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From #GovWebCon: Vivek Kundra and Macon Phillips on Changing Online Government

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, April 28 2009

Here are my semi-verbatim but not perfectly precise notes from this morning's speakers at GovWebCon. Random comments and observations from me in [brackets].

Martha Dorris, Acting Associate Administrator of the Office of Citizen Services and Communications, GSA, opens the morning: "You are the front lines and directly impact the lives of the American people. This is a great time to be a public servant." The question now, is where do we go from here? She cites Obama's Day One memo on openness and transparency...also notes that the "speed and intensity of our work is increasing" as government interacts with more people online. [This could be a hidden issue.] "This isn't the way that government has traditionally done things. Information needs to be accessible where people are, not just where we want them to go. This will be require a major change in how we've traditionally done business." We need to integrate content, think beyond individual agency websites....."It's about customer service as well as giving them a voice in the decisions the government makes." She cites the public IT dialogue now underway....We can't go on maintaining static websites...

The first session is led by Vivek Kundra, federal CIO, and Macon Phillips, White House new media director, who start off by sharing their vision for a new era of online government.

Macon Phillips: Feels wonderful to be in this room, a great sense of community. You guys are on the front line, you're doing great work. At the White House, we perceive our mission as 1. to support the President's message, 2. to use technology to introduce a new level of transparency. Efforts like The third piece is participation: trying to understand how people can have an impact on their government, and how to better structure those things.

To that end, I put together a team including Katie Stanton, who is there to design programs to allow people to participate as we're pushing out all this content; a creative director, who I felt was important to have at the White House, who understands user interaction and how to make websites fun to use; an online programs manager, who helps daily with the communications people, making sure we understand what they're needs are, what the message of the day is, focusing on content consistent with the president's message; a technical engineer, who helps with customizes tools to our programmatic needs and can talk the talk with vendors (he's also helping us thinking about longer-term thinking about the use of tech); a video person, Jason [lastname?], who was with us during the campaign, who is looking at how we create video products since that is such a big way that people consume content today; a deputy director of new media, who helps with overall project management and is the intake point for the whole team; plus one other person who will be a writer and admin person. Bev Godwin I brought in to help understand how government works--there are a lot of acronyms and agencies and I needed help learning my way through that.

The one message I want to leave you with: I'm not here to tell you what to do; I'm here to tell you, keep doing it. Don't wait for permission. Keep taking government to the citizens.

Vivek Kundra: We've been working very closely together, in part because we share a philosophical perspective, a common view of what government can do. The public sector doesn't have to lag behind in technology. We reject that view. . One of the challenges is to see the big movements in technology. Many of the laws and statutes affecting what we do were written years ago. The Privacy Act was written in 1974, the year I was born. We can still innovate and move forward in the context of those statutes. We can move forward while protecting people's privacy. A lot of CIOs have looked at this as a zero-sum game, saying you can't move forward. He points to the example of the TSA, where the CIO's position was that you couldn't use consumer-grade blogs, and that you had to spend $70K on one to conform with the law. Instead they worked together and are using a free platform. Consider this, Kundra says, the federal government spends $71 billion annually on information technology We have to make sure that that money is spent properly, and on technologies of the future, looking at innovative paths, not just the way things have always been done.

For example, today you can buy a clock that tells you the date and weather based on the data that NOAA and NIST puts out. I'm similarly excited about the web managers group, because when the American people come to any agency website, it's your work that they see. CIOs are putting a lot of effort into privacy protection, cyber-security, etc, but it's your work that the public touches. We need to make sure that your work isn't seen as separate from the work of the CIOs, and we need to bridge that divide. True value comes from information that's shared, especially in times of crisis. How do we abstract a lot of the back-end infrastructure, and make sure that when a citizen comes to a government site, they're connecting to services, not bureaucracy and 24,000 websites.

Question/Answer discussion (they're using the Open for Questions tool in part):
Q: What is the single most important thing government web managers can do to make government more effective?
A, from Kundra: Looking at the information on government websites and ensuring that there is a feedback loop. The only reason a precision-guided missile hits its target is guidance and feedback mechanisms. WE put a lot of information out there but we're not getting real time feedback. We may believe our changes in websites are improvements, but what do our customers think?
A, from Phillips: All the new tools are buzzwords and they get you attention, but how do you best move a message? Take advantage of every tool you have. But remember what each tool is for and what is the house you're trying to build?

Q: How do you envision standards for government sites? Will lead to common standards across government websites?
A, from Kundra: Notes that tech standards are often outdated by the time they're set. "Part of what we're doing on the site, in terms of democratizing that information, is insuring that data is available in multiple formats and in machine-readable format." [Excellent news.] We need to look at common light-weight standards that can move us in a similar direction. With 24,000+ government websites it's very hard to give the citizen a common experience as they move from site to site.
A, from Phillips: It's also exciting to see the groups from outside government, the watchdogs and transparency advocates, who are knocking on the doors of government and helping set the agenda. They've certainly been a participant in the discussions and a valued partner in those.

