The United States of Google

I’ve been working on an essay for the upcoming Personal Democracy Forum — and also for my book, WWGD? — about the future of government online, and so I want to throw some of the ideas I’ve been playing with out to you for reaction, improvement, and argument, and I want to ask you about your notions of government in the internet age. I’ll start:

* Abolish the Freedom of Information Act. Turn it inside-out. Why should we be asking for information about and from our government? The government should have to ask to keep things from us. Government information — every act of government on our behalf — should be free by default. We must insist on an aggressive ethic of openness. The exceptions should be rare: the personal business of citizens, national security, ongoing criminal investigations and court cases (while they are ongoing), and little else.

In the past, the physical means of information simply did not allow for this; file cabinets filled with papers could not be open to every inspector all the time. But digital files can be. When all business is transacted digitally, it can be captured, stored, and opened to search and analysis. We must insist on it — and not just from the executive branch (as is the case with the current FOIA) but from all branches, and not just from the federal government but from all levels of government. Sunshine everywhere.

The entirety of government must be searchable.

Barack Obama has a start on this. Speaking at Google, he said:

I’ll put government data online in universally accessible formats. I’ll let citizens track federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contacts. I’ll let you participate in government forums, ask questions in real time, offer suggestions that will be reviewed before decisions are made, and let you comment on legislation before it is signed. And to ensure that every government agency is meeting 21st century standards, I’ll appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer.

* Government officials and agencies should blog. This ethic of openness should go beyond official documents and files. Openness should be part of the work habit of government officials and conversation with constituents should be an ethic of government. The open blog is merely a tool and a symbol for this — and a more efficient tool, I’ll add, than individual letters and phone calls. Hillary Clinton has said she wants agencies to blog.

I want to have a much more transparent government, and I think we now have the tools to make that happen. I said the other night at an event in New Hampshire, I want to have as much information about the way our government operates on the Internet so the people who pay for it, the taxpayers of America, can see that. I want to be sure that we actually have like agency blogs. I want people in all the government agencies to be communicating with people because for me, we’re now in an era — which didn’t exist before — where you can have instant access to information, and I want to see my government be more transparent. I want to make sure that we limit, if we can’t eliminate all the no-bid contracts, the cronyism, I want to cut 500,000 government contractors.

More from Clinton here:

I want to put everything on the Internet. I want you to see the budget of every agency. I want you to track everything that goes on in your government — you pay for it, you should know about it. . . . We should even have a government blogging team where people in the agencies are constantly telling all of you, the taxpayers, the citizens of America, everything that’s going on so that you have up-to-the-minute information about what your government is doing, so that you too can be informed, and hold the government accountable.

* Webcast government. The government should put C-SPAN out of business by videoing itself. Obama has said he wants to webcast agency meetings. I say the same should be the case for Congressional meetings and, yes, court sessions, including Supreme Court hearings. I’ve suggested that radio stations and newspapers should get citizens to record and podcast all their local government meetings.

All of government’s deliberations should be watchable. That doesn’t mean they’ll be watched, of course; this is sure to be the lowest rated video in the history of the camera. But that doesn’t matter. All it takes is for one Josh Marshall to get one of his readers to watch one hearing to catch that moment that’s newsworthy. And all the while, the government officials on the other side of the camera will know they are being watched.

Now one could argue that this will turn government into show biz, that politicians will preen for the camera as they have in big hearings and as judges have in televised trials. But the more everything is videoed, the less it becomes special. It becomes the eye of the people, always there: Big Brother, reversed.

* Start GovernmentStorm. If Dell and now Starbucks can do it, government should. These storms, powered by, enable customers to make suggestions and then to vote and comment on others’ suggestions. In general, good ideas attract votes and conversations and bad ideas die on the vine. One sees trends emerge in the discussion: Starbucks should see that its greatest problem with customers now is not the smell of its sandwiches but the length of its lines. One also sees an incredible generosity from customers; they will spend their time telling companies what they want to buy and how to improve — and only a foolish company would not listen. We’ll surely do the same for our government. Indeed, the more we feel an ownership of our government — the more we can have a role, the more responsive it is to our wishes, needs, and ideas — the better, right?

