Liberté, Egalité, Transparencé? France signals intention to join Open Government Partnership.

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France has seen its share of revolutions, governments and leaders, from Gallic chieftains to Frankish kings, emperors to presidents, monarchy to people’s assembly, fascism to republic. Now, it looks like France will be the 64th country to join the historic Open Government Partnership that launched in September 2011.

Last week, in the 55th item in a joint statement, French president François Hollande and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto the presidents of France and Mexico presidents announced that France would be joining the Open Government Partnership:

“Persuadés que la transparence, l’intégrité et la participation des citoyens aux décisions qui les concernent sont les piliers de la démocratie, le Mexique et la France ont décidé d’adhérer à l’Initiative pour un Gouvernement ouvert, dont le Mexique assumera la présidence en 2015 et sera siège du Sommet l’an prochain. Forts de leur expérience en matière d’ouverture et de partage des données publiques, la France et le Mexique entendent encourager pleinement cette initiative.»

Roughly translated to English, that is:

“Convinced that transparency, integrity and participation of citizens in decisions that concern them are the pillars of democracy, Mexico and France have decided to join the Open Government Partnership, of which Mexico assumes the presidency in 2015 and will be the seat of the Summit next year. With their experience of the opening of materials and sharing of public data, France and Mexico agree to fully encourage this initiative.”

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Official adoption of gouvernment ouvert and open data by France would mean that “données publiques” (public data) and “données ouvert” (open data) will become part of the lingua franca of Francophone countries around the world. (Canada started that the ball rolling a few years ago.) Tranparence, collaboration and participation, the three pillars of open government proposed by the White House open government initiative five years ago, need far less in the way of translation, differing only in one letter.

Whether there is much of a discussion of how “libéralisme” — meaning economic liberalism and the market system — relates to données ouvert remains to be seen, particularly given that the Socialist party is currently in power in France. As the relationship between of open data and economic activity has become better established and the potential value of its release valued in the trillions of dollars (or euros), governments around the world have become interested in tapping their own national reserves.

One challenge for France, as it is everywhere the 21st century version of technology-driven open government is being embraced, will be to come to grips with the privacy rights of citizens, from surveillance to public data release, nor put critical infrastructure at risk through open data releases.

Another will be to pay equal or greater attention to the release of “données publiques” that is not only “ouvert” in the sense of format, license and reuse, but also in the sense of making the government more transparent and accountable to the citizens of the representative democratic republic, or to the oversight of their elected representatives, where public disclosures might affect national security, privacy or the trade secrets of companies under regulation.

The most uncomfortable challenge, however, may be reconciling this newfound, public commitment to more “openness” with closed or secret systems of government in France, from intelligence to criminal justice, just as it has true in other participating countries, from the United States to the Philippines.

If the Fifth French republic does carry through on this statement by submitting a letter of intent and subsequently joins the Open Government Partnership, the Hollande administration will be committing itself to creating a National Open Government Action Plan, following through on a public consultation and collaboration with civil society, and then to working towards milestones and goals in it.

Whether France makes meaningful commitments in its consultation, from publicizing it to giving citizens a real say in the future direction of the country, or follows through on them, will be, as is true everywhere, an open question.

[Illustration Credits: OpenDataFrance.net and Republique Citoyenne]

After a false positive, Twitter suspends open government blog for being too social

Twitter’s best practices for tweeting don’t appear to mix well with its rules for tweeting, as I found out last month when the social networking company briefly suspended the Twitter account for this blog. While I was able to quickly get the account back online, the episode raises somr issues regarding how Twitter’s algorithm flags media accounts and some contradictions in the company’s guidance for new users.

When I found that I couldn’t file a help request to Twitter Support to appeal the suspension of @e_pluribusunum_ through that account, I used my main account (@digiphile).

Initially, I thought the suspension was due to spam, similar to the situation David Seaman encountered in 2011.

