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OpenGov Voices: Searching for Snowballs in Silicon Valley

by guest author Seamus Kraft

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director at OpenGov Foundation -- an organization dedicated to developing and deploying technologies that support every citizen's ability to participate in their government and hold it accountable. You can reach him at @seamuskraft

The best technology is insidiously useful. It does not force better ways of doing business. It suggests them, extending the familiar and comfortable without the user realizing she has gone farther, faster, smoother. Like the perfect note in a song, you cannot imagine it not being there.

But technology is only a tool. If it helps you do your job or live your life more efficiently and effectively, buy it. If it makes life harder, slower or more costly, don’t buy it. Plain and simple.  Especially in the United States Congress, where money, time and tech are scarcer than snowballs in Silicon Valley.

The purpose of Congress is to make policy on behalf of taxpayers. Public officials perform very specific and specialized tasks to fulfill that purpose. Citizens keep an eye on them and hold them accountable. Can technology help these users — inside and outside of government — collaborate to do their jobs better? Project Madison, launched by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), was our first attempt at answering in the affirmative.

The mission: hack together software to crowdsource critiques of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) while cooperating with citizen-users to transparently and accountably develop an alternative — the OPEN Act — that wouldn’t harm the Internet and those who depend on it. "Open government" was an important, but second-order, development goal.

Here’s how it worked, according to Fast Company: "Project Madison is a stripped-down interactive blogging platform, which allows citizens to select individual passages of legislation, and strike or add their own language, with comments for each suggestion. Citizens are encouraged to like or dislike each change, with the most popular suggestions rising to the top. Each page also has embedded Facebook and Twitter buttons that link to individual amendments."

Madison wasn’t hard to build. Yet using it to put open government principles into live-fire practice was a significant risk. To even get off the ground, it had to pass two tough tests. First, Madison had to demonstrably help each team member — digital, communications, legislative staff, Members of Congress —do his or her job more efficiently. And second, it had to happen as an extension of what its first users — those fighting SOPA and PIPA inside and outside of government — were already doing.  Complicated meant death. Unfamiliar meant death. Time consuming meant death.

Madison Beta Test Results (December 2011-January 2013)

Members of the Madison Community: 2,433

Documents in Madison: 11

Edits: 749

Comments: 1,420

Unique Visitors: 667,761

Countries of Origin: 193

Page Views: 1,017,338

We got lucky. Our challenging development environment forced us to do things we might not have otherwise: build simple, build light, build exactly to the specs of users leaning over our shoulders in Congress or bombarding us with tweets. That’s how Madison ended up being a no-nonsense tool to make an age-old American process — democratic, participatory policy development — work a little bit more effectively. It wasn’t sexy, but it did deliver a solid place for citizens to watch the SOPA markup, access the bill and amendments in real time, critique and develop legislation equally alongside the Members of Congress and staff they were watching on the webcast. Madison users inside of government were armed for policy battle with the best, most vetted and technically correct information possible, plus a truly open and collaborative alternative solution.

As CNN put it, Madison "makes the democratic process just a bit easier." And it bought time for millions of ordinary people and digital job creators to tune in, black out and quickly change many of the minds that mattered most: Members of Congress who had to take a public stance on SOPA and its Senate counterpart, PIPA. It filled a very timely need, but it also stirred something far greater in us.  Madison felt like how we - public servants and citizens - were supposed to be doing our jobs in the 21st century.

Innovating to get it done faster and better. Empowering citizens. Encouraging participation and open debate. Achieving more together. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work in America?

That is what "open government" means to us at  OpenGov. We believe there are as many ways to achieve it as there are jobs to do and people to do them. What works for Code for America's users in San Francisco may or may not work for the White House's We the People users.

That's why it is vital for those who attempt to open government to share their stories far and wide.  What has worked? What has failed? Why? Good storytelling is even more critical now, because that’s the only way the uninitiated — pretty much everyone — will be able to understand, support and adopt this movement as their own.

Our goal is to take a little bit of the hassle out of being a citizen and a public official. We believe users deserve to be met where they are. Tools should be designed to help users do their jobs more efficiently and effectively today. That’s how "open government" will stealthily morph into "how government works." Success means you can’t imagine the tech not being there.

Note: Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) is the chairman and cofounder of the board at the OpenGov Foundation.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com