I think there is another important aspect to this idea: turning the conversation about government to the positive. Today, the default in our discussion of government is negative: that they are doing bad things badly and that we are the watchdogs who’ll catch them in the act. Now that is true in too many cases. And frustration with government is only amplified when we think we are shouting at a brick wall; that is what newspaper columnists — long shut off from the man on the street for whom they thought they were writing and now suddenly able to hear them — are beginning to learn.

But it is destructive to concentrate only on the negative; we have to shift to the constructive. We need to engage in a positive conversation about positive action. That, one hopes, is what Obama’s theme of hope is really about.

So if I were Mark Benioff at Salesforce, I’d offer his storms to any government agency at any level (for free, because it would be a generous gift back and it would also distribute the functionality as a standard of such conversation). And then the wise politician will open up, invite ideas, and hold conversations with constituents there (this won’t work if the politicians don’t engage in that conversation and don’t take action based on ideas there; then it’s just another brick wall). So if I were my governor, Jon Corzine, facing the need to make huge cuts in government — and only more cuts as the economy worsens — I’d ask citizens for theirs ideas. It wouldn’t be a magic bullet but maybe some ideas and themes (though not consensus) would emerge.

I am not in favor of turning to government-by-poll. There’s tyranny in that. As much of a populist as I am, I do believe in the representative, republican (small ‘r’) structure of our government with its filters, balances, and deliberative process. But I do think that given a chance to take help, citizens will. And technology can help them do that.

Let’s move from the gift economy to a gift government.

* Personal political pages. I believe the ethic of openness will spread across society. The press demands that government be transparent, then so must the press be — and this applies to individual journalists. Likewise, as citizens demand transparency, so will they become more transparent. Ethics work both in two directions.

We are already seeing more personal transparency in society. We see it in Facebook and blogs and other social media, where people — particularly young people — realize that they have to open up something of themselves to find others who share their interests and where identity is made up more and more of what we create and what we make public. Just like Flickr, we are starting to default to publicness. Privacy is often put forth as the issue online but, as Facebook has learned a few times now, the real issue is not privacy but control of our information.

So I propose personal political pages where we can, if we choose, reveal our stands, opinions, alliances, and allegiances and where we can — here I call on Doc Searls’ Vendor Relationship Management project — manage our relationship with government, campaigns, and movements. Call it PRM, political relationship management.

Here’s how I see it working: I put online my personal statement: I am a centrist Democrat; I voted for Hillary Clinton and hope to get the chance to do so again; I want to actively support such movements as protecting the First Amendment against FCC censorship and insuring an open broadband policy in the country. On my page, I can explain and discuss any issues I choose. I already disclose many of those views here. But on my personal political page page, I also get to manage my relationship with politicians: I say which candidates and organizations and movements may approach me to ask for donations or to volunteer. I can also invite opponents of my views to try to convince me: send me a link to your best shot. I can also change my views and votes on the page.

Let’s imagine that there are millions and millions of our pages. They can be searched and analyzed to get a constant snapshot of the views of the people: Google as the polling place that never closes. This puts us in control of public opinion and takes it out of the hands of pollsters and to some extent pundits and even out of the hands of elections. It makes elections a constant process. Again, I don’t want to run government this way but I do want more input and this is just that.

The page also becomes a standard for disclosure. Politicians need to say where they stand. And I believe that journalists should, too.

It also becomes a platform for organizing citizens around shared needs and beliefs. That is what the internet is really all about — not content, not media, but connections among people. As Mark Zuckerberg said at Davos, as soon as Facebook was translated into Spanish, it was being used to organize against FARC in Colombia. See also the Tibetan Freedom Movement app. And note well that this creates an international polity, a new layer of political action from people that is more efficient than any U.N. or E.U. The internet dooms middlemen, and that includes bureaucrats.

