Civic Hacking (citizen activism online, and very 2.0)

Researching two-way politics and online citizen activism in the US for the forthcoming book, I spoke to John Tauberer recently. Josh set up the website GovTrack.us, an “independent, nonpartisan website that started the “civic hacking” movement in the United States”. The site contains data on the status of legislation, voting records of senators and congressmen, and a Q&A system that allows visitors to ask questions about a bill and see whether others have the answer. It also has a very promising bill viewer tool that shows changes to legislation as it passes through the law making machinery.

We discussed three questions. (click the link to read on)

Question the first: What was the rationale behind the website?

The goal has changed a lot over the years. Certainly when it began the idea was direct accountability. Citizens could see the bills being voted on, see if they agree with the votes, and then go to the polls better informed.

But I now think that was short sighted. Or wishful thinking. It sounds cynical, but it’s really just practical — the world is complicated and for good reason we elect representatives to make decisions so we don’t have to read 500 page bills. The audience of GovTrack is still primarily wonky-type everyday citizens, but the goal is a bit broader now: to engage the public in understanding how Congress works. To make the process more real and accessible. To get citizens interested in governance and maybe to encourage good people to enter the world of government and policy making. I hope that accountability still flows from that, and I think the site does play a significant role in accountability in terms of informing and educating journalists and advocacy groups as well.

Another part of the goals of the site is to build a comprehensive open legislative database so that other people can build more tools to help engage the public — government data like this just ought to be free and available. GovTrack’s open database powers a number of other websites now, including OpenCongress and MAPLight.

I guess there are a number of goals for the site. Another is trying to innovate with technology to find new ways it can help us with transparency, citizen access, engagement, etc. That’s worked out well- GovTrack has a number of interesting statistics, a bill text comparison tool, a Google Maps mashup, etc.

Question two: Why it was poisslbe to establish GovTrack.us now and now a few years before?

I started building the site in 2001-2003. (It went live in 2004. Also note I’ve been doing this type of open source open government thing before anyone else, in the US, and on days when I’m not feeling overly modest like today I might say that I started, catalyzed, or was a model for the transparency+technology movement as we see it today in the US.) The site could have been built just the same for a few years before I tried it. And, nothing has fundamentally changed since then, so the site would be built the same way today.

But the timeline sidesteps the question a bit. What made GovTrack possible was that Congress embraced the Internet in 1994 when it created the THOMAS website for the status of legislation. The newly elected Speaker of the House at the time takes credit for this, and it’s largely true except that it was probably a part of a larger picture happening slowly anyway. Congress still hasn’t precisely embraced “data”, and that’s the thing that I’m waiting for before I’d say that anything has fundamentally changed since 1994.

But good progress has been made just this year, for instance, with Congress directing the Library of Congress to look into a bulk data download for their legislative information, with the Senate now catching up to the House in publishing roll call vote records in XML, and with the Government Printing Office now planning (though we shall see if it happens) to later this year stop charging ($17,000) for access to raw documents that contain several significant parts of U.S. law. (I’ve been involved in pushing all these things forward.)

Question three: What is Josh’s vision for the future, does he anticipate widespread collaborative marking up and annotation of legislation by users online?

I’d love to believe that in the near future congressmen and the public will work together in new ways on drafting legislation. It’s not like there’s no collaborative markup now, of course. It’s just that the players are very limited (to what we’d call lobbyists, and they’re not necessarily bad).

The way to open up the process is to find some middle ground between what we have now and, well, a free for all. Not everyone can participate at once and on the same level. If there are edit wars on Wikipedia, just imagine what kind of edit wars would take place over public policy matters. I think the key to this is establishing self-moderating networks of experts and interested citizens around particular issues, groups who have an interest in participating earnestly and are willing to put in some effort themselves to keep the group focused and productive. At the same time, there will need to be a culture change in DC — and this is no small matter — that it is possible to draft at least some legislation in the public view. So this is a social problem in terms of the public’s responsibility, a technological problem in providing the tools needed for these groups to form, and a social/institutional problem in opening up congressmen to a new process.

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