Q from Luis Medina: Many of our colleagues across government don't understand how Americans are relying on the web to make decisions on things like health care, or how they're using new tools like Twitter. How do we help make them understand?
A, from Phillips: When you look at disseminating information, you can not only communicate with individuals online, you can also empower them to spread information to others....But the thing to remember is that this stuff won't be perfect on the first try, and I know that's a challenge in selling up the chain to your boss. So start small, start quick and innovate as you go.
A, Kundra: We have to recognize that the digital divide is real, and also inside workforces. So we need more ways to evangelize these tools. We also have to remember that many people still rely on paper and we have to address their needs, too.

Q from Jim Wilson, In my role, I get lots of questions about 'what's the policy on Twitter, or Facebook, etc"? I've left it at, be aware that you're speaking for the agency, make sure you monitor their use. Will there ever be government-wide policy on social networking usage?
A, Kundra: The CIO council and the GSA are both looking at that. When information is coming from the government, it's the golden source of information, there's trust of that information. The terms of service are a beginning, but the government is frankly catching up. There will be a set of policies that are being formulated right now. [Government lawyers are rejoicing, permanent employment program renewed.]
A, Phillips: If we were here two years ago, what guidance might have been given to anticipate what we're doing now, he asks, noting the Twitterfall etc. The best thing you can do is be a supportive community for each other as you work through these issues, rather than massive guidance documents. [Spoken like a true political organizer.]

Q from Chip Harmon, Dept of Veterans Affairs: We don't lack for enthusiasm for this. Is the CIO council discussing how security concerns can be addressed, re usage of social media?
A, Kundra: Historically what hasn't happened is a high degree of integration between CIOs and web managers. I want to make sure you're at the table too. The President is also committed to cyber-security and has commissioned a 60-day review. We have to strike a balance between cyber-security and open government. Social networks are where our customers are. There are 200 million on Facebook, many of which are Americans. Why have CIOs create a new socnet rather than be there, he implies.

Q: How can local and state web managers also be at the table as these changes take place?
A, Phillips: That's a good question. I don't know. My uncle is the mayor of a town of 1500 in Mississippi, and he has a blog. I just found this out a week ago. This goes all the way down to the local level.
A, Kundra: The people that we're serving could care less which level of government we are. Why do people have to know the different entities that they have to interact with to pay local/state/federal taxes or file forms? For example, why doesn't show all recreation centers, whether they are local, state or federal parks? The digital world doesn't have to mirror the physical world. We can collapse a lot of those structures and make things simple for people. [Wow, this is the most brilliant and common-sense thing I've heard so far!]

Q: What do you say about us behind our backs?
A, Phillips: Don't wait for us to tell you what to do? We're going to do stuff, but this is happening. We are in it right now. You are driving innovation at a substantive and fundamental level.
A, Kundra: The only negative thing I can think of is 'why do we have 24,000 government websites.'

Q: Are you on the governement web managers forum and Govloop? Are you participating?
A, Kundra: I'm not on it but I'd love to be added to it.
A, Phillips: I'm on Govloop but not a very active member. Structurally, with Bev, we're cheating a little bit. We're engaged with the community through her. I've also tasked Candy Crawl (sp.?) to be a liaison. We want to hear from you.

Q: From Blake who runs the site. Even though the site is my responsibility, I have to rely on the IT shop and they tend to be the "No" guys rather than the "Yes We Can" guys. I can't leave and get different service. How do we get them to serve us and not police us?
A, Kundra: Why hasn't that happened in the past? Is it because people looked at these technologies as childish and pointless? Or because they saw the downside as greater, the security risks, etc.? Or is it that our systems are too complex and costly? There's a much deeper disconnect here. But I don't think there default position every day is to say no. They have legitimate issues they have to worry about, around cybersecurity and current statutes around privacy and accessibility. Those regulations are there for a reason.

Q: A deaf person asks about the lack of captioning of presidential video on
A, Phillips: We do caption our video but sometimes there's more delay than I would like. If you know of any that aren't captioned I want to hear about them.

Q: I want to thank you for your leadership. The Department of Energy has finally opened YouTube and Facebook to its employees. [This is news, alas. Yay!]

Q: Is there a place where you post best practices?
A, Phillips: The government web managers community is a great resource; we don't need to create a new place.

Q: Someone from the Labor Dept: We can't talk about innovation without talking about the lawyers. I've noticed that the implementation of new approaches is varying. A lot of lawyers aren't familiar with digital issues. For example, Twitter accounts only being used for feeding press releases, and no interaction. How do we get us off that position? [Yikes, what are Labor's lawyers so worried about?
A, Kundra: A lot of this innovation has to happen at an agency level. It's difficult to form standards across the federal government on web 2.0; that will take some time. I would encourage each of you to look at the statutes with your lawyers and interpret them as best you can. The White House counsel is working with a privacy committee to look at these issues with us. Again, Kundra repeats that "we're going to continue to protect the privacy and security of the American people." [His mantra. You can see why he needs to keep repeating it.]