I’m smelling a Personal Political Page Facebook app.

* The dawn of the human politician. Speaking of Facebook… It will not be long before we see a candidate for office having to admit some youthful foible because it was memorialized on Facebook. We had the president who lusted in his heart, the president who toked (but didn’t inhale), the president who came (same one), and we now have the presidential candidate who inhaled and snorted, and in New York, we have the governors who shtup. Apart from one of those governors, I have no problem with those sins because have nothing to do with the job of running the business of government. I argue that it is a mistake to think that politicians, of all people, are moral leaders or paragons of virtue; they are the last people we should put on pedestals (and this is one of the reasons I am wary of the Obama cult). So the transparency and openness that is coming to our lives on the internet means that we operate under mutually assured humiliation. I say that’s a good thing.

* People replace television. Joe Trippi, as much as anyone, hopes and believes that the power of the internet to help campaigns raise incredible amounts of money from incredible numbers of citizens — and to organize those citizens into movements, which is what the Obama campaign has done — is what will free our political system from big money. The revolution, he promises, will not be televised. Well, that’s not happening yet, witness the record spending this year and John McCain’s desperate efforts to run away from the act under his name. Television still matters, so big money still matters.

But let’s imagine that we’re in the future when television’s reach has shrunken to the point that it doesn’t matter anymore, that it’s no longer an efficient means of getting out a message to us, the masses. I think many in campaigns and media think — hope — that money will just shift online. But that won’t happen. Spending a lot of money to get to a lot of people just doesn’t work as well online as it does in broadcast.

No, the future of campaigning — just as the future of marketing — is people. It is advocates. If you want to win an election, you have to have the people who will go tell their friends who will tell their friends. The Obama campaign is, I believe, a preview of that political future.

* Rule by engineers. It will not be long, I believe, before we will have an engineer in the White House. President Schmidt. President Page. President Zuckerberg. President Gates, even. Or best yet, President Mayer. After all, engineers are now running more and more of industry — since the internet is our best industry — and thanks to their success, they are making their influence felt in charity. Government is surely next.

At Davos, I was struck by the different approach to solving problems I saw from Google’s founders. After hearing Al Gore trying to fix the environment through taxes and regulation, I heard the Google guys try to do the same through invention and investment in reducing the cost of power. Engineers don’t waste their time with cool ideas. They seek a problem and solve it. And they are spoiled that in their world of technology, unlike the messier world of people, most problems do have solutions. Still, I look forward to rule by engineers. I think it will be more rational, more logical, less flashy (unless it’s President Jobs we get). And because these are people of few words, we’ll see more results than rhetoric. We can only hope.

So how do you think government can, should, or will change in the internet age?

  • That’s what I like about your blog, Jeff, you are so idealistic.

    Government isn’t inaccessible because of technology (although that is a factor), but because much of what goes on is contrary to the desires of the public and must be kept from them.

    Take a simple case like broadcasting Supreme Court oral arguments. The court has refused, not because the information isn’t available (audio is now provided afterwards and transcripts have been posted online for years), but because they don’t want to be seen as the people they really are. If their defects were more widely known it might mean that future nominees would be held to a higher standard.

    Similarly, a proposal to make all earmarks available several days before they went into the bill (with the sponsors name attached) is facing rough sledding. Who wants their quid pro quo held up to the light?

    Technology can’t fix corruption.

    I do think your idea of putting congress online is possible. Before the change in majority, some Dem committee hearings (sent to the basement by the GOP) were put up by the staff on YouTube as a way to get the revelations out.

    Keep plugging, no matter how difficult the implementation may seem.

  • Robert,
    Absolutely right. I’m not saying that technology can fix corruption. We must demand openness as an ethic. Technology is, though, a tool that will help us enforce that ethic. First comes our demand.

  • Extremely thoughtful. Looking forward to the book.