After I directly contacted Twitter for help, the account went back online later that day:

As I found out days later, however, the suspension was for “sending multiple unsolicited @replies or mentions,” per the statement I have from Twitter Support on @e_pluribusunum_:
“This account was suspended for sending multiple unsolicited @replies or mentions. Twitter monitors the use of these features to make sure they’re not abused. Using either feature to post messages to other users in an unsolicited or egregious manner is considered an abuse of its use, which results in account suspension. You can find more information about @replies and mentions here:https://support.twitter.com/articles/14023-what-are-replies-and-mentions

I have now unsuspended your account. Please note that it may take an hour or so for your follower and following numbers to return to normal. Be sure to review the Twitter Rules, as repeat violations may result in permanent suspension: http://twitter.com/rules”

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The tweets in question, however, are extremely similar to the way I’ve been using Twitter for years, advise others to use Twitter, and that Twitter itself recommends to new users.

Here are the tweets sent the day before the suspension and the three that morning, which I have to assume triggered the suspension.

The seventh tweet, embedded above, had six different @names in it, but it was appropriate: I was attributing the source of the information, referring to an NPR program (The Kojo Nnamdi Show) and naming the 4 guests who were on it. The eighth tweet had three @mentions in it, as I had retweeted a media account that referred to a reporter and added the subject of the story for context.

So: Were there a lot of @mentions? Yep. Were they “unsolicited?” Yep.  That accurately describes tens of thousands of tweets that I’ve sent over the past seven years. In this case, they were far from “abuse.”

That led me to wonder how many people, journalists, government or media companies or nonprofit organizations a Twitter account is allowed to @mention before it’s suspended. Should any of the categories of users I listed now have to actively ask followers for feedback or allow others to talk about them? That doesn’t seem practical nor scalable. Are there different rules for different users, Verified or not? (I’ve asked Twitter for comment on these general questions but have received no answers after two weeks. I will update the post if I do.)

In the meantime, I’ve tried to think them through myself. The “newness” of this account likely tripped Twitter’s automated filter, leading to the suspension. That means that other new users have to think about whether they’re sending “unsolicited replies or mentions” to keep clear.

I found that deeply jarring. I used the @E_Pluribus Unum_ account exactly as I have @digiphile, for over 7 years now, resharing tweets with attributed context and quotes, tweeting about public figures and government officials, tagging mastheads, retweeting select tweets.

That’s more or less how I define being “social” and engaging on the platform. That’s how I thought Twitter defined it, too. Twitter’s own best practices for engaging followers recommends it:

Mention high-profile users
@HillaryClinton included Secretary of State Madeleine Albright username@madeleine in a Tweet welcoming the former Secretary to Twitter. In turn, Albright replied to @HillaryClinton and also mentioned the Kennedy Center (@kencen), where she had recently performed. Including so many mentions of other users makes it more likely that people will find the conversation and join in. “

If Twitter is suspending new accounts that @mention too many high profile users or reply to them in an “unsolicited” fashion, I can’t help but have serious concerns about Twitter’s future and commitment to being a platform for free expression, government accountability, or hosting civic dialogue.

I do see potential issues with “egregious” @mentions — “@reply spam” has been an issue on Twitter for years — but isn’t that exactly what the block button has been used for, or the new abuse reporting button should be used for? People have been tweeting “#FollowFriday” recommendations for years with many unsolicited @mentions. Are they risking suspension?

Honestly, knocking new accounts offline for being “too social” suggests a tone-deaf algorithm. Ignoring my questions regarding general standards suggests something else. (The company generally refuses to comment on individual accounts.)

Given reports of retention issues and low activity by most users, an overly aggressive approach to filtering new users that are engaging in activity that Twitter itself recommends, particularly media accounts, strikes me as actively self-defeating.

Twitter and its investors should care about the people who never tweet. This experience reminded me that those same parties should care about the people who do tweet and are caught up on algorithmic censorship, followed by vague missives not to talk about other accounts too much.

