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Reviewing Last Week's National Dialogue on Recovery IT

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split_gregThe following is an excerpt from what's been going on inside the head of Greg Elin, the retiring Chief Evangelist for the Sunlight Foundation, as he contemplates the Recovery's Board week-long virtual brainstorming event TheNationalDialogue.org which concluded Sunday.

Moderator: The Recovery Board has launched a web site for what it bills as a National Dialogue on Recovery IT hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration. The virtual event began on Monday, April 27 and ended Sunday, May 3. To discuss how the event went are my two guests who have been following Recovery.gov. My first guest is happy "Greg :-)" who believes the Web changes everything and end-users made the conversation fruitful. Presenting a different view is grumpy "Greg :-(" who knows a bureaucracy when he sees one and wonders how this was a dialogue if no Recovery Board IT people participated. Greg :-) I'm happy to be here.

Greg :-( (Hmpf) Thank you for having me.

Moderator: Gentlemen, what are your initial reactions to the National Dialogue on Recovery IT?

Greg :-) Fruitful. Whenever you put a conversation online for public participation, you unleash the dynamics of the Web. Despite a clumsy interface, individuals and organizations put their ideas in one place to be seen by all. Exploring the 500+ ideas and comments unveils excellent ideas, observations, and links even along side vendor pitches. This is clearly a first foray into the Web for the Recovery Board, so I give them some slack on its shortcomings. But I think the overall outcome was a successful experiment and produced substantive material.

Greg :-( Depressing. My initial reaction on viewing TheNationalDialogue.org web site was, "Where's the dialogue?" I expected a technically-oriented, high-level back and forth with persons having direct responsibility for building and running Recovery.gov and a discussion of actual architectures and strategies being considered. Nobody from Recovery.gov even participated from what I could tell. They "monitored" the conversation. So I have to wonder if we are being given the Web 2.0 version of the bureaucrat's "Suggestion Box": we put in our ideas online--and communally rank them, too, woohoo--while management demonstrates keen their interest in our ideas by promising to (wait for it…) "monitor" them twenty-four hours a day for the event's one week duration. The 500 figure counts each idea submitted but many overlap.

Moderator: That's a pretty harsh criticism, Greg :-(. Doesn't Greg :-) have a point, though? This is first step for the Recovery Board. Isn't the important thing the public are contributing and talking with one another?

Greg :-( Well, if the site had been called a "suggestion box" or even better been launched shortly after Recovery.gov went live, I might agree. But the IT conversation started on the Web shortly after the first OMB Implementing Guidance was published mid-February. Like others, I've read close to 400 pages of publicly available material about Recovery.gov from the government, attended public discussions and dug into Recovery.gov and written about other Recovery Web sites. For example, The Coalition for Accountable Recovery's web site has several documents worth of feedback they've published and a Google Group. There's the State's Accountable Recovery site. There's been Congressional testimony. There is a commercial website at Recovery.com. It disorienting to arrive on a "dialogue" home page that looks like a ghost town because only the three newest idea are displayed, which of course have zero comments or votes yet. The Learn about the issues page is anemic.

Greg :-) Let's not make perfect the enemy of the good here. I've been reading all the same material and going to the same meetings you have Greg :-(. This is the first event for Recovery.gov where we've seen commercial vendors, non-profits, and even a few government officials like the Comptroller of Nevada weighing in on their use of XBRL in the same forum, putting up ideas and commenting on the record. That's a notable. How often have we asked for Web-based, crowd-sourced brainstorming? Suggestions made immediately went online for all to see. Many government web sites are still afraid to do that. The site had a RSS feed, notification for threads...

Greg :-( ...if you could find the notification controls. It was hardly obvious.

Greg :-) Can I finish please? There are signs of web-savviness, and where there is smoke there could one day be fire. Recovery.gov has a a twitter feed which is in-tune with the times. Plus, the TheNationalDialogue.org is XHTML with some nice naming of CSS classes making the pages search engine friendly and easy to scrape. Discussion threads, Twitter, RSS, RDF, notification, tagging, XHTML, RESTful URLs. It's good to see a government entity using such tools and an activity like this is extremely low cost and nationally inclusive. If it captures just a couple of new and interesting ideas, like the RecoveryTV idea, or brings new parties together, it's worth it.

Moderator: What were some of the ideas? Anything outstanding? Or are ideas just re-treads?

Greg :-) An overwhelming number of ideas and comments were in favor of open data. One of the most commented threads was started by none other than the creator of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee and discussed Linked Open Data. That's fairly sophisticated and has come up before from some OMB voices. Basically, it means structuring the data so it's easy for others to use. (Even Microsoft has an open government data initiative.) I might not have learned of how clearly New York City is tracking Recovery infrastructure, including jobs, if it wasn't from Peter Doolan from Oracle's post. Also good example portal links from SShane at Accenture. Some contributions were quite detailed and thoughtful like proposal for electronic reporting system. The Sunlight Foundation provocatively suggested all record data should be public domain and moving away from proprietary identifiers like Dun & Bradstreet's DUNS system because the information is not publicly available. There was a vendor pitch which first put me off about cascading performance budgets, but there were 49 comments on it and its approach on tying rationale to budgeting through multiple levels of an organization was intriguing.

