Obama's openness directive

The Obama administration’s long-awaited Open Government Directive was published on Tuesday – curiously, in PDF, TXT, DOC and Slideshare, but not HTML? – and seems to have received a warm welcome across the Atlantic.
What’s quite interesting is its very prescriptive approach. Within a specified number of days, specifically 45, they must have identified and published three new ‘high quality’ datasets in open formats. Then, by day 60 (ie 6 February 2010), each department must have created a new page on its website on open government issues, at a specified URL: http://www.[agency].gov/open. This page must include mechanisms for public feedback and quality assessment; a plan for ‘how it will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration’, to be updated every two years; the annual FOI report; and regular responses to public input. (I’m almost surprised they haven’t offered a wireframe for the page.)
The document goes on to outline what it expects to see in each departmental openness plan, including of particular interest:

  • proposed changes to internal management and administrative policies to improve participation
  • proposals for new feedback mechanisms, including innovative tools and practices that create new and easier methods for public engagement
  • proposals to use technology platforms to improve collaboration among people within and outside your agency
  • innovative methods, such as prizes and competitions, to obtain ideas from and to increase collaboration with those in the private sector, non-profit, and academic communities; and
  • at least one specific, new transparency, participation, or collaboration initiative that your agency is currently implementing (or that will be implemented before the next update of the Open Government Plan).

Very specific measures, milestones and expectations – plus mandatory innovation across the board. Would it work here?
For more, read TechPresident.com’s analysis of the directive, and its implications.

@downingst hits 100k Twitter fans

Entirely predictably, the Downing Street Twitter channel broke new ground at some time on Friday night, registering its 100,000th follower. To put this extraordinary growth in some perspective: one month ago, they had just 12,000. And just one week ago, they had 50,000. In relative terms, for now at least, they’re now comfortably settled into Twitterholic’s top 30 – ahead of MC Hammer, ahead of Philip Schofield, far ahead of Chris Moyles, and far, far ahead of Russell Brand (sorry Guido).
There seem to be two streams of criticism of Twitter, in terms of ‘serious’ usage: one, there’s no evidence of any tangible benefit (see Thomas Gensemer in the Guardian this week); and two, there’s no evidence of a Twitter business model. (Yet and yet, of course.)
Personally, I take a more positive view. Very few MPs have serious numbers of followers – there are only two political offices in the world with any kind of substantial Twitter following: Barack Obama and 10 Downing Street. The former didn’t do too badly out of it, did he? – although if you look back at the Obama tweeting, it’s frankly a bit rubbish. My guess is, it helped further his image as being hip to this sort of thing, and that was enough. Number10, meanwhile, do a surprising amount at a micro level – you might be surprised how many replies they send to ordinary punters, to their surprise and (often) delight.
And you know what? Even if there’s no future business model, we’re looking at a phenomenal opportunity here, today. The fact it may not be here tomorrow shouldn’t stop us exploiting it while it’s there. 100,000 people have signed up – actively, voluntarily – to hear from the heart of UK government. Now they’re actually listening, what should we be saying to them?

No10 leaps into Twitter's top 100

Twitterholic data shows No10's explosive growth in the last fortnight
Twitterholic data shows No10's explosive growth in the last fortnight

One of the biggest successes in e-government this past year, and arguably one of the most surprising, is Downing Street’s use of Twitter. And thanks to a remarkable couple of weeks, the Prime Minister’s Office now finds itself in the Top 100 of the most followed Twitter accounts worldwide, as ranked (fairly reliably) by Twitterholic.com.
It’s been a model of social media usage. The account was first publicised (here, by me) almost exactly ten months ago: the initial tweets were, as with a lot of corporates, automated via the Twitterfeed service. But within a week, they were beginning to talk like ‘proper’ users; nowadays, of course, it’s perfectly normal for them to reply to comments and queries from other users – who seem genuinely stunned that someone at No1o is listening. It’s often been quoted as an example of best practice – and this week, I’ve seen several people (eg the influential Mashable blog) suggesting the Obama White House should use it as its model.
Growth in the number of followers has been steady rather than spectacular – until earlier this month, when things went into overdrive. Just ten days ago, they had just over 8,000 followers; the Twitterholic number quoted for today is more than double that… putting them at #96 in the world. But as I write this, the @downingstreet Twitter page reports a follower count in excess of 19,000 – enough to put them even higher in the rankings tomorrow, leaping ahead of internet ‘big names’ like Loic Le Meur, Dave Winer and Zefrank. (And even, dare i even say it, @wordpress!) Any higher, and you’re into serious celebrity territory.
When you see a chart looking like that, you’re inevitably trying to think what could possibly be causing it. I’m not aware of any rational explanation myself… and a quick scan of recent followers doesn’t suggest an influx of spam accounts. (Well, no more than usual.)
I can only offer a couple of suggestions:

  • The Obama effect. There’s been a lot of speculation about what Team O might do with whitehouse.gov – and maybe that’s stimulated interest in what’s happening elsewhere. (I have to say though, the Canadian and Australian PMs haven’t seen anything like the same growth.)
  • In the wake of Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross and John Cleese – Brits are waking up to Twitter. Hitwise published data last week claiming Twitter’s UK-based website traffic (never mind other usage methods) was up 10-fold in a year, with – by the look of it – a further acceleration in the last few weeks. I guess the PM’s Office has made it into that category of Famous UK People You Should Follow When You Join: certainly if you look at the most recent followers, a lot of them are new Twitter users, and @downingstreet is among their first handful of follows. 

