Sunday, February 11, 2007

Gov. Spitzer Makes the Web Waves, But Will the Empire State Truly Embrace Openness?

Huffington Post
Steve Rosenbaum
Gov. Spitzer Makes the Web Waves, But Will the Empire State Truly Embrace Openness?

If you were the Governor of New York, and you'd just been sworn into office, what would your first act be?

Well - for Elliot Spitzer, the decision he made should prove to be both a clue about the kind of Governor he'll be and what the future of politics may hold.

I'm talking about Executive Order #3.

Executive Order #3 orders all New York agencies to broadcast all of their public meetings on the Internet. Wow. A Governor who does more than stump about the future of technology - here's a move that has the potential to radically change lawmaking in New York State.

Think about it. Sure there's CSPAN already - but broadcasting of long boring hearings in real time on TV hasn't had the kind of impact that changed government. Why? Because it wasn't searchable, blogable, emailable, or sharable. In point of fact - it didn't change accountability since it wasn't interactive.

But Executive Order #3 changes that. Webcast video is by its nature a long lasting public record that will be quickly archived, shared, searched, compared and used to encourage participation.

The order reads in part: "PROMOTION OF PUBLIC ACCESS TO GOVERNMENT DECISIONMAKING WHEREAS advances in technology allow for the broadcast of meetings on the Internet through the use of webcasting; By March 1, 2007, every agency and public authority shall submit to the Secretary to the Governor a plan that: (a) identifies all meetings of such agency or authority that are subject to the Open Meetings Law; and (b) specifies a timetable for ensuring that all such meetings are broadcast on the Internet.

This raises a bunch of interesting questions. First of all, is New York ahead or behind the rest of the country. That's kind of hard to say. Here's what the last research I was able to find says (it's from Texas).

"Gartner Group predicts 'By 2004, 80 percent of state and local governments will use the Internet to deliver C-SPAN-like coverage of legislative meetings and interactive virtual town meetings. By 2004, 90 percent of global 2000 enterprises will use webcasting to broadcast live events such as shareholder meetings, quarterly financial announcements and CEO addresses.'

A survey of state legislature (2000) Web sites found the following statistics:

* 18 states broadcast over television, primarily on public broadcasting channels
* 14 states, including Texas, broadcast audio and video via the Web
* 11 states provide broadcast audio only
* 10 states provide audio and/or video archives
* 2 states, South Carolina and Minnesota, provide closed-captioned webcasts
* No state broadcasts all, or even a majority, of its agencies' open meetings
* No state provides indexes for individual video or audio files

So, that was six years ago - and it seems like things may have dragged to a halt since then. But then, there's this bright light of government sunshine:

"Government decision-making procedures are available to view on a mobile phone. From now on, to ensure publicity and transparency, the Government will have its meetings broadcast live through mobile Internet. Omnitel users can follow Government discussions and decision-making process at Omni SurfPort mobile Internet portal"

"Government activities are open to the public. Live webcasts of our meetings in session have been attracting wide interest. Now, with live meeting delivery via mobile phones, Government activities become accessible practically any time. This is the publicity we want, and we are going to keep it up in the future".

Sound good? That's news from 2006 - from Lithuania. Ok. You get the idea. There hasn't been a ton of movemnet toward openness in the US in the past six years. But Spitzer could change all that.

It's all in HOW Exec Order #3 is acted upon. Will the videos be on an open platform? Will they require a log in to view? Will they use Flash Video (or a more closed system like Windows media or quicktime). Will they be properly indexed and searchable? Will individual agencies be able to set up their own complex, hard to navigate, badly designed sites that create a whole series of government video fiefdoms? Or - will Spitzer drive government video to a new standard of openness, sharing, and public accessibility? It's hard to know what the plan is to implement Executive Order #3... but it's a hopeful sign.

Because once citizens can access the process of government, who knows, they may feel like they've got an opportunity to be heard. And that would be a great use of technology.