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Collaboration, Congress, and the Results of the Brito Experiment

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, March 25 2009

Jerry Brito, George Mason University research fellow and founder of the crowdsourced StimulusWatch.org site, went before the House Government Oversight committee this week to testify on how government watchdogs can help prevent waste and fraud in the allocation and use of stimulus dollars. Brito's take is, unsurprisingly, that the work of taxpayer-funded auditors can be supplemented with the contributions of motivated citizens, if they're given the right tools. As Brito told the Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe, "You don't have to hire an army of auditors, because it's impossible for them to follow every single dollar and every single transaction. However you can augment their work with citizens, who can keep tabs on things that go on in their neighborhood." Naturally, Brito went the eat-your-own-dog-food route, participating in what may well have been the very first example of congressional testimony crafted via wiki.

Of course, collaboration has deep roots in American democracy. Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence rough draft was strengthened by Ben Franklin's willingness to gently tell him, "Fine work, dearest Thomas, but this part stinks." But Brito made use of some web tools unavailable to the founding fathers, posting a draft of his remarks on a PBwiki. In the 24 hours or so the testimony was live and editable, about ten people helped craft his remarks. That's a small group, no doubt, but it was a well-qualified one; Brito's editing team included tech specialists and other academics specializing in recovery transparency. The process unfolded much like how it goes when you share something you're working on with a trusted group of first readers. Commenters helped Brito reorganize the testimony and tweak some word choices. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so how'd it turn out? You be the judge.