As I’ve written before, Twitter is not a public utility. It’s a private company with a Terms of Service and Rules it itself sets.  If Twitter’s users don’t like them or lose trust, their option is to stop using the service or complain loudly on other platforms.

In general, Twitter’s record on censorship, Internet freedom and privacy is the best of the big tech companies, as an analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation last year highlighted. They’ve gone to bat for their users, from Turkey to Washington. Today, however, I just wish they’d clarify how social those users are allowed to be.

Editor’s Note: The headline of this post has been amended, with “After a false positive” added.

Applause for the passage of the DATA Act in the Senate

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Over on Storify, I’ve collected applause for the passage of the DATA Act in the Senate. More to come on this landmark open government bill soon.

Update: Over at TechRepublic, I published a column asserting that the passage of the DATA Act is a major event in the age of data transparency.

Update: To date, the White House Office of Management and Budget has expressed support for Congressional attention to open government, if not the bill itself.

“We share Senator Warner’s commitment to transparency and government accountability, support the Senator and his efforts to pass the DATA Act, and appreciate his focus on the issue,” said OMB spokesman Frank Benanati.

More to come on this landmark open government bill soon.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh issues open data executive order; city council ordinance to come?

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The City of Boston has joined the growing list of cities around the world that have adopted open data. The executive order issued yesterday by Mayor Marty Walsh has been hailed by open government advocates around the country. The move to open up Boston’s data has been followed by action, with 411 data sets listed on data.cityofboston.gov as of this morning. The EO authorizes and requires Boston’s chief information officer to issue a City of Boston Open Data Policy and “include standards for the format and publishing of such data and guidance on accessibility, re-use and minimum documentation for such data.”

The element on re-use is critical: the success of such initiatives should be judged based upon the network effects of open data releases, not the raw amount of data published online, and improvements to productivity, efficiency, city services, accountability and transparency.

Notably, Boston City Councilor-at-Large Michelle Wu also filed a proposal yesterday morning to create an open data ordinance that would require city agencies and departments to make open data available, codifying the executive order into statue as San Francisco, New York City and Philadelphia have done.

“Government today should center on making data-driven decisions and inviting in the public to collaborate around new ideas and solutions,” said Wu, in a statement.  “The goal of this ordinance is greater transparency, access, and innovation.  We need a proactive, not a reactive, approach to information accessibility and open government.”

 

Notably, she posted the text of her proposed open data ordinance online on Monday, unlike the city government, and tweeted a link to it. (It took until today for the city of Boston to post the order; city officials have yet to share it on social media. )

“Boston is a world-class city full of energy and talent,” said Wu. “In addition to promoting open government, making information available to the fullest extent possible will help leverage Boston’s energy and talent for civic innovation. From public hackathons to breaking down silos between city departments, putting more data online can help us govern smarter for residents in every neighborhood.”

As long-time readers know, I lived in Boston for a decade. It’s good to see the city government move forward to making the people’s data available to them for use and reuse. I look forward to seeing what the dynamic tech, financial, health care, educational and research communities in the greater Boston area do with it.

EXECUTIVE ORDER OF MAYOR MARTIN J. WALSH

An Order Relative to Open Data and Protected Data Sharing

Whereas, it is the policy of the City of Boston to practice Open Government, favoring participation, transparency, collaboration and engagement with the people of the City and its stakeholders; and
Whereas, information technologies, including web-based and other Internet applications and services, are an essential means for Open Government, and good government generally; and
Whereas, the City of Boston should continue, expand and deepen the City’s innovative use of information technology toward the end of Open Government, including development and use of mobile computing and applications, provision of online data, services and transactions; and
Whereas, the City of Boston also has an obligation to protect some data based upon privacy, confidentiality and other requirements and must ensure that protected data not be released in violation of applicable constraints; and
Whereas, clarification and definition of open data, privacy, security requirements, interoperability and interaction flows is necessary for the City’s Open Government agenda;
NOW THEREFORE, pursuant to the authority vested in me as Chief Executive Officer of the City of Boston by St. 1948, c. 452 Section 11, as appearing in St. 1951, c. 376, Section 1, and every other power hereto enabling, I hereby order and direct as follows:

