Rock slowly moving across the desert floor

Aaron Swartz tragedy underscores real hurdles to open government

The Internet is figuratively ablaze with a mixture of sorrow, anger and some extremism following the suicide of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old Internet activist who helped develop the RSS specification and the social news site Reddit, and who was charged with stealing millions of scholarly papers and other documents from MIT’s network. 

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Aaron Swartz couldn't appreciate difficulties in getting anything done in #opengov. Tweet this.

"It is a bunch of Pollyanna nonsense that pretends people can 'hack' government as easily as they hack a website." Tweet this.

In fact, O’Reilly Media just released a free ebook entitled “Open Government” in honor of Swartz.  For those outside of government, that ebook’s proposals may sound nice, but for those inside of government it is a bunch of Pollyanna nonsense that pretends people can “hack” government as easily as they hack a website. 

Please.

Do you know how large the federal government is, how many organizations and people you are actually talking about, and how hard people fight for their rice bowls? There are things citizens should do to transform government but it will not come from a collaborative website or a virtual petition on Whitehouse.gov.

I will not rehash the case against Aaron Swartz and his tragic decision here, as there are many good accounts of it on the Internet. Instead, I want to add the perspective of a technologist who joined the government and learned a few things about “the system.” 

Specifically, I believe there is an inherent mismatch between young people who desire immediate, radical change and government’s slow, cautious, cover-your-behind mentality. In a nutshell, the government, or its pejorative, “the system,” could not adapt fast enough for Swartz, who campaigned against Internet censorship and who did write a chapter on transparency in the “Open Government” book. In turn, Swartz probably did not understand, nor appreciate, the difficulties in getting anything done in the government. 

The government has a huge legacy of laws, rules, policy and procedures that cannot be cast aside for expedience, and those layers of bureaucratic “cruft” often include the government’s IT systems and policies. On the other hand, the government needs to better embrace its innovators and the change they wish to bring.

The young “hacktivists” believe in being agile, adaptive and having a “just do it” attitude, while the government develops Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems in MUMPS,  the Next Generation Air Traffic control system (NextGen) in Ada, and pays lip service to potentially transformative technology like data.gov (a.k.a., open data) that Aaron Swartz was so passionate about. 

As someone who wrote major sections of the data.gov CONOPS (concept of operations) and assisted agencies in their original submissions, I learned that the essence of transparency is not the website — it is inculcating the website into the information production process throughout the entire organization. And that is where it falls apart. There is no money and no will for true, in-depth change on that front. You can publish all the ebooks you want, but until you understand the difficulties and driving forces inside government organizations, regular and repeatable transparency is just wishful thinking.

So, what can the government do to bridge this gap?

  • Support your innovators. Innovation takes risk, and leadership must allow managers to try new things and even fail without losing their careers. The bottom line is that when you see things getting done in government you can always point to a key leader, with “top cover,” who is the driving force.
  • Be willing to jettison poor performers, bad systems and out-dated technology. The use of MUMPS (which dates to the 1960s) and Ada (which dates to the late ‘70s, though it has been updated) is both a failure of leadership and a testament to inertia. When I graduated from NYU they were big proponents of Ada with the GNAT compiler, but I still wouldn’t recommend it as a strategic technology choice. 
  • Move faster! Yes, the young are impatient, but government is bloated, bureaucratic and stuffed with too many meetings, too many review boards and far too many sign-offs to satisfy our citizens’ demand for change.

We can bridge the gap between the young, brash activists and the government’s slow, creaky wheels of a cautious, lawyerly bureaucracy. The answer lies in the uncomfortable middle-ground where leadership balances the tension between innovations and “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”  So, let’s not forget Aaron Swartz, AND let's not crucify the prosecutors. Instead, learn to bridge this divide… and fast!

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