Web-enabled transparency and feedback anticipate the future of Democracy
An alert and informed citizenry is an essential ingredient in any free and healthy nation. But are we well informed? Do we know enough about, say, how government spends our money? Do we have sufficient public forums to learn about and discuss the actions of our leaders? The design of new government websites shows that we are on our way to additional and more effective spaces for these activities. These sites suggest that standards of government accountability are developing quickly and along with, albeit a bit behind advances in web design.
Interfaces on the web strive to be intuitive. Usability experts and graphic designers work creatively to make sites like amazon.com easy to navigate and search. Designers also toil to ensure your bank’s website never crashes and that your blog displays comments. On the whole, web design and search technology have made leaps and bounds of progress for the private sector and personal expression in the last decade.
Now the government is taking a big step to utilize these advances for the public good. As many as 20 states, spurred by legislation sponsored in 2006 by then-senator Barack Obama and Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, have published government spending databases for public scrutiny. One shinning example is Missouri’s online Accountability Portal: its clean and thoughtful layout is simple to navigate and search. In a few seconds I found how much of the state budget for last year went to salaries, education, travel, and office equipment. In a few more clicks, I found the names of the suppliers for each of the expenditures and (some) details of their contracts.
A new federal website (recovery.gov) will go even further when it documents the spending on the economic stimulus plan currently working its way through Congress. According to the language of the plan, the website “shall provide a means for the public to give feedback on the performance of contracts awarded…” In other words, a new public space for comment on spending on a colossal scale not seen in decades is about to open. Our expectations of accountability and transparency will continue to grow. According to President Obama, the site represents an “unprecedented measure to root out waste.” When the site is actually up and working its ease of use, clarity, and richness of features may reveal the sincerity of this tall promise.
A key reason why easier access is important is that watchdog groups and political parties of all sizes must typical perform a lot of time-consuming legwork to obtain the hard data on things like who is awarded government contracts. This information then becomes a foundation of reformist agendas or calls for investigation. Although most of this information is available to the public by law, it is typically an arduous task to compile it, let alone post it online and then invite comment. Finally, this is changing and will enable more of us to learn and discuss where our hard-earned money is spent.
The decisions and designs now being made may help usher in a new era of participation, debate, and progress. In the true spirit of the adaptability built into our Constitution and respect for the sovereignty of citizens, the very existence of these sites is heartening. The degree to which they are well designed may signal how bright a future we can expect.