It’s truly an amazing success story: and the secret is simple – it’s playing by the (evolving) rules of the medium. The No10 web team post a range of stuff: what they described earlier this week as ‘information mixed with colour‘ – same as every good Twitterer does. Sometimes it’s important government stuff; sometimes it’s the ‘what I had for breakfast’ of Twitter stereotyping. They ask for feedback; they respond to questions, where they can. There’s no lengthy clearance process; they trust the guys to be sensible, and it’s a policy that has worked. The fact that it’s all kept anonymous, and the fact that it isn’t actually the PM himself (and they make no secret of that), have not hindered things.
Now, with all those people listening, what would you do with them?

The Obama memoranda

It’s well worth reading the two memoranda issued by President Obama yesterday, on – ironically, given yesterday’s events – FOI and transparency. There’s nothing about them on the White House website (???), so I’m grateful to this Washington Post blog.
On Freedom of Information:

In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike. The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.
The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.

It’s almost impossible to pick out highlights from the memo on ‘Transparency and Open Government’: it’s all good. But if I really had to pin it down:

My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.
Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information… Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.

The choice of language is deliberate and forceful. Well worth bookmarking these documents, and quoting them whenever possible.

Technology, Innovation and Government Reform

In case you miss it in all the festivities… here’s a video posted by the incoming Obama administration on the change.gov site, introducing us to the Technology, Innovation and Government Reform (aka ‘Tigger’) team.
Some of the names might be familiar: Vivek Kundra, for example, is the guy who swapped Microsoft Office for Google Docs on the District of Columbia’s 38,000 desktops. Watch the video, and recognise the soundbites: ‘process has trumped outcome’… ‘government is way, way behind in terms of how it disseminates information, how it interacts with its citizens’… ‘mashing up data’… yeah yeah, we’ve heard all this before. Many of us have said it before, ourselves.
Except that these guys are in power now.
Technology, innovation and government reform… in that order. Sadly, of course, it’s only to give a cool acronym. But hey, we can dream.

Lammy's lessons from Obama

Labour MP David Lammy’s speech to the Fabian Society on Monday wasn’t the first to say ‘we need to learn lessons from the Obama campaign’, and it won’t be the last. But it’s a well-constructued speech, and well worth a read.
He notes the eventual success of two ‘outsider’ candidates, prepared to take risks – on policy, on debate, and in campaigning. And there’s some interesting reflection on the online element:

It has put together a web strategy premised on connecting activists and supporters to one another, not just pushing out tightly controlled messages from campaign HQ. Suddenly in the US the web is being used to connect people with politics again – at a time when people are using it to circumvent politics in the UK. And the huge lesson for us is that the technology is neither particularly complicated, nor especially expensive or labour-intensive to run.

Timely remarks, of course, given the supposedly perilous state of Labour finances. But he’s absolutely right: the tools are cheap, often free, and easy. It’s not whether you can do it, it’s what you do with it. It’s also quite interesting to see him talking in terms of a ‘fightback’. It’s often said that campaigning is easier when you’re in opposition: by pre-emptively accepting defeat, could that kickstart Labour’s online efforts?

Meet the mainstream

Just to draw your attention to the latest website traffic numbers published by Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale. Now I’ve no desire to stir up previous arguments about statistical validity, certainly not here. But I do note Guido ‘s observation that his blog is now more popular than ITN, and Iain Dale attracts more traffic than the Guardian’s Politics site (excluding Comment Is Free, which may or may not be valid).
Guido uses this to lay down a challenge – ‘who is the mass media now?’ – whilst Iain observes that there’s ‘an increasing overlap, whereby bloggers are now writing for and appearing on the MSM with increased regularity and mainstream journalists are now blogging’. Fair points on both fronts.
Meanwhile, look at the numbers (in February) for the official party websites. Tories top, BNP a close second, Labour a distant third. All well behind the site for a man we can’t even vote for over here, though.

Twitter etiquette for corporates

It’s been amazing to watch news of Downing Street’s new Twitter account spreading round the planet. Reaction on blogs and Twitter itself has been a combination of ‘awesome!’, ‘boring!’ and ‘validates Twitter as a proper comms channel’.
But it poses an interesting question. Should a corporate channel like /downingstreet be following other people, or is it purely a one-way service? So far, I can’t decide.
Let’s be realistic: Gordon Brown doesn’t want to know what your cat had for breakfast, and deep down, you all know that. But it’s the done thing on Twitter: everyone follows everyone else. It might make people feel loved, if they see their picture embedded into the No10 page’s sidebar. It doesn’t take much effort to add people, and hey – nobody’s forcing you to read it.
Looking at it coldly then, I can’t help feeling it’s a pointless token gesture. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – look at what’s happening across the Atlantic. Barack Obama has 19,000 followers and almost the same number of ‘following’ – each of whom gets to see their picture on his profile. Hillary Clinton takes the ‘follow no-one’ approach, and has a mere 2,400 followers. And which campaign gets plaudits for its voter engagement?
Maybe that’s the point. Twitter represents a pretty deep level of ‘buy in’ to a person or a thing, much deeper than a blog subscription or email signup. You’re asking to know the minutiae on a real-time basis. By definition, it’s a more personal, touchy-feely environment. Maybe it’s the touchy-feely criteria which should matter most.
What do the rest of you think?

'Gov 2.0' in US presidential campaigning

I’m grateful to Jeff Jarvis for a detailed post on ‘government 2.0’ (although it isn’t a term he used, nor should he have). He points to two recent proposals from the Democrat candidates for the US presidency.
I hadn’t heard Hillary Clinton’s suggestion, back in January, that government should actually be required to blog:

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, you know, we actually have like agency blogs. I want people in all the government agencies to be communicating with people, you know, 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.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama told an audience at Google:

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.

The concept of universally accessible data formats will/would be music to some people’s ears, of course.