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  • James
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  • Sorry about the mistaken link! I do have an open tab for this post and expect to write about it today or tomorrow – but the link in the post about Obama’s speech was in error. (Got the link here, btw, from Amy Gahran on Twitter)

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  • Dick Eagleson

    Jeff, we’ve already had engineers in the White House – twice. Do the names Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter ring any bells? I have serious reservations about doing the engineer hat trick. The engineering mindset is admirably oriented toward solving problems, but it always comes attached to a human personality and that’s where things have gone off the rails with our two past engineer-presidents.

    To solve a problem, it is first necessary to recognize that there is a problem. This was not Mr. Hoover’s strong suit, to say the least.

    Mr. Carter had the opposite temperament. He saw trouble everywhere and tried to micromanage everything. When none of his a capella meddling worked, he decided the real problem was that we Americans were bad people with bad attitudes. Then we proved it by failing to re-elect him. His post-presidential career amply demonstrates that he has learned nothing from his manifold failures in office.

    It would be nice if just choosing people from professional backgrounds different than the usual weasel lawyers who dominate our current political class would somehow magically solve our problems, but I suspect otherwise. Character counts, no matter what you do for a living. Electing weasel engineers to office is not a solution to problems caused by previously electing weasel lawyers.

  • Dick,

    Thanks much for that.

    Yes, I wondered about Carter and take your analysis. I didn’t include him because I didn’t think he operated as an engineer so much as a youth minister. But given his performance these days — his belief that he can solve all problems — I see your point. And I didnt know that Hoover was an engineer.

    You’re quite right that character — in addition to experience, knowledge, intelligence, and attitude — matter more than the industry on the CV.

    But I still want to explore the idea that the world changes somewhat when it is run by engineers, whether they are in charge of the White House or of the fortune behind Google. There is an innate optimism in their worldview about solving problems; that is what I find appealing. There can also be an innate cockiness in that; lord knows, the Valley is the headquarters of hubris. And engineers don’t always look at the world through human eyes; they see it through algorithms and the world does not always — dot not usually — operate with such logical predictabliity. I don’t want Mr. Spock in the White House.

  • Jeff, I was intrigued by a recent message on online-news concerning police scanner rebroadcasting apparently being held by some to violate federal HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations due to privacy concerns! (i.e. “Health” of people involved in police incidents might be revealed…) See:

    bob wyman

  • Jeff, Politicians and engineers share something very special. They, unlike most other people, are able to wake up in the morning, think “I don’t like the way the world works!” and then go out and fix it…

    I’ve been in the “computer business” since the 70’s but have always been working on what are essentially “political” issues. I grew up in the 60’s in Berlin, well aware of the Berlin Wall and all that it meant. Hoping to fight the evil that the wall represented, for a long time I assumed that I would have a career in politics. In college, I studied Political Science, Economics, etc. to prepare. But, then I realized that “The greatest determinant of a society’s ability to establish and maintain a democratic form of government is the distribution and effectiveness of the technology available for creating and sharing information.” As a result, virtually everything I’ve ever done in the computer business has had the explicit goal of strengthening democracy through building better tools for information sharing. To me, the computer business is not a “craft” but rather a tool for the accomplishment of very specific political goals. I’m not alone… Look around you in this business. You’ll see that many others are here for what are essentially political “change the world” reasons. We already have government by the engineers in some senses. It just isn’t quite as obvious as what the formal politicians do.

    bob wyman

  • Bob,
    Great post, thanks. Especially love your first line.
    What you put in quotes — is that something you said or someone else? I want to make sure I attribute it correctly if/when I use the quote.
    (Didn’t know you grew up in Berlin. I love that city. Was lucky enough to spend time there before the Wall came down to compare and contrast.)

  • Jeff, Thanks…
    As for the quote, I’m not sure any more of it’s origin. In any case, it is now mangled beyond its original form and you can consider it mine. What happened is that in 1974 I had stumbled across Vannevar Bush’s article “As We May Think” in the library at GWU and was thinking about it in class one day while a professor was going on about the freedom of speech and the press. At one point, he said something (now forgotten) and my immediate thought was: “If I could only build everyone a Memex and tie them all together, that would change everything…” So, that’s what I’ve been doing ever since — Politics, not computers.

