These days everybody in Washington seems to be jumping on the Twitter bandwagon. The latest jumpers are four House committees, according to Tech Daily Dose.
The committees, like a growing number of individual members’ offices, plan to use Twitter as a new tool to reach their audience and ensure transparency between the government and the public.
“I believe government works best when it is transparent and information is accessible to all….” [said a committee chair].
I’m all in favor of public officials using technology to communicate with us. But Twitter is a tool for outreach, not transparency.
Here’s the difference: outreach means government telling us what it wants us to hear; transparency means giving us the information that we, the citizens, want to get. An ideal government provides both outreach and transparency. Outreach lets officials share their knowledge about what is happening, and it lets them argue for particular policy choices — both of which are good. Transparency keeps government honest and responsive by helping us know what government is doing.
Twitter, with its one-way transmission of 140-character messages, may be useful for outreach, but it won’t give us transparency. So, Congressmembers: Thanks for Twittering, but please don’t forget about transparency.
(Interestingly, the students in my tech policy class were surprised to hear that any of the digerati had ever Twittered. The students think of Twitter as a tool for aging hepcat techno-poseurs. [Insert your own joke here.])
Meanwhile, the Obama team is having trouble transitioning its famous online outreach machinery into government, according to Jose Antonio Vargas’s story in the Washington Post:
WhiteHouse.gov, envisioned as the primary vehicle for President Obama to communicate with the online masses, has been overwhelmed by challenges that staffers did not foresee and technological problems they have yet to solve.
Obama, for example, would like to send out mass e-mail updates on presidential initiatives, but the White House does not have the technology in place to do so. The same goes for text messaging, another campaign staple.
Beyond the technological upgrades needed to enable text broadcasts, there are security and privacy rules to sort out involving the collection of cellphone numbers, according to Obama aides, who acknowledge being caught off guard by the strictures of government bureaucracy.
Here again we see a difference between outreach and transparency. Outreach, by its nature, must be directed by government. But transparency, which aims to offer citizens the information they want, is best embodied by vigorous activity outside of government, enabled by government providing free and open access to data. As we argued in our Invisible Hand paper, many things are inherently more difficult to do inside of government, so the key role of government is to enable a marketplace of ideas in the private sector, rather than doing the whole job.