Greg :-( Retreads, for the most part. For example ESRI and others weighed in on adding some mapping visualizations Recovery.gov which was well supported and commented upon. But how many times does mapping need to be suggested to Recovery Board before we get an interactive map or a zip code search? Was it necessary to crowd source the idea of a map? XBRL and ATOM feeds are mentioned frequently. And of course there are posts about tracking the money and job performance through all recipients. But we know this already. I'm not to crazy about the crassness of vendors pitching wares, but I admit that I always find screen shots thought provoking, like Actuate's Framework for ARRA Metrics with listing of who is using their tools. It's just frustrating the time it took find these. Onvia, the company behind Recovery.com gives a good how-to roadmap for improving Recovery.gov. I also noted a suggestion on April 28, the second day of the event, that it would be efficient to show more than five ideas a single page. I liked that suggestion, but nothing changed. That's really disturbing compared to the Whitehouse who fixed an entire cookie issue with Youtube videos in less than 48 hours.

Moderator: Who contributed to TheNationalDialogue.org?

Greg :-) A variety of persons and organizations, many of whom I've seen in other discussion venues on this topics.

Greg :-( Vendors trying to sell proprietary solutions.

Moderator: How could the site have been better?

Greg :-( As I said earlier, directed conversation and participation from the IT people working for/with the Recovery Board would have been a big improvement. But even if the government is nervous about participating to avoid a comment being treated as policy, it was a lost opportunity to really move the conversation forward. I know people who quickly grew frustrated and left. I'm logged in, but I keep encountering the same ideas I've read before--not indicated as "read" in anyway--as a I navigate to different items. Why are doesn't the system know what I've read so I can more quickly read. This would have been interesting as prediction market. IT people understand the trade-offs. People could have been a limited number of votes and really prioritized the ideas, for example. Why host all topics at the same time? Why not just focus discussion on just data wharehousing? Or Just error detection? One week on one topic, another week on a different topic? Where's the email list?

Greg :-) You said you knew bureaucracies! Be happy this happened at all. Look how many different ways people asked for the data. I bet there's still resistance inside government from some quarters about sharing data up front, worried people will use it out of context in politics. I'm sure there are good intentioned people who do not get Web 2.0 or Linked Open Data, who think it is too complex or too far into the future, or just want to give the whole project to a govt contractor do old school govternment IT. The Dialogue revealed tremendous support for using the web, for data feeds, for enabling semantic web and user-generated content like the videos. That's good ammunition for the pro-web, pro-openness factions inside.

Greg :-( I will give you that point. At least it happened, and the in the end the evidence is pretty strong for “Use the web, stupid.” But how many times does incorporation of a map have to be mentioned before a map is incorporated? The Recovery Board has $84M. They could splurge a little with a million or so and get a bunch of interesting features up really fast, no?

Greg :-) Well, if you took the time to look more rather than complain, you might notice things are changing at Recovery.gov. Recovery.gov launched RSS feeds and the new "Investments" button links a map showing funding notifications totals by state. So it is starting.

Moderator: Speaking of looking, any reaction to the video of the Head of the Recovery Board Earl Devaney and White House Liaison Ed Deseve?

Greg :-( Well intentioned perhaps. But it should have been stopped. The fact they were dressed like they were selling mainframes for IBM combined with "we will be monitoring" comment, did not inspire confidence the Board understands the Web. And this is my big underlying concern: we are seeing some of the talk and some of the walk, but are they feeling it, or just going through the motions?

Greg :-) The video was awkward. But, again, gotta give them big credit for just doing it. The Recovery Board is going to be on the Web for three years, right? Who knows when it might be really useful for Devaney or Deseve to use a web video in the future? Maybe if they do it, so too will others. Should web videos really be reserved only for the most charismatic, or should everyone feel this channel is available. That said, maybe they stay in supporting roles rather than starring roles until they get more comfortable.

Moderator: We are just about out of time. Final comments? Greg :-(?

Greg :-( A post by Citizen Tools summarizes my concerns regarding the vagueness of what the Recovery Board has been up to with TheNationalDialogue and their other outreach:

"The promise is vague...Unlike the first promise of Delicious, thenationaldialogue.org does not promise to serve the participant in a direct or tangible way, nor to connect him or her with other participants. Further, the central part of the promise – “we will review it carefully” – in fact happens mostly outside of the tool, indeed, out of sight.

The Recovery Board will be forgiven for making errors on the Web if they move quickly and truly engage the web. If they merely go through the motions, its going to be painful for everyone.

Greg :-) And I'll refer to Technosailor's post emphasizing nobody is a Government 2.0 Guru yet. This is a learning curve for all parties involved. Despite the event's shortcomings, it is light years more transparent and fruitful than emailing comments into a black hole. If the Recovery Board uses the results of this brainstorming to start a real, Web-based ongoing dialogue, the event will be proven the right learning experience and not a facade.