First, Jim Harper would kill me if I didn’t begin this post by mentioning that I’ll be speaking at a Cato Institute lunch panel entitled, “Just Give Us the Data! Prospects for Putting Government Information to Revolutionary New Uses,” on Wednesday, Dec. 10, along with Ed Felten of Princeton and Gary Bass of OMB Watch. RSVP here. That said, I want to talk about CTOs.
A while back I engaged in a debate about whether Barack Obama’s promise to appoint a national chief technology office should be feared. I think the question turns on whether this person will be CTO of the United States or CTO of the U.S. Federal Government. While I personally believe the former should be feared, the latter should be welcomed.
The good news is that in all of Obama’s pronouncement’s on the matter the position has always been described as having a brief to open the government by employing online tools. Here’s how the position is described in Obama’s campaign position paper on technology:
Bring Government into the 21st Century: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks. Obama and Biden believe in the American people and in their intelligence, expertise, and ability and willingness to give and to give back to make government work better. Obama will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.
To me this sounds more like a Chief Transparency Officer, and that’s a good thing. Most federal government websites are terrible relative to the state of the art. Any effort to make them as useful or informative as the barackobama.com website should be welcomed. We can see the beginning of this transformation at the new change.gov site for the Obama transition team.
The Administrative Law Section of the ABA recently released an excellent report about the state of online access to the federal regulatory process that underscores the need for a more coherent government-wide technology policy. The report finds that while the Bush administration centralized regulatory docket management among executive agencies (and public access to those dockets at Regulations.gov) it allowed each agency to decide for itself what to include in the database without enforcing any kind of standardized metadata. This makes a centralized approach virtually useless and in fact can make finding data difficult. The ABA task force recommends a more-decentralized built around common data and metadata standards.
Also, until recently the Regulations.gov site did not offer structured feeds or full-text search. Even now it only offers one RSS feed for all federal agencies, which I parse out at OpenRegulations.org. What’s more, the official feed only publishes Federal Register notices and ignores comments, supporting materials, or other docket filings. Imagine instead if you could subscribe to a particular proposed regulation and be notified in your RSS reader each time a new document was added to the docket. Imagine all the mashups that would be made possible. That would be closer to the sort of basic use of structured data that we see on blogs and which should be a no-brainer for a 21st Century government website.
A model for the national CTO might be the District of Columbia’s CTO, which was brought to my attention by Maxine Teller. The D.C. CTO’s site offers a Data Catalog that has a virtual cornucopia of government data made available in structured feeds—from juvenile arrests to registered vacant property to the most recent roadkill pickups. Vivek Kundra, the current CTO, encourages the remixing and mashing of all this data. The office recently held an X-Prize-like contest to encourage developers to make innovative apps. Here are the results. I don’t see any budget or spending data feeds on the D.C. site, however, and I hope that’s something they plan to add soon.
If a national CTO is meant to bring vision and leadership to the federal government’s IT—especially as it relates to making public information available and useful online like D.C. has done,—then I’m all for it.