    BTW: I finally got to build my first “Memex” in the mid/late 80’s. Tim Berners-Lee gives my team credit for introducing him to Bush’s writing. See this blog post for some of the history (last few paragraphs):

    bob wyman

  • Concerning Personal Political Pages —

    I am not sure that this really belongs in your Government chapter rather than in your Politics chapter but wherever it belongs I think it absolutely hits the nail on the head.

    Speaking for myself, anybody who knows me or talks to me or reads me would have no difficultly assigning me to the left-liberal ghetto of the ideological spectrum. I resist the label, however, not because of its inaccuracy but because it is a pigeon hole.

    It makes it so much more difficult to form coalitions with those at radically different parts of the ideological spectrum…with born-again Christians who are leading activists on HIV/AIDS or Darfur genocide…with Wall Street free traders who want to liberalize immigration with Mexico…with Cato Institute libertarians who want to legalize narcotics…with centrist Democrats like Jeff Jarvis who want universal healthcare…with neoconservative ideologues working to replace autocrats and theocrats with democrats in the middle east…with non-partisan bureaucrats like Michael Bloomberg who want to switch transportation from cars to mass transit.

    Personal Political Pages allow each of us to escape from the conventional left-right authoritarian-libertarian divisions of the political parties and the opinion pollsters. They allow us to align ourselves on each issue discretely, forming ad hoc, opportunistic coalitions not binding ones.

    For example, take that latest Second Amendment case at the Supreme Court. Speaking personally, I have no interest in owning a gun or seeing my neighbors own one. But if I could make a coalition with the NRA to persuade it to be more vociferous in its support of the First Amendment in exchange for my support of the Second, I would be happy to, despite the fact that I would be opposing Mayor Bloomberg, whom I happen to support on transit issues.

    Personal Political Pages also allow us to prioritize our issues in a way the opinion polls rarely do. I could agree with you Jeff, for example, on the need for universal healthcare, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to prevent neighborhood blight caused by foreclosure evictions. However that surface agreement might disguise a fundamental difference in priorities: you could rank them #2, #3, #1 and me #3, #1, #2 or whatever. Our personal politics would be different because of our priorities even if we were superficially in agreement on each issue.

    How to translate these insights into government? In western states they do so by favoring referenda, propositions and ballots. I have the same problems as you do concerning that system’s lack of “representative, republican (small ‘r’) structure of our government with its filters, balances, and deliberative process.” Perhaps the Texas model is better, under which the equivalent of the cabinet is staffed by commissioners, each of whom represents a specific policy area — the Railroad Commision, the Agriculture Commission and so on — and each is elected directly instead of being appointed by the Governor.

    Wouldn’t it be cool if this primary season we were not only picking the nominee for President but the nominee for Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Chief Justice, the Federal Communications Commission and so on? Each office could be considered on its own policy grounds rather than the coalition that its relevant interest group happened to be a part of. Call them Personal Political Primaries,

  • Bravo, Andrew.
    I do hope we can bring politics and government closer together and so they may belong in one chapter. By that I mean that the process of selecting government should be about governing.
    You’ve taken the idea well beyond my shell and I’m grateful.
    I like the idea of prioritizing.
    I do agree that coalitions around issues — to accomplish action — are more powerful than two-sizes-fits-all political labels.
    It makes us each a lobbyist, eh?

  • Robbie Jena

    A friend sent me this blog link. Did not know how old the text was until scrolled down to the comments. I work for a company that provides strategies for sustainable industrial development to the African Union. What I found is that all previous failure in such development can be attributed to lawyers and economists who are good at policy framework but have no idea how to design industrial development and its relatedness in network theory. I think in U.S.A. we are having similar problems. There are too many lawyer-politicians and economists that were too busy doing contracts that the thinktanks forgot our industrial economy. The whole thing has been in auto-pilot so long than the baby boomers forgot how to fix the engine.