1. The City of Boston recognizes Open Government as a key means for enabling public participation, transparency, collaboration and effective government, including by ensuring the availability and use of Open Data, appropriate security and sharing of Protected Data, effective use of Identity and Access Management and engagement of stakeholders and experts toward the achievement of Open Government.
2. The City of Boston Chief Information Officer (“CIO”), in consultation with City departments, is authorized and directed to issue a City of Boston Open Data Policy.
a) The Open Data Policy shall include standards for the format and publishing of such data and guidance on accessibility, re-use and minimum documentation for such data;

b) The Open Data Policy shall include guidance for departments on the classification of their data sets as public or protected and a method to report such classification to the CIO. All departments shall publish their public record data sets on the City of Boston open data portal to the extent such data sets are determined to be appropriate for public disclosure, and/or if appropriate, may publish their public record data set through other methods, in accordance with API, format, accessibility and other guidance of the Open Data Policy.
3. The City of Boston CIO, in consultation with City departments, is authorized and directed to issue a City of Boston Protected Data Policy applicable to non-public data, such as health data, educational records and other protected data;

a) The policy shall provide guidance on the management of Protected Data, including guidance on security and other controls to safeguard Protected Data, including appropriate Identity and Access Management and good practice guidelines for compliance with legal or other rules requiring the sharing of Protected Data with authorized parties upon the grant of consent, by operation of law or when otherwise so required;
b) The policy shall provide a method to ensure approval by the Corporation Counsel of the City of Boston to confirm Protected Data is only disclosed in accordance with the Policy.
4. This Executive Order is not intended to diminish or alter the rights or obligations afforded under the Massachusetts Public Records Law, Chapter 66, Section 10 of the Massachusetts General Laws and the exemptions under Chapter 4, Section 7(26). Additionally, this Executive Order is intended to be interpreted consistent with Federal, Commonwealth, and local laws and regulations regarding the privacy, confidentiality, and security of data. Nothing herein shall authorize the disclosure of data that is confidential, private, exempt or otherwise legally protected unless such disclosure is authorized by law and approved by the Corporation Counsel of the City of Boston.
5. This Executive Order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the City of Boston, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.
6. The City of Boston CIO is authorized and directed to regularly consult with experts, thought leaders and key stakeholders for the purpose of exploring options for the implementation of policies and practices arising under or related to this Executive Order.

Can NewsGenius make annotated government documents more understandable?

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Last year, Rap Genius launched News Genius to help decode current events. Today, the General Service Administration (GSA) announced that digital annotation service News Genius is now available to help decode federal government Web projects:

“The federal government can now unlock the collaborative “genius” of citizens and communities to make public services easier to access and understand with a new free social media platform launched by GSA today at the Federal #SocialGov Summit on Entrepreneurship and Small Business,” writes Justin Herman, federal social media manager.

“News Genius, an annotation wiki based on Rap Genius now featuring federal-friendly Terms of Service, allows users to enhance policies, regulations and other documents with in-depth explanations, background information and paths to more resources. In the hands of government managers it will improve public services through citizen feedback and plain language, and will reduce costs by delivering these benefits on a free platform that doesn’t require a contract.”

This could be a significant improvement in making complicated policy documents and regulations understandable to the governed. While plain writing is indispensable for open government and mandated by law and regulation, the practice isn’t exactly uniformly practiced in Washington.

If people can understand more about what a given policy, proposed rule or regulation actually says, they may well be more likely to participate in the process of revising it. We’ll see if people adopt the tool, but on balance, that sounds like a step ahead.

