What if we Google Buzzed Government?

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Following up on my hypothetical post on what would happen if Government had done the same thing that Google did with Google Buzz, I’d like to imagine something different: what if something like Google Buzz happened to government? What if, out of nowhere, the Executive Branch of government started exposing the most frequent contacts of each Senate Confirmed appointee based on their email inboxes? What would happen if we could, for instance, pull up Rahm Emmanuel’s “Buzz” profile and see who he followed and who was following him, based not on his preferences, but based on the frequency of email contacts alone?

The answer is: Rahm would stop using e-mail. He’d use the phone instead. And when we bugged his phone, he’d do face to face meetings. And when we said that all face to face meetings must be on video except when you’re in the bathroom, Rahm would put a toilet in the Oval Office and next to every other desk in the White House.

When you turn the lights on in your apartment, the cockroaches don’t evaporate, they run under the couch. It’s also why ultimately, to keep cockroaches out of your apartment, the answer isn’t to keep all your lights on, or even to call an exterminator. It’s to clean up after yourself.

Largely what we do in the transparency movement is turn lights on and watch to see where the roaches scatter to. It’s important work, because it gives the bad guys less places to hide. Paul’s piece on Billy Tauzin for instance, does a great job using the White House Visitor Logs, at shining light on the pharmaceutical industries lobbying effort, demonstrating not only the power dynamics of the lobbying industry but also the importance of the Visitor Logs themselves that the White House released.

Let’s not take our eye off the long-game though. Transparency is a value, not an issue. There are a variety of issues related to the value of transparency– but there’s not a single piece of legislation that will cause government to be fully open, accountable and transparent. In the same way an exterminator is useful for solving your apartment’s roach problem in the short-term, transparency legislation useful for moving the ball forward but it’s only part of the solution.

The heart of what we’re trying to change isn’t technology or legislation. It’s people’s minds. You can’t legislate how people think. To truly have a more open, honest, accountable government we need to invoke a cultural shift of both the people working for us inside the Government, and within ourselves in how we handle our Government.

To change the values inside of government, the right incentives have to be put in place. Bureaucrats who take risks and make data available should be validated by the public rather than scorned by their bosses. It should be the case that if a bureaucrat errs on the side of being “open” then they’ll have a better long-term career success than those who don’t. But that’s not the case inside of government: too often the opposite is true.

To further that change, we have to connect the people inside who do the right thing and share the values of openness to one another so that they can share the tactics and ideas that have garnered them that success, and to help recruit new people on the inside to affect that change.

Together, we have to play both the short game and the long game to make things happen. Should someone build a Google Buzz like service out of the White House Visitor Logs? Absolutely. It’s light shone on our government to make it more accountable. But we also realize that as that’s done and as that data source becomes more and more of a source for our storytellers to make stories like Paul’s that people inside of the White House will begin to have more meetings outside the White House, and that data will become less and less of an accurate representation of what’s really happening.

If I’m to metaphorically call the corrupt forces inside of our government “roaches,” then I ought to have a great name for the forces of good inside the government. Let’s call the transparency advocates inside of government “kittens”. Because everyone loves kittens and because to you and me a kitten might be cute, harmless and playful, but to a roach: kittens eat roaches. And what we need is not only to keep shining lights in the shadows of this metaphorical apartment, but also an army of kittens waiting under the proverbial couch for the roaches to hide.