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Broadband and Online Forums: The Future of Democracy, According to Knight Reports

BY Nick Judd | Friday, February 25 2011

The keys to a more open and transparent democracy include increased broadband access and a steady flow of government data into online communities, according to two white papers realeased today by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.

The papers, Government Transparency: Six Strategies for More Open and Participatory Government by Nicol Turner-Lee and Jon Gant and Creating Local Online Hubs: Three Models for Action, by Adam Thierer, retrace many of the footsteps made in the past few years by open-government advocates. The government transparency report recommends a working group for CIOs, more open state legislative data, and apps contests to spur the use of government data, for example. Thierer's report describes a variety of models for places where citizens could go to get civic information and participate online, from the closed forum (or the open one) to the email newsletter to the slick blog conglomerate.

Which isn't to say that the research doesn't complicate the discussion about participatory democracy and transparent government. Thierer, for example, makes an assertion that will be bad news for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who has staff collaborating with some of the we-government digerati here in New York to create a conversation hub for Manhattan called Speak Up NY.

"The government's role in creating high-quality online hubs will likely be quite limited," Thierer said Friday, presenting his research at a roundtable presentation at the Aspen Institute's Washington, D.C. headquarters.

Government bodies encounter serious problems when they try to host a conversation that could turn political at any time, ranging from legal and First Amendment concerns to political pressure when discussions take an inconvenient turn. But one longtime we-government advocate says that's a problem that needs solving, not an impossible roadblock.

"If legislatures, councils, etc. can't host public online participation - with tools for decorum," Steven Clift, the founder of e-democracy.org, wrote on Twitter during the roundtable at Aspen, "democracy will die. Game over."

In Thierer's most robust model, goverments produce data about the areas they govern, and about their own operations, then push them out to whomever will take them — a broad network of listserves, online forums, wikis and blogs, supported through a pastiche of university support, foundation funding and various private business models, as well as more traditional news media.

That premise — echoed Gant and Turner-Lee's report — hinges on the idea that governments will produce open data and release information online in the first place. Largely left unaddressed are questions of internal organization, data management, and a cultural resistance to openness.

"I've been doing this three decades," OMB Watch's Gary Bass proclaimed during the roundtable discussion. "I don't feel like I know what you're talking about. This has been a battle royale, to get information free from government."

Questions of privacy and the protection of business secrets have kept a lot of information from public view, he said.

As O'Reilly Media's Alex Howard notes, Gant described the difficulties in government procurement that stand between government officials and the kinds of technology tools that might help them update how information is stored and managed.

Turner-Lee and Gant also suggested Congress revisit public records laws and earmark support for local governments to migrate their vital services online.

At 45 and 39 pages for the open government and online hubs reports respectively, both reports try to condense years of trial and error into just a few pages. They leave much out as a result — for example, the Open311 project, which is bringing a standardized open-source system for 311 non-emergency issue handling to cities across the country.

They also framed Internet communication in a very centralized way, calling for central data portals, single points of contact between government and constituents. Citizens are called "consumers" in the report, which is an odd choice of word for a group that is onstensibly expected to become more empowered and active in its own governance. And while Aspen Institute Program on Communications & Society Executive Director Charlie Firestone situated the roundtable conversation in the context of a country that was moving from "push to pull" — from a world where information is pushed out to where individuals get what they want to know and share what they think is important — there was little discussion of individual agency.

Panelists at the roundtable on Friday discussed open government "champions," who become advocates and eventually implementers of transparency initiatives. But the roundtable gave little time to the idea that people outside government might become champions for the change they wished to see and put political pressure on their elected officials to make it happen — nor did anyone consider how whistleblowers within government factored in to a transparent, 21st-century government, except when Howard, from O'Reilly Media, suggested that Wikileaks had a chilling effect on open government initiatives.

"You don't have to be a hardcore technologist or a geek to push openness of government data," Participatory Politics Foundation's David Moore told the panel.

Turner-Lee in particular, however, emphasized that transparency efforts should do more to empower people who are currently left out of public debate. A strategy for a more open and participatory government must include increased access to broadband, she said, and assets uploaded to the web must be accessible to people who are blind.

These reports are two in an extended series that elaborates on the findings of the Knight Commission, an expert panel convened in 2008 and 2009.