600-x-320-GSA-Mentor-Protege-Program-subpart-519-70-on-cell-phoneWhat could this look like? As Herman noted, Chicago’s SmartChicago Collaborative uses RapGenius to annotate municipal documents.

Another recent example comes from DOBTCO founder and CEO Clay Johnson, who memorably put RapGenius to good use last year decoding testimony on Healthcare.gov.

The GSA’s first use is for a mentor-protege program.

Here’s hoping more subject matter experts start annotating.

[Image Credit: Huffington Post]

Internet Caucus to host forum in DC on open data with Zillow CEO

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Tomorrow, the Internet Caucus is hosting a forum on open data in the United States Congress that will feature a conversation between Zillow CEO Spencer Rakoff and  yours truly.

Open government data powers Zillow’s ability to give consumers more insight into the real estate market. They are a clear winner in the open data economy, an early beneficiary of federal government releases of data that could one day add trillions of dollars in economic value, better services, resilience against climate change, accountability, and social justice. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the potential and challenges of opening up data about housing and making the real estate market more transparent.

If you have questions about Zillow, open data, startups, real estate or other counts, please let me know. 

[Image Credit: Zillow]

On data journalism, accountability and society in the Second Machine Age

On Monday, I delivered a short talk on data journalism, networked transparency, algorithmic transparency and the public interest at the Data & Society Research Institute’s workshop on the social, cultural & ethical dimensions of “big data”. The forum was convened by the Data & Society Research Institute and hosted at New York University’s Information Law Institute at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as part of an ongoing review on big data and privacy ordered by President Barack Obama.

Video of the talk is below, along with the slides I used. You can view all of the videos from the workshop, along with the public plenary on Monday evening, on YouTube or at the workshop page.

Here’s the presentation, with embedded hyperlinks to the organizations, projects and examples discussed:

For more on the “Second Machine Age” referenced in the title, read the new book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

Obama administration seeks to increase community resilience against climate change

Today, the White House launched an effort to engage the nation’s private sector to create tools and resources that increase the resiliency of communities to extreme weather events.

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In the pilot phase, more data related to coastal flooding are now on Data.gov, with more on projected sea level rise and estimated impacts to follow. More government data from NOAA, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Defense, and other federal agencies will be featured on climate.data.gov. NOAA and NASA have will host a challenge for researchers and developers “to create data-driven simulations to help plan for the future and to educate the public about the vulnerability of their own communities to sea level rise and flood events.”

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As the Associated Press reported, another effort plans to add sensors on city buses in Philadelphia to collect data. Should the effort go forward and be expanded, it will provide an important focus for sensor journalism.

A number of private sector companies have announced their involvement. part. Later today, The World Bank will publish a new field guide for the “Open Data for Resilience Initiative.” Esri will partner with a dozen cities across the USA to challenge developers to use its ArcGIS platform. Google will donate one petabyte of storage for climate data and 50 million hours of processing time on the Google Earth Engine.

In sum, the focus on this component of the initiative is on helping people understand and plan for potential changes to their communities, as opposed to using data to make a case to the public about the source or science of climate change. While it is no substitute for increased public understanding of the latter, improving local resiliency to severe weather through data-driven analyses is a sufficiently pragmatic, useful approach that it might just have an impact.

The White House will host a forum at 5 PM in DC today featuring talks by officials and executives from the agencies and companies involved. More details and context on the new climate data initiative are available at the White House blog.

[Image credit: NASA]

Representative Quigley introduces updated Transparency in Government Act (TGA)

Earlier today, Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced a comprehensive open government transparency bill on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. The aptly titled “Transparency in Government Act” (PDF) (summary) coincides with Sunshine Week, the annual effort to stimulate a national dialogue about the iopen government and freedom of information.

“The public’s trust in government has reached historic lows, causing many Americans to simply give up on Washington,” said Representative Quigley. “But the mission of government matters, and we can’t lead in the face of this deficit of trust. The Transparency in Government Act shines a light on every branch of the federal government, strengthening our democracy and promoting an efficient, effective and open government.”

