across disciplines is itself "a full-time job."

Noveck spent two full years with the Obama administration, appointed in January 2009 to her post inside the White House Office of Technology and Science Policy. Before that, she put time in during the presidential transition. During her time in government, she's been on leave from New York Law School, where she's been a member of the faculty since 2002. It was during her time at NYLS that she led the development of Peer to Patent, one of the earliest and best-known projects in collaborative government made possible by the Internet.

On the federal level, open government is, by common admission, a work very much in progress. The first two years of the Obama administration has had its particular high points. There was the issuance of a presidential "Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government" on Barack Obama's first full day in office. The Open Government Directive that came from it, through an open online process, has set a high bar for participation, collaboration, and transparency in the federal government. Noveck points to the creation of Data.gov, the posting of White House visitor logs, and the upgrading of the Federal Register for the digital age as other developments she was proud to see happen.

But open government is also a field that has arguably seen a great deal more experimentation than evaluation. To pick on just one example, the White House's public metric for agency compliance with that Open Government Initiative is a somewhat less than illuminating red light-green light dashboard.

Noveck says that her work under the grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation will be focused on studying the evolution of open government with a strong dose of helping it along. Effort will be spent on training up-and-comers to become the open government leaders of tomorrow, training which includes a hands-on component of developing the skills and knowledge necessary to be, say, the next deputy U.S. CTO for open government.

As for who that person will be in the near future, the White House had no public comment -- on whether someone will replace Noveck in the role of deputy U.S. CTO for open government, or who that might be. Noveck's departure follows closely behind the leave taking of Andrew McLaughlin, another deputy U.S. CTO, he for technology policy. McLaughlin left the White House last month to engage, he said, in teaching and entreprenuerial pursuits. Another figure closely associated with tech-savvy government, Susan Crawford, the founder of OneWebDay, left the White House National Economic Council in December of last year.

Rick Weiss, the Office of Science and Technology Policy's director of strategic communications, had praise for Noveck in an email. "Beth has been a tireless advocate for opening the federal government to greater collaboration and public participation," wrote Weiss. "She has helped to develop significant advancements in the Administration's efforts to utilize technology to break down the barriers between the American public and their government. We are sorry to see her go, and wish her all the best in her next endeavors."

Noveck, for her part, sees those next endeavors as part of an on-going iterative, collaborative process aimed at bringing more people into the practice of democracy. Noveck cites as a guiding principle a line in the spirit of let's-try-this-and-see-what-happens made famous by MIT's Dave Clark in a 1992 talk before a 1992 Internet Engineering Task Force meeting. "We believe," declared Clark, not in the traditional formalized structures of government, but in "rough consensus and running code."