Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How Open Can Obama Make Government?

Update: This sounds like a challenge to "ObamaWeb 2.0"; the so called spy-proof 'BarackBerry' phone. Original blog post starts here: When I say "open" in my professional life, I usually mean Open Source. The question posed by this blog post is somewhat related, but it really talks about "openness" in a much broader sense. My post was actually inspired by a link Tim O'Reilly posted on twitter to the O'Reilly blog What Does it Mean to be an Internet President? I have no intension of reinventing the wheel and rehashing what writer Joshua-Michéle Ross wrote (even if I could), but one piece of the blog post captured my interest:
"getting beyond a paternal sense of government (what government does for me) and towards a participatory model of government"
The point Ross makes is almost like describing the differences between Web 1.0 and 2.0 (static vs. interactive/participatory), though John F. Kennedy's famous Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country statement was certainly an ancestor. However, at our core as Americans, are we ready to move that far? Are we ready to be truly participatory in our government? You might think I'm nuts even asking that sort of question. After all, wasn't our nation founded on equal representation in government? Yes, in theory, but I'm not sure it ever really worked that way. I know it doesn't work that way now. I think if offered, people are going to have a hard time adjusting to as much access as Obama and Co. seem to offer. As Ben Parker said to his young nephew Peter, "With great power comes great responsibility." Responsibility comes with access and interaction, too. Right before the inauguration, CNN posted a story to their politics page about a group of Republicans in Wyoming who were not at all thrilled that Barack Obama was going to be President. Part of their concern (and they were very polite and measured when expressing their concerns) was that traditionally, Democrats favor "big government" and significant Federal government involvement in the States. Many of us who live in the West, tend to favor each individual State having more control over its own affairs and smaller Federal government involvement (some would say "intrusion"). There's a sense you have in the West about taking care of your own messes "in-house" so to speak, and not calling on "Big Daddy" every time you scrape your knee. In fact, the State Constitution of Idaho (where I live) poses very strict limits on when the State can legally ask the Federal government for assistance; more than most states. The sort of access that the Obama "Web 2.0" administration is proposing has a lot of advantages and a few disadvantages, as least as I can see it. With that level of participation, information goes both ways. In some sense, if we as citizens are more involved with the Federal government than ever before on an interactive level, then the Federal government will be more involved with us. I suppose if you see the government as a completely benign entity, that may not bother you much. With the overwhelming sense of good will that seems to have attached itself to the Obama administration, the idea of "trust" may not have entered into the minds of most people just yet (unless it's framed as "I trust Obama completely"). The other side of the "trust" coin is how widely will Obama open the access doors? Government tends to have it's dark corners and it's shadowed closets where none but the "insider" may venture. Certainly, the President can't do away with the concept let alone the practice of "national security" in a day (or a week, or a month, or a...). Will there truly be no secrets from the American people anymore? Where do we draw the line in terms of information flow relative to allowing other governments and outside groups access (If I can find it on, so can Hamas or Al Qaeda)? In my living memory, the government has always been "paternal". You could question it, but only up to a point. You could "buck the system", but if you pushed too hard, the system pushed back (ask people like Abbie Hoffman). Even the "kindest and gentlest" government could bare its teeth if you stepped on its toes. It's hard to imagine the kind of openness that is being discussed in articles like the one Ross posted. It's quite possible that I've gotten so used to relating to the government in one way, that I find it difficult to change gears, at least very quickly. Yet the digital age is all about very fast information transfer and manipulation. On the other hand, Obama has been in office for little more than a day. As one person commented on the blog I've referenced, "He hasn't done anything yet and people continue to praise him. Amazing." In the sense of openness I've been discussing, the responsibility isn't solely on Obama's shoulders. It can't be to fulfill it's purpose. The door has to swing both ways. Both sides (here I go again..."us vs. them") have to be willing to be "open", providing give and take of information, participation, exchanges of ideas and energy...and especially responsibility. If the American people don't want the government to be a "Big Daddy" anymore, then they're going to have to grow up...we're going to have to grow up. That means we participate and take the risks that go along with it. If it works, it could be revolutionary, but even revolutions take more than a day. One of the things that slows down the "revolution" for me, is whether or not we can or should trust the government, and whether or not they're willing to trust us. On the surface, the offering of trust by this administration seems to be the intent, but just because Barack Obama will be sleeping in the White House tonight, doesn't mean that the entire "Military Industrial Complex" has rolled over. Part of us being responsible citizens is making measured decisions. In any relationship, even the most intimate relationship, 100% of all information is never exchanged. "Personal privacy" isn't a dirty word, and I don't see a citizen's relationship with the government being all that "intimate". Am I ready to throw caution to the winds and immediately accept and embrace all this? Well, I've never been much of a "hugger". The government already knows a great deal about me and yet, I don't find myself thinking of our relationship as "intimate". I think I'll see how the relationship develops, before I let myself relax that much.

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