This post is aimed at one of my personal heroes, Professor Lawrence Lessig.
First, I want to thank you for all the work you’ve done already to spread awareness about ‘Net Neutrality,’ the need for Intellectual Property reform, ‘Free Culture’ and so on. Your name comes up often as I do my part to help to change the way people think about the ownership of ideas and/or culture, no doubt because many of my thoughts on these matters are derivatives of yours. And finally, as an artist, thank you for helping me to see past my own possessive instincts, and to understand that my creative efforts are best honored if I aim for my work to become part of the Public Domain, because it is there that I can really contribute to the shape of our culture in the future. So thank you. Please keep up the good work.
It occurred to me that you may be the perfect person to spearhead the solving of a problem our government has -a small problem with major consequences. Before I go on though, I just want to urge you not to take this letter the wrong way. I don’t mean to imply that you need people like me to help you to choose your battles. But I know of no one else in the public eye that is such an advocate for the people, and who also seems to understand the implications of digital communication via the Web. You are the only public figure I can think of that generally seems to take the people’s side in all the domains where this issue manifests itself: The need for transparency in government; The need for people to be able to navigate the law to some degree without the aid of lawyers; The importance and potential of the [Read/Write] Web, especially with regard to how it can and does make our Democracy more democratic; etc… You actually seem to understand what the Web is and why it is important, and I fear that many or most of our legislators, judges and executives do not. This is why I’m writing to you.
The problem is that government websites generally lack consistency, search-ability, interactivity and general user-friendliness. On the surface, this may seem to many people like a minor problem. But from my point of view, it is one of the most important manifestations of how our government doesn’t work for the average person. This is a huge opportunity to improve how our democracy works for us.
Here are some of my thoughts on this.
1. Government websites generally have no interoperability between them. It seems to me that government websites should share a common information infrastructure as well as a common basic user interface and query system. If I am looking for information on something like a law on one government site, like say a county, I should be able to expand my search to include less local results, like say the state I am in, or narrow my search to only include more local results, like the City I am in. I think that government sites should be hierachically connected wherever possible to say the very least.
In general, I think it is time for all official government agency websites to become integrated.
2. Government websites do not routinely take advantage of technologies that make it easy for us to get new information from them. With technologies like RSS and iCal, it seems that citizens should be able to access regular updates from all the government agencies that concern them. We should be able to anonymously subscribe to feeds of governmental news, events, changes in policy, Etc. Example: “Effective today: All automobiles must have headlights turned on when it is raining regardless of the time of day. See Vehicle Code XYZ Section abc.”
3. By allowing existing laws to be un-findable, our government excludes us from even being able to understand what we have supposedly agreed upon through a democratic process.
For instance, on many occasions, I have tried to find out the specifics of one law or another. I have gone to my City, County and State government websites hoping for my question to be answered by a quick search, but instead, I’ve found myself hours later with a ton of windows open still trying to figure out the answer to a specific question like “Is [somehting] against the law?”
Again, to some people this may seem like a trivial complaint, but how in the world are we supposed to be law-abiding citizens if we cannot even be sure what the laws are? I believe that most people, in most communities in the USA have a very vague understanding of what is and isn’t legal. To many of us, The Law acts like some sort of urban mythology. We have no idea what the law actually says, and we cannot find the law if we want to learn what it actually says.
I have even had conversations with law enforcement officers in which the officers assured me that I “Can’t do” something, but were unable to tell me what the law says, where it says it, whether it is a local, state or federal law that is in question, or where I could even begin to look to find out for myself. This is scary to me.
I understand that Laws themselves are often confusing to lay persons. But I don’t understand why it is so hard to even find Laws in the first place. We have the technology to vastly improve this situation. It must be improved.
4 . Government websites generally have no place for public discussion or comment. There is also generally no universal protocol for asking the government(s) questions through the Web. Really, there is practically no way to reliably get facts about policy from government agencies in general. Since we clearly have the technology to make it possible for citizens to interact with and get information from government agencies, while keeping the expense to taxpayers very low, shouldn’t this be imperative?
So those are some of my main ideas about the digital government interface. Perhaps it is time for it to become written into law that certain standards and improvements are implemented on all government websites. Indeed, if there are already legally binding standards in place for government websites, they need to be vastly improved.
If technologies like RSS along with Semantic Web technologies were taken advantage of by government agencies, they could lead to vast improvements in our ability to understand and take part in our democracy.
Mr. Lessig, I wanted to write this to you because I don’t know where else to turn with these ideas. I hope you get this, and if you do, I hope you understand why I wrote this to you, rather than, say, The President or Santa Clause.
Of course, I am more than willing to help with this cause in any way that I can.
Andrew A. Peterson