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Thoughts on White House Digital Government Strategy

Building off of last week’s post on the Obama Administration’s new digital government strategy, I came across this analysis over at TechPresident: “White House Rolls Out New Plan for Digital Government”.

Among the changes called for in the plan:

  • Within six months, the Office of Management and Budget will release new government-wide standards for open data, content, and web application programming interfaces. Agencies will have another six months to make sure they are following those policies. They are also going to be asked to take two customer-facing online services and expose the information it delivers through APIs to “appropriate audiences,” meaning some set of developers will be able to build applications around them without necessarily working in close concert with the agency providing the data.
  • Agencies will be asked to publish ever more data through APIs and as structured data, which are the building blocks of modern web design and mobile-ready websites. The White House line on this is that it will also encourage outside developers to build new businesses on top of government data.
  • The General Services Administration will establish a Digital Services Innovation Center to work with agencies to modernize how they interact with citizens on the web.
  • The White House will begin releasing its own source code on GitHub and launch a “presidential innovation fellowship” program to bring developers from the private sector into government for six-to-12-month projects.
  • The federal government will work to develop “MyGov,” a prototype central hub for citizens to access all the services and information they’re looking for from government online.
  • Through programs like one intended to encourage small businesses to compete for government business, the White House will work to change IT procurement practices and cut down on the number of high-dollar, low-output contracts. Other procurement-related initiatives include a government-wide vehicle for mobile device and wireless service contracting and government-wide guidance on bring-your-own-device policies.
  • Data.gov, the federal repository for government data available online, will transition away from being a hub for data files and towards a central clearing house of government APIs that developers can incorporate into web applications.

Open government activists, including Sunlight Foundation’s John Wonderlich and Clay Johnson, writer and former director of Sunlight Labs, expressed “meh” for the new plan.

While we’re excited that the White House is continuing to espouse the importance of open government principles, our concern is that the plan (PDF) does not address digital preservation or authenticity, two critical issues for librarians in guaranteeing long-term FREE access to government information — and issues we addressed in a 2010 letter to then deputy CTO for Open Government Beth Noveck.

It’s all well and good to talk about IT reform, shared IT infrastructure and services, APIs etc, but who’s going to manage all of this cool digital stuff for the long-term? And where will the funding (or RE-funding) come from to keep Data.gov afloat in order to manage all of the APIs? In an era where GPO’s FY2012 request for $6million to fund continuing development of their Federal Digital System (FDsys) is met with $0 funding by the House and only slightly less catastrophic $500,000 by the Senate, talk is all well and good. Digital infrastructure and services, and more importantly the staff to manage them, costs $$ — arguably much more $$ than distribution and preservation of paper collections in the FDLP. We need a government and politicians who won’t short-change open government and transparency. We need them and the public to realize that “online” does NOT equal “free beer” but “free kittens!”

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