    We need engineers to fix the engine of our industrial economy not lawyers. Without that, too many non-engineer passengers will try to fix it and could blow it up in the process. American students now shun the science and engineering and opt for Law, Political Science and Finance. I understand that President Carter had an opportunity to set our goals but instead he somehow lost his engineering marbles. In todays information overload, we need leaders who demand and know how to use an electronic dashboard with drilldown capabilities rather than depending on their secretaries for overviews. I bet 90% of our senior political officers AND Fortune 1000 CEOs do not know how to access a database, let alone datamine information personally to develop the correct mental model of the real world with minimal bias.

    Very nice blog. Perhaps think about how to manage those information overloads and how common people armed with partial technical information would not make bad choices for rest of us.

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  • Harry

    The internet could eliminate the need for Washington, DC.

    Back in the eighteenth century, there was no alternative other than to have legislators gather in one place in order to communicate with each other, conduct hearings, hold votes, etc. That’s no longer true.

    Imagine something called “CongressNet.” Real-time interactive teleconferencing, voting on bills, etc., and all we plebes. . . . . er, I mean, citizens. . . . . could log and watch our Senators and Congressional reps in action.

    And since there would no longer be a need to send everyone to Washington to govern, our elected officials would—–GASP!!—–be required to live in their Congressional district (Congresspeople) or home state capital (Senators). Instead of some fancy office in Washington, put them in some shopping mall so we could walk by, look through the glass, and watch them at work.

    Since I’m not entirely cruel, let’s send them all to Washington for a couple of weeks at six month intervals to wine, dine, fornicate, etc. But after that we send them back home to Albany, Springfield, Trenton, etc., to put up with traffic jams and the other aspects of normal life like the rest of us.

    Periodically Mao would empty China’s universities and send the professors to the countryside to work alongside the peasants. (Mao obviously met too many tenured faculty members.) In that same spirit, let’s empty Washington and send our elected representatives back to where they came from and supposedly represent.

  • Kevin Costello

    Jeff- I agree with your comments on the need to reform the FOIA. One area of growing concern that you may want to address is that as we increasingly privatize governmental functions, these contractors operate with little or no governmental oversight and other checks such as FOIA requirements. It seems to me that the current trend is toward less transparency, not more.

  • B. Nelson

    Blogs from the U.S. Government
    Find active and archived blogs from U.S. federal agencies:


    “The Blogging Revolution: Government in the Age of Web 2.0”

    David C. Wyld
    Associate Professor
    Southeastern Louisiana University
    Department of Management

    Description: Dr. Wyld examines the phenomenon of blogging in the context of the larger revolutionary forces at play in the development of the second-generation Internet, where interactivity among users is key. This is also referred to as “Web 2.0.” Wyld observes that blogging is growing as a tool for promoting not only online engagement of citizens and public servants, but also offline engagement. He describes blogging activities by members of Congress, governors, city mayors, and police and fire departments in which they engage directly with the public. He also describes how blogging is used within agencies to improve internal communications and speed the flow of information.

  • Jeremy C.

    You posted:

    “But it is destructive to concentrate only on the negative; we have to shift to the constructive. We need to engage in a positive conversation about positive action. That, one hopes, is what Obama’s theme of hope is really about.”

    If you load the entire interview that Obama did with the SF Chronicle and then skip towards the last 5-10 minutes you’ll hear him present this exact vision. After asking to go off the record, he makes a great statement about how broken our system is and about experience within that system being a bad indicator of how someone will be successful in bringing our country together.

    However, after that comment, he continues with a GOLDEN nugget about wanting to make sure our government representatives are not only held accountable for the bad things in their legislation – but more importantly – are shown in a good light when they do something positive and all that is possible with the right technology to make it available to anyone who wants to know.

  • Want an example of a country ruled by engineers?

    China. All must bow before the logic of what is ordained.


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