More on the FCC’s e-Government Transparency Efforts: ECFS, RSS, Social Media & Setting Priorities

by on September 11, 2009 · 12 comments

I vented my frustration earlier today with the FCC’s failure to make comments it receives easily accessible to the public—which means, more than anything, making them full-text searchable. This may seem like Inside Baseball to many, but it’s not. It’s a failure of the democratic process, a waste of taxpayer dollars, and a testimony to the general incompetence of bureaucracies, regardless of who’s running them. It denies the public an easy way to follow what goes on inside Washington, while essentially subsidizing law firms who get to bill clients for having paralegals or junior associates do things that existing web technology makes completely unnecessary—like reading through every comment in a document (at the rate of hundreds of dollars per hour) instead of just looking for keywords in a full-text search.

Later in the day the FCC announced:

  1. RSS feeds for all news from the agency  (1 general feed + 48 issue-specific feeds);
  2. FCC Connect” a page for Social Media Sites—so you can follow the FCC on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook; and
  3. A “crowdsourcing platform” to discuss the administration’s plan to transfer nearly $8 billion from taxpayers to broadband providers.

I’m thrilled about the RSS feeds, which go a long way in letting all Americans know what the FCC does, supposedly in the “public interest.” Still, I can’t help but note that the FCC waited until after a huge discussion about whether RSS is dead to finally start using RSS in a serious way—fully a decade after the birth of the RSS standard. Better late than never, I suppose.

FCC Connect is also good news: once you have an RSS feed, there’s really no reason not to pipe that feed into as many platforms as possible—which is precisely why RSS isn’t dead, even if most people will never use an RSS reader.

But I’m less thrilled about the crowdsourcing platform. It’s not that it’s not a good idea; it is: The site allows users to submit suggestions, comment on suggestions,  and vote them up or down—allowing the best ideas to rise to the top (at least in theory). This sort of functionality really could make the process of commenting to regulatory agencies much more interactive and democratic. But I don’t understand why the FCC invested time, effort and taxpayer dollars into developing a separate forum for just one of the many important issues currently before the FCC when the 10,000+ comments filed in the official docket on that issue (and many thousands more comments in many other dockets) are still unsearchable and essentially inaccessible to the public.

As I emphasized this morning, the FCC doesn’t need to build a fancy new search engine to open up access to these comments (although that might be nice). All the agency has to do is edit their robots.txt file to allow search engines like Google and Big to “crawl” the contents of the agency’s Electronic Filing Comment System (ECFS) database—which would be completely free and should take less than a minute. The FCC has already allowed crawling on some subdomains, such as the International Bureau’s filing system, which is mainly used for satellite licensing (for example). So… what’s the hold up, guys?

This matters a great deal because, like all federal agencies, the FCC is required by the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 to give “consideration” to public comments on the agency’s regulatory proposals. Essentially, the comment process is one big “town hall,” and intended to give every citizen their right to be heard by the regulator. Fundamentally, this implements the “due process” guaranteed by the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment. Even if the FCC were required to give “consideration” to the comments filed on the crowdsourcing platform, that wouldn’t diminish the need for transparency into the comments filed in the “Big Boys” area—ECFS. In short, Crowdsourcing may be a great way to engage the general public, but it’s no substitute for opening up the comments that matter most.

So what’s going on here? I certainly don’t think the FCC is intentionally creating a sideshow of Web 2.0 interactivity to divert from the inaccessibility of official dockets (although I fear that is the practical consequence). Instead, I can only assume this mis-prioritization of resources has to do with two factors:

  1. The agency feels pressure to do something about the National Broadband Plan issue because that particular subject has reached a critical mass of public attention—but doesn’t care enough about fixing these problems across the board; and
  2. The agency has caught a case of “Shiny Object Syndrome,” (SOS) the irresistible desire to try out some new Web 2.0 gadget that seems really cool, even if the time spent on that could be used to address issues of far higher priority.

Two final notes:

  • The crowdsourcing platform built by the FCC has some serious problems: anonymous posting and commenting may sound great to the tin-foil hat privacy brigade, but as the top suggestion (currently with 27 votes) points out: “Anonymous, cookie-based voting is so easily game-able and therefore unreliable. User accounts are a better way to prevent multiple voting.” Since the FCC currently requires anyone submitting comments to provide their name and basic contact information, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask users to associate a name and e-mail address with suggestions, comments or votes they submit on the crowdsourcing platform. Of course, there’s nothing to stop anyone from using a pseudonym, but… that’s how just about every blog comment area on the web works!
  • The FCC needs a modern Content Management System. The announcement of today’s news isn’t available in HTML on the FCC website.  Instead, users have to go > updates > recent releases to find a list of releases, each with a link to the document in .doc, .pdf and .txt.  Here‘s the .txt of release announcing the FCC’s foray into social media—which looks as though it was sent by telegraph back when the Federal Communications Act was written back in 1934.

Again, we need to realize that government will always be behind the times. So why trust them to get it right when it comes to regulating the Digital Revolution?

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