April 24, 2014

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Government Online: Outreach vs. Transparency

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.

Comments

  1. Mark says:

    Another problem is that the demographics of Twitter aren’t very in-tune with the audience the White House should be aiming to reach. It seems a lot of active Twitter users are Congressman and the folks in SIlicon Valley, but college students and many lower-income groups are unlikely to use Twitter, which means that the audience of the information isn’t the one that needs to hear it.

    If the administration could find a way to bring more people into the Twitter fold (unlikely), or focus on more relevant mediums like email, texts, etc, they might be better served. There’s no point updating Twitter when the only people reading the “tweets” are other White House staffers.

  2. DS Dan says:

    I already receive email broadcasts/advertisements/propaganda from my congressman and senator–I’ve never heard anyone refer to those emails as a feature that increases government “transparency.” Twitter updates would seem to be no different.

  3. Jed Sundwall says:

    Twitter is a communication tool, not just another channel for broadcast. If representatives are willing to, they could allow constituents ask them questions via Twitter and relay the responses, either in 140 characters or with a link to more information. Making yourself available for inquiries does indeed increase transparency.

    But with regards to it being yet another tool to distribute controlled outreach, Twitter might not be mainstream, but I believe that there is a broad trend toward distributing information via very short and concise notifications. Whether it happens through Facebook updates, Twitter accounts, SMS, or something else, it’s good that the government (and everyone) is getting better at getting to the point!

  4. Lyle says:

    My experience has been that representatives generally use twitter to pump out propaganda PR releases or chat with people who say good things about them. If you want to get feedback don’t act like a citizen unless of course you can offer them $$$$’s and/or support. The only good thing about them going online is that if you are a citizen and have an issue you want to challenge them on you keep a record of what you said so that if further along the line you need evidence that you made them aware of something that was important to you it can be used as evidence if you want to ramp up the pressure.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I used to work for a member of Congress. Trust me, the last thing any of these 535 clowns want to do is engage in dialogue with individual constituents via Twitter, email, phone, carrier pigeon, semaphore, etc. Did anyone happen to read any of these Twits? Look at this from the Committee on Science and Technology:

    “Are you throwing away gold?: How we are disposing of electronic waste (e-waste)”

    HOLY @#$%! – HOW MUCH GOLD HAVE I THROWN AWAY IN MY E-WASTE?!?!?!?

    Here’s one from the edlabordems committee. Anyone know what the hell edlabordems is? Of course not.

    “Tmrw Rep Miller 2 attend the WH Health Care Summit. 1 top priority 4 the cmte this yr is how 2 expand access 2 affordable hlth care coverage”

    HOwz about a $µmm1t on how to g3t past th3 3rd zon3 on WoW – Lich King. IT IS THE SUXXORZ, B33333AT(H!

    Idiots.

  6. Tel says:

    This is yet another way a primary information source of real-world events, is displacing the secondary source of newspapers reporting on events.

    Part of the original role a newspaper played in a Democracy was to watch what government did and report the results back to the people. Now the people can watch their government directly because transparency is built right into the process. Well, OK there’s more work to do in that regard but Obama does seem to be making a serious effort to pull back the curtain at least a little bit. There may be a few false starts along the way, but the general direction is very hopeful.

  7. Eric says:

    I worked with Erik Wilde and Raymond Yee in developing a site to help guide implementation of Recovery.gov transparency measures. The (ugly and tech-focused) site is located at:

    http://isd.ischool.berkeley.edu/stimulus/2009-029

    The site has demonstrations and an accompanying report (all under a Creative Commons attribution license). We’ve developed a set of simulated data that conforms to the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) February 18th specifications for disclosure. These data are offered in a variety of human and machine-readable RESTful web services. We hope that this simulated data will help act as a guide for implementation federal agencies. We are already in communication with several agency officials and data architects at OMB.

    However, one topic that needs more attention is the issue about what kind of information is required for “transparency”. To help answer this question, we’re seeking feedback from the wider community. Do these data really help in offering a more meaningful level of transparency? What additional information would be required to make this even more useful for community oversight?

    Thanks!
    -Eric