As it has in its previous two iterations, the transparency bill has received strong support from most of the major government watchdog and transparency groups in Washington, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the Sunlight Foundation, Data Transparency Coalition, the Center for Responsive Politics, the Center for Effective Government, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

As Matt Rumsey noted at the Sunlight Foundation blog, this iteration of TGA is the third version to be introduced since 2010:

As we noted at the time, the original bill was inspired in part by model transparency legislation put together on PublicMarkup.org, a project of the Sunlight Foundation.

The 2014 version of the TGA includes a number of Sunlight Foundation priorities including, but not limited to, enhanced access to the work of congressional committees and Congressional Research Service reportsimprovements to the current lobbying disclosure regime as well as increased transparency in federal contracting, grants and loans.

The prospects for TGA to pass through the entire House don’t appear to be much better than the prior two versions. That said, as CREW policy director Daniel Schuman wrote today, the bill is a deep reservoir of transparency ideas that Congress can draw upon to amend other legislation or introduce as stand-alone bills:

  • Greater congressional accountability through improved disclosure of foreign travel reports, gift reports, how members of Congress spend their official budgets, and greater disclosure of personal financial information.
  • Greater congressional transparency through improved access to the work of committees (including meeting schedules and transcripts) and greater contextualization of floor votes.
  • Empowering public understanding of congressional work through public access to Congressional Research Service reports.
  • Better tracking of lobbying by broadening the definition of lobbyist, improving the tracking of lobbying activity (in part through the use of unique entity identifiers), and more frequent disclosures by lobbyists of political contributions; improved access to information on lobbying on behalf of foreign entities; and public access to statements by grantees and contractors certifying that they have not used money awarded by the federal government to lobby (the SF-LLLs).
  • Enhancing transparency for contracts, grants, and loans through improved data quality, better disclosure (including electronic) and improved compliance.
  • Making the executive branch more transparent by requiring online access to White House and executive branch agency visitor logs, providing centralized access to agency budget justifications, and allowing the public to see how the Office of Management and Budget OIRA changes draft agency regulations.
  • Improving transparency of non-profit organizations by requiring non-profit tax forms (990s) to be available online in a central location (replacing the current ad hoc disclosure system).
  • Improving the Freedom of Information Act by publishing completed requests online in a searchable database and requiring notice of efforts to carve out exemptions to FOIA. (Ourrecommendations go even further.)
  • Opening up federal courts by requiring live audio of Supreme Court hearings, publishing federal judicial financial disclosures online, requiring a Government Accountability Office study on the impact of live video-streaming Supreme Court proceedings, and requiring a GAO audit of PACER.
  • Require annual openness audits by GAO that look at whether data made available by the government meets the eight open data principles.

In aggregate, this is a bright beam of sunshine from Congress that everyone should stand behind, from citizens to legislators to advocates. The Project for Government Oversight is strongly supportive of its provisions, writing that “there is a lot to like in this bill, including more transparency for Congress, lobbying, the executive branch, and federal spending on contractors and grantees.”

Taken one by one, the individual provisions in the bill are well worth considering, one by one, from bringing the Supreme Court into the 21st century to FOIA reform.

If Representative Quigley’s bill can attract the attention of Congressional leaders and legislators across the aisle who have professed support for open government and transparency, maybe some more of these provisions will move forward to enter the Senate, though that body has shown little appetite for moving legislation forward in the 113th Congress to date.

At 18F in GSA, U.S. seeks to tap the success of the U.K.’s Government Digital Services

bridge-21st-centuryThe question of how the United States can avoid another Healthcare.gov debacle has been on the mind of many officials, from Congress to the man in the Oval Office.

Last November, I speculated about the potential of a” kernel of a United States Digital Services team built around the DNA of the CFPB: digital by default, open by nature,” incorporating the skills of Presidential Innovation Fellows.

