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GCN : March 2013
THE INTERNET RECENTLY was ablaze with a mixture of sorrow, anger and some extremism following the suicide earlier this year of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old Internet activist who helped develop the RSS specification and the social news site Red- dit, and who was charged with stealing millions of scholarly papers and other documents from MIT s network. In fact, O Reilly Media has released a free ebook en- titled, "Open Government" in Swartz s honor. For those out- side government, the ebook s proposals may sound nice, but for those inside government it is 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 are represented, and how hard people fight for their rice bowls? There are things citizens should do to transform government, but they will not come from a col- laborative 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 already available. 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 im- mediate, radical change and government s slow, cautious 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 wrote a chapter on transparency in the "Open Government" book. In turn, Swartz probably did not understand or appreciate the di culties in getting anything done in the government. The government has a huge legacy of laws, rules, policies and procedures that cannot be cast aside for expedience, and those layers of bureau- cratic "crust" often include the government s IT systems and policies. On the other hand, the government needs to bet- ter embrace its innovators and the change they wish to bring. The young "hacktivists" believe in being agile, adap- tive and having a "just do it" attitude, while the govern- ment develops Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems in MUMPS, the Next Genera- tion Air Tra c control system (NextGen) in Ada, and pays lip service to potentially transfor- mative technology like data. gov (a.k.a., open data) that Aaron Swartz was so passion- ate about. As someone who wrote major sections of the data.gov concept of operations and assisted agencies in their original submissions, I learned that the essence of transpar- ency is not the website --- it is inculcating the website into the information production process throughout the entire organization. And that is where the admirable concept of transparency 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 di culties and driving forces inside government organiza- tions, regular and repeatable transparency is just wishful thinking. So, what can the govern- ment do to bridge this gap? First, support your innova- tors. Innovation takes risk, and agency leaders 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. Second, be willing to jetti- son poor performers, bad sys- tems and outdated technology. The use of MUMPS (which dates to the 1960s) and Ada (which dates to the late 70s, though it has been updated) represents both a failure of leadership and a testament to inertia. When I graduated from NYU, the computer sci- ence department and profes- sors were big proponents of Ada with the GNAT compiler, but I still wouldn t recommend it as a strategic technology choice. Third, move faster! Yes, the young are impatient, but government is bloated, bu- reaucratic and stu ed with too many meetings, too many re- view boards and far too many sign-o s to satisfy citizens demand for change. We can bridge the gap between the young, brash activists and the government s slow, creaky wheels that propell a cautious, lawyerly bureaucracy. The answer lies in the uncomfortable middle- ground where leadership bal- ances the tension between in- novations and "that s the way we ve always done it." So, let s not forget Aaron Swartz, but let s not crucify the prosecu- tors. Instead, learn to bridge this divide... and fast! • --- Michael C. Daconta (mdaconta@incadencecorp. com) is the vice president of advanced technology at InCa- dence Strategic Solutions and the former metadata program manager for the Department of Homeland Security. AARON SWARTZ TRAGEDY UNDERSCORES REAL HURDLES TO OPEN GOVERNMENT GCN MARCH 2013 • GCN.COM 19 REALITY CHECK BY MICHAEL DACONTA The government needs to better embrace its innovators and the change they wish to bring.