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Two Outside Looks at Presidents’ Day

Two very different articles that evoke Presidents’ Day have come to my attention recently. “The Founders’ Great Mistake” (via Mark Drapeau) is an interesting look at the formation of the American presidency and the shadow of George Washington.

Even when Washington remained silent, his presence shaped the debate. When, on June 1, James Wilson suggested that the executive power be lodged in a single person, no one spoke up in response. The silence went on until Benjamin Franklin finally suggested a debate; the debate itself proceeded awkwardly for a little while, and was then put off for another day.

Many of the conversations about presidential authority were similarly awkward, and tended to be indirect. Later interpreters have found the original debates on the presidency, in the words of former Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, “almost as enigmatic as the dreams Joseph was called upon to interpret for Pharaoh.”

The article then continues to track the development of the powerful executive position, and argues for reform of both the electoral process and the interregnum period – the eleven or so weeks the outgoing president spends as a lame duck.

The second is a post from the official Google blog, “From the height of this place.” This post describes the company’s technology optimism, and sketches a picture of the future world of computing and communication.

Putting the power to publish and consume content into the hands of more people in more places enables everyone to start conversations with facts. With facts, negotiations can become less about who yells louder, but about who has the stronger data. They can also be an equalizer that enables better decisions and more civil discourse. Or, as Thomas Jefferson put it at the start of his first term, “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

Information transparency helps people decide who is right and who is wrong and to determine who is telling the truth. When then-Senator Clinton incorrectly stated during the 2008 Presidential campaign that she had come under sniper fire during her 1996 trip to Bosnia, the Internet set her straight. This is why President Obama’s promise to “do our business in the light of day” is important, because transparency empowers the populace and demands accountability as its immediate offspring.

Of course, this picture of the future of the information world is heavily Google-centric. The post makes the point, though, that the future of radical technological development is primarily in the commercial realm. Rather than driving innovation, the government is another user, one that adopts technology piecemeal.

What do these two articles have in common?

Drawing from a recent FGI discussion, I think it’s relevant that neither of these parties works de facto “for the people.” Whether or not it was true in the past, the president does not serve at the whim of all Americans who are eligible to vote. Rather, the president walks a fine line between serving the interests of the executive branch, and serving the interests of Congress, in order to maintain a level of cooperation that will allow the interests of the executive branch to themselves be furthered. One hopes that the best interests of the executive branch are in fact aligned with the best interests of the people, particularly given that presidents and their parties are eligible for re-election. Still, there is an interesting parallel between the president/executive branch and a socially aware company like Google: doing the right thing probably comes with some strings attached, whether those strings are profit, goodwill, or a reduction in future opportunity costs.

These strings themselves are the leverage government information advocates have with both public and private entities. With enough loud voices, goodwill can be harder to earn. The library community has been burned by Google (endless summer? really?) in the recent past. And we hardly need a reminder of failures in the recent past on the part of the executive branch to maintain our goodwill.

The carrot-and-stick technique with government entities (best exemplified recently by the ongoing work of Carl Malamud) is slow but ultimately effective, as the continuing success of Public.Resource.Org shows. As we await the announcement of a GPO partner, I wonder what advocacy for government information would look like in a hypothetical future where technology and data is locked up by commercial entities, rather than open and free. For me, that hypothetical future suggests that we have many more allies out there than just the names and faces already at work on government information issues. Maybe there are ways and projects that would recruit more of these advocates to become voices on government information issues.

I realize that this has been a superficial and simplistic comparison between two complex entities, but I hope it inspires some thought on how similarities may inform current and future strategy.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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