[LINK] Ideas Online, Yes, but Some Not So Presidential

Bernard Robertson-Dunn brd at iimetro.com.au
Tue Jun 23 21:45:59 EST 2009

Ideas Online, Yes, but Some Not So Presidential
The New York Times
Published: June 22, 2009

WASHINGTON — On Jan. 21, his first full day in office, President Obama 
promised to open up the government, ordering officials to use modern 
technologies like Internet message boards and blogs to give all 
Americans a bigger voice in public policy.

Well, the people have spoken. But many of them are not sticking to the 
topics at hand.

The White House made its first major entree into government by the 
people last month when it set up an online forum to ask ordinary people 
for their ideas on how to carry out the president’s open-government 
pledge. It got an earful — on legalizing marijuana, revealing U.F.O. 
secrets and verifying Mr. Obama’s birth certificate to prove he was 
really born in the United States and thus eligible to be president.

“Please, as fellow human beings of this great planet Earth, disclose all 
known information on space/UFO’s because the world needs to know,” wrote 
sprinter5160 on the site, whitehouse.gov/open, which attracted thousands 
of similar comments on fringe topics.

While it was not exactly what administration officials had in mind, they 
noted that democracy can be a bit messy.

“Even for people who want to talk about U.F.O.’s or the Kennedy 
assassination, we have created a forum for people to have a conversation 
with each other, and potentially to go off and organize and develop this 
further,” said Beth Simone Noveck, a New York Law School professor who 
is Mr. Obama’s deputy chief technology officer for open government.

Most of the suggestions were closely related to the topic at hand, like 
publishing a list of everyone who meets with the president, using 
computer graphics to track how rapidly agencies respond to Freedom of 
Information Act requests and installing webcams to monitor federal 
offices. The administration’s goal is to devise regulations that would 
tell federal agencies how to make their operations more open to the public.

Undeterred by some of the wilder suggestions, the White House proceeded 
Monday with the third phase of the process — asking people to 
collaborate online to draft language that could be used to create the 
final rules.

The experience so far shows just how hard it is to allow all voices to 
be heard and still have a coherent discussion. When millions of Internet 
users are invited to discuss every regulation, how can any real work get 
done? On the other hand, why bother opening up the government if views 
that are outside the mainstream — as defined by the usual collection of 
lobbyists and think tank scholars — are summarily dismissed?

The responsibility for sorting it all out falls to Ms. Noveck. She has 
permitted any proposal that was not abusive or repetitive onto the 
brainstorming site, just as the Obama transition team did not stop 
visitors to its Change.Gov site last fall from voting marijuana 
legalization as their top concern for the president-elect.

She argues that the experience of collaborative Web sites like Wikipedia 
proves that groups of users can police sites to keep small groups from 
spoiling things for everyone else. During the public brainstorming about 
rules for open government, the White House asked visitors to vote on the 
best ideas by clicking a thumbs-up or thumbs-down button, much as people 
vote on the most interesting news articles on sites like Digg.

The visitors advanced more than 3,900 ideas, which in turn spawned 
11,000 comments that received 210,000 thumb votes.

The result? Three of the top 10 most popular ideas called for legalizing 
marijuana, and two featured conspiracy theories about Mr. Obama’s true 
place of birth. (Among the technical ideas that got a lot of support was 
a proposal to have the federal government press states and cities to 
follow open-government principles and a call for a central Internet site 
for all requests to the president and Congress, modeled after a site for 
petitions to the British prime minister.)

“This is Obama’s Madisonian moment,” said Clay Shirky, a professor at 
New York University and the author of “Here Comes Everybody,” a book 
about Internet collaboration. Just as James Madison, the nation’s fourth 
president, argued during the drafting of the Constitution that the 
government must protect the minority against the tyranny of the 
majority, Mr. Shirky said that government must also prevent small groups 
of loudmouths from hijacking the public debate.

“The first thing that happens when my mom and dad log into the system 
and they find it’s populated by U.F.O. people and birth-certificate 
people, they simply are not going to participate,” he said.

The White House tried to screen out some of the more unusual comments in 
the second phase of the process. Ms. Noveck summarized the most 
significant ideas, then invited comments on them at blog.ostp.gov. 
Visitors could flag off-topic comments, which were then shunted to a 
separate part of the site. That reduced the birth-certificate and U.F.O. 
comments to a relative trickle.

On Monday, the White House began Phase 3 of its project using yet 
another format: a wiki, an online tool that allows a group of people to 
collectively create and edit documents. Visitors will be able to submit 
and edit drafts of the open-government rules, similar to how people 
contribute to Wikipedia, the user-created online encyclopedia.

Ultimately, of course, “this is not policy by referendum,” said Ms. 
Noveck. The Office of Management and Budget will consider the public 
comments and the views of agency officials and White House staff and 
then put together its own formal draft of the open-government rules. 
After soliciting another round of public comment, the final rules will 
become effective and will govern the actions of federal agencies.

To some, the bumps in the process simply represent growing pains for a 
new and promising approach to government.

“The U.F.O. thing is healthy,” said Micah L. Sifry, the editor of 
TechPresident.com, a blog on politics and the Internet. “It’s weird 
there are some groups of people obsessed with it, but it’s a democracy, 
and you can’t make them go away.”

As people get used to this kind of participation, he said, “the mischief 
will be much less noticeable.”

Ms. Noveck has some confidence that the effort will result in better 
government because she has built something like this before. As a 
professor, she worked with the United States Patent Office to test a 
system that invited the public to help evaluate patent applications. 
Companies that apply for a lot of patents, like I.B.M. and General 
Electric, participated in the optional program because the public 
comments helped patent examiners consider their applications more quickly.

But then, I.B.M. never tried to patent a U.F.O.


Bernard Robertson-Dunn
Canberra Australia
brd at iimetro.com.au

More information about the Link mailing list