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U.S. Government Now on the Technology Bandwagon

June 4, 2009

U.S. Government Now on the Technology Bandwagon

Whether you agree with their politics or not (and for the most part, I do not), you still have to hand it to the Obama Administration when it comes to employing modern technologies to meet political goals. Case in point: His masterful speech, "A New Beginning," delivered at 1 pm in Cairo today (6 am Eastern time). Designed to reach out to the Muslim world as a whole, and to begin a serious dialogue toward more and better cooperation with the West, in this speech Mr. Obama touched on all the major issues that have divided the Muslim world from the West for decades, including extremist violence, nuclear proliferation, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, women's rights, religious tolerance, democracy, and even modernity itself. If you haven't yet watched his speech in its entirety, it is well worth the 55 minutes required, and you can easily find it online (or click here for full video and transcript).

I was particularly struck by Mr. Obama's admonition to the Palestinians that violence is not just wrong, but unhelpful in reaching their own legitimate goal of securing a homeland. After all, he said, despite centuries of slavery and segregation, what finally brought equal rights to blacks in America was not violence, but nonviolent resistance - and the same result has occurred in other conflicts as well, from the end of Apartheid in South Africa to India's independence from the British. Settling the Palestinian conflict is not likely to be easy in any case, but at least nonviolent resistance on the Palestinians' part would immediately claim for them the moral high ground.

Mr. Obama's appeal for women's' rights in the Muslim world was also poignantly argued. Women's rights may actually prove one of the more difficult cultural obstacles to overcome in many parts of the Muslim world, but he said that educating girls and giving them the same kinds of opportunities as boys is not just a moral duty, but an economically productive one. History shows that societies that don't educate women have lower productivity, and lower standards of living as a result. Summarizing this view, he said "Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons, and our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity - men and women - to reach their full potential." This is something that Martha and I constantly advocate, as well - not just for political systems, but for companies and businesses, as well. And with better and better technologies connecting all people electronically, there is even more reason to embrace the view that society will get more prosperous as more educated viewpoints are heard.

But I digress. The point of this blog post is that to circulate this speech more widely and to seek comment and support for these principles, the White House is employing social media and online technology like no government has ever done before. They are providing free text messaging of key points from the speech in a variety of languages including not just Arabic, but Pashtun and Urdu. They are seeking comments and feedback on Twitter and Facebook. They have, in a word, pulled out all the social media stops, and BRAVO to them for doing this!

Now imagine what would be possible if the White House were to lead the way in posting upcoming legislation and regulations on public Web sites for all to see, as well. The Obama campaign had promised to do this for the initial stimulus bill last January. They originally said they would post the whole bill online so that everyone could look at what was being proposed, but in the end the Democratic Congress rammed it through after making it available to the Republican minority in a paper version only, and completely blocking the public's access. The result is that even today there are few people, Democrats or Republicans, who doubt that a lot of shamefully wasteful pork got into that bill.

But technology is definitely coming. And democracy will win out in the end over pork barrels and horse trading. Already, there are privately owned Web sites that offer to make government data more widely available and even to use social media tools to ensure that this kind of information is sorted, presented, and used in the most expeditious, efficient - and democratic - manner. Our friend Bob Runge, formerly of Broadvision and Pivotal, has just told us he has launched one of these sites, www.socrata.com. I took a tour and registered on it. Well worth a visit, if you get the chance. Lots of super interesting facts and stats.



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