Obama’s Commencement Speech Revisited

Last Sunday, President Obama addressed Ohio State’s Class of 2013 thusly:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.

Cool speech, wasn’t it?  Here’s a quick rundown of some of the big headlines over the last week:

  1. The Administration messed up in Benghazi – and ABC news showed they directly lied to the American people about the root cause of the attack.
  2. The IRS specifically and deliberately targeted the President’s political foes during the 2012 election cycle.
  3. The Obama Justice Department snagged phone records – both professional and personal – for AP reporters.  They didn’t say why.


Sorry, Cletus, “open government” is closed to you

Amid the celebration of the President’s as-yet-unproven open government initiative this week came the concept of a tool for government to “elicit expert citizen participation.” From TechPresident:

Rather than throwing the doors open to public participation, the wisdom here is that crowdsourcing platforms can be targeted and nuanced enough to extract very high quality input from a select group of people.

If the “ExpertNet” program actually happens (it’s still in the early development stages), it would strike a bit of a blow against the concept of open government.  Though it could expand participation for certain citizens, the message to most people seems to be to keep your mouths shut and let the smart people take care of the country.

But, like any communication from the voters  that finds its way to a government agency, much depends on the person opening the mail.  So even if all citizens are allowed to participate, the pencil-pusher will separate the grain from the chaff.  At the risk of sounding cynical, bureaucrats (whether left or right) will consider the opinions they agree with to be more “expert.”

As for the other side… why would anyone need to hear from those slack-jawed yokels?

YouCut makes you Kevin Kline and Charles Grodin

Rep. Eric Cantor and House Republicans have drawn criticism from both left and right for their YouCut program, which lets citizens vote to eliminate wasteful government programs.  The word “gimmick” is tossed around by both sides – as if bumper stickers, lawn signs, and other efforts to earn political support aren’t gimmicks – while making the point that the cuts proposed wouldn’t trim federal spending by all that much.

But in the GOP’s defense, this is about continuing the message that the Republicans are the party of smaller government.  There’s no better case against the concept of government spending than to point out the most egregious and unnecessary examples.

Plus, as it turns out, this is a pretty good way to build and maintain a strong list of activists.

Twit-story: The Library of Congress vs. Google Replay

The Library of Congress will collect and store the full volume of Twitter for “scholarly and research purposes.” Twitter is psyched because it’s another demonstration of legitimacy:

It is our pleasure to donate access to the entire archive of public Tweets to the Library of Congress for preservation and research. It’s very exciting that tweets are becoming part of history. It should be noted that there are some specifics regarding this arrangement. Only after a six-month delay can the Tweets will be used for internal library use, for non-commercial research, public display by the library itself, and preservation.

As evidenced by events like the Iranian election protests, Twitter users can act as documentarians of history as it happens.  The Library of Congress’s recognition of this is another sign that Twitter has grown up a bit; the timing couldn’t be better, coming just a couple days after they announced their advertising model.

For the vast majority of Twitter’s data, this announcement is really a non-story – after all, there’s nothing stopping anyone from visiting Twitter and accessing all public tweets.  What about accounts that have been deleted, though?  And what about the accounts that get deleted after the Library of Congress makes an official historical record of them?

Buried in Twitter’s blog post is a much “friendlier” strategy for making Tweets a part of history: Google’s Replay service, which allows users to revisit moments in history and watch events unfold through Twitter and other online media.

As with most announcements, the difference lies in the semantics.  Google Replay would pinpoint specific times and issues – in other words, it would gravitate toward tweets which were sent with the idea that they were for public consumption.  The idea of Twitter turning over a hard drive full of information to a government office may be no different in practice or outcome, but it sounds a lot creepier.  Suddenly, you may find yourself perusing your own Twitter feed to see if you have anything to worry about.  A better announcement might have been a joint release by Twitter, Google, and the Library of Congress discussing a way to incorporate publicly broadcast real-time updates into research.  It might have looked like a tool on the Library’s website, powered by Google.

The nature of Twitter makes this a minor issue, but it isn’t the only place that history is recorded in real time.   Facebook and Google Buzz have both incorporated elements to mimic Twitter’s free-flowing stream-of-consciousness format.  That means they’re just as potentially attractive to the Library of Congress as part of the “historical record” – even though their data is decidedly more sensitive.

Freedom of Informa…

Last week, Big Government covered the exposure of US Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin’s personal contact list through Google Buzz.  Though many Gmail users had the same problem, McLaughlin’s personal electronic Rolodex was embarrassing because it contained people potentially affected by the policies he was in charge of.  Because of this, Consumer Watchdog filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

And then the information was gone.  Left in its place are some tough questions about data on government computers – and whether or not that qualifies as government data.  Does Google have to release any data they have on McLuahglin?  He may have deleted his Google Buzz account, but does Google have that information backed up somewhere?

Situations like this make it clear why last week some of the biggest names in technology called on the federal government to establish strict protections on personal data.  They don’t want to be forced to reveal your personal data because then it will become obvious just how much of your data they have.

Salary Capitol

Politico reports this morning that almost 2,000 folks working in House offices on Capitol Hill make six figures a year – and that doesn’t include the House Members themselves.  That’s a small slice of the folks working on the Hill, so it’s not like working in Congress automatically means you’re big pimpin’ and/or spendin’ cheese.  But the explanation from the Chief Administrative Office is somewhat amusing (emphasis added):

“Staff are compensated appropriately according to their skill sets, length of career within the CAO … and in direct relation to the salary grade similar professional credentials could achieve in the executive branch or in the private sector in a major metropolitan area like Washington, D.C.,” said CAO spokesman Jeff Ventura. “Salaries are designed to retain the talent necessary to successfully maintain operations of the House of Representatives.”

Sometimes design doesn’t equal results.  Not to say that the folks making this money don’t deserve it – considering they frequently work 20-hour days, spend lots of time away from their families, and have to be on call nearly 24 hours a day.  But finding “the talent necessary to successful maintain” Congress isn’t a matter of salary – it’s a matter of votes.

Transparent as Mud

The President fielded a question last night that revealed more about the failed expectations than any admissions that health care may not pass by August.  Obama had to duck a tough question from his hometown Chicago Tribune about the lack of transparency in the health care reform process.  It isn’t a new question, either – the President has broken promises to allow public review of pending legislation as well as struggled to maintain a website where citizens could track government spending.

The developing pattern is not good, and looks worse because the President is setting himself up with expectations which are tough to reach.  At best he looks naive; at worst corrupt.