Dumb Transparency: The Stimulus Will Be Hyperlinked

February 7, 2009

A piece on government transparency in this week’s issue of the Economist caught my eye. It’s  a short piece that captures a moment in a dramatic shift in the way citizens interact with and are exposed to the workings of their government. A closer look sheds light on how these nominally apolitical movements for accountability are quickly politicized and co-opted by traditional partisan politics.

WhiteHouse.gov, Organizing for America, Change.gov – whatever the flavor of the weeks is – all rub me the wrong way. Call me a cynic, but I see very little added value for a pluralistic democracy in YouTube videos of the President’s senior advisers talking blandly into a MacBook. Quite frankly I find it condescending and rather nakedly political – manipulative, even.

But there is some value to the idea of using the internet for greater transparency, and I think the Economist piece touches on it. By making raw data available in an accessible, timely form online, citizens are able to cut through opinionated information sources and creatively present – or “mashup” – the information as they see fit. Interestingly, this conception of transparency isn’t really an interactive conversation at all: it involves the government dumping pure information into cyberspace and allowing public actors to take over the conversation from there.

Call it “dumb” transparency – pure data sharing.

Smarter folks than I can put their heads together to figure out how to best use this kind of information. Wiki-style policy conversations, social networks based around shared policy preferences, and automated scripts for detecting corruption are all in the mix.

The Economist article uses Readthestimulus.org as a case example. The website uses crowdsourcing to make sense of the massive stimulus in as many was possible and look for fishy activity on the part of its authors. They have some of the most useful charts I’ve seen so far. The Economist waxes cynically on the degree of citizen engagement in civil society being shown here:

That may seem like citizens doing the government’s job. But at least someone is doing it.

That same sense of frustration is clear on Readthestimulus.org; their tagline is “$850 Billion, 1588 pages, and counting… somebody needs to read it!” This search for somebody who can fill in the void of accountability in the federal government is a common meme in contemporary political discourse – and one that some politicians will undoubtedly move to capitalize on. Interestingly, a quick look at the website’s sponsors reveals that its funding and direction come from a decidedly right-leaning direction: an aberration in the lefty-dominated world of online politics.

As Republicans and moderates in DC try positioning themselves as the guardians of fiscal responsibility and restrained spending, the internet is going to be a crucial part of this building support for this message. The transparency efforts of the new Obama administration clearly have some serious political opportunity costs that its opponents will take advantage of. Though for now, they’re working against the grain, if  Google Trends or Facebook Lexicon are to be trusted as reliable barometers of public opinion.

This all begs the question though: are projects like Readthestimulus politically motivated top-down efforts or the signs of a emerging grassroots effort? Does it matter?

People tend to assume that these sort of projects pop out of thin air: take democracy, add internet and stir. Now I’m not cook, but I think the recipe for these things are a little more complicated.

– Patrick Roath

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