As I wrote last week, after a successful big fix to Healthcare.gov by a trauma team got the trouble marketplace for health insurance working, the Obama administration has been moving forward on information technology reforms, including a new development unit within the U.S. General Services Administration.

This week, that new unit of the United States Government Services Agency became a real entity online, at “18F.

As with the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Services Team, 18F is focused on delivery, an area that the UK’s executive director of digital, Mike Bracken, has been relentless in pushing. Here’s how 18F introduced itself:

18F builds effective, user-centric digital services focused on the interaction between government and the people and businesses it serves. We help agencies deliver on their mission through the development of digital and web services. Our newly formed organization, within the General Services Administration, encompasses the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and an in-house digital delivery team.

18F is a startup within GSA — the agency responsible for government procurement — giving us the power to make small changes with big effect. We’re doers, recruited from industry and the most innovative corners of public service, who are passionate about “hacking” bureaucracy to drive efficiency, transparency, and savings for government agencies and the American people. We make easy things easy, and hard things possible.

The 18F team, amongst other things, has some intriguing, geeky, and even funny titles for government workers, all focused around “agents.” API Agent. Counter Agent. Free Agent. Service Agent. Change Agent. User Agent. Agent Schmagent. Reagent. Agent onGover(). It’s fair to say that their branding, at minimum, sets this “startup in government” apart.

So does their initial foray into social media, now basic building block of digital engagement for government: 18F is on Twitter, Tumblr and Github at launch.

Looks like their office suite is pretty sweet, too.

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This effort won’t be a panacea for federal IT ills, nor will a U.S. Government Digital Office nor the role of a U.S. chief technology officer be institutionalized until Congress acts. That said, 18F looks like a bonafide effort to take the approaches to buying, building and maintaining digital and Web services that worked in the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and trying to scale them around the federal government. The team explained more at their Tumblr blog about how they’ll approach their sizable remit:

  • Partner with agencies to deliver high quality in-house digital services using agile methodologies pioneered by top technology startups.
  • Rapidly deploy working prototypes using Lean Startup principles to get a desired product into a customer’s hands faster.
  • Offer digital tools and services that result in governmentwide reuse and savings, allowing agencies to reinvest in their core missions.
  • We’re transparent about our work, develop in the open, and commit to continuous improvement.

More than five years ago, Anil Dash wrote that the most interesting startup of 2009 was the United States government. Maybe, just maybe, that’s become true again, given the potential impact that the intelligent application of modern development practices could have on the digital government services that hundreds of millions of Americans increasingly expect and depend upon. What I’ve seen so far is promising, from the website itself to an initial pilot project, FBopen, that provides a simple, clean, mobile-friendly interface for small businesses to “search for opportunities to work with the U.S. government.”

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Clay Johnson, a member of the inaugural class of Presidential Innovation Fellows and founder of a startup focused on improving government IT procurement, offered measured praise for the launch of 18F:

Is it a complete solution to government’s IT woes? No. But, like RFP-IT and FITARA, it’s a component to a larger solution. Much of these problems stem from a faulty way of mitigating risk. The assumption is that by erecting barriers to entry – making it so that the only bets to be made are safe ones – then you can never fail. But evidence shows us something different: by increasing the barriers to competition, you not only increase risk, you also get mediocre results.

The best way for government to mitigate risk is to increase competition, and ensure that companies doing work for the citizen are transparently evaluated based on the merits of their work. Hopefully, 18F can position itself not only as a group of talented people who can deliver, but also an organization that connects agencies to great talent outside of its own walls. To change the mindset of the IT implementation, and convince people inside of government that not only can small teams like 18F do the job, but there are dozens of other small teams that are here to help.

Given the current nation-wide malaise about the U.S. government’s ability to execute on technology project, the only approach that will win 18F accolades after the launch of these modern websites will be the unit’s ability to deliver more of them, along with services to support others. Good luck, team.