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Will the GOP Embrace Innovation and Transparency? Will the GOP Embrace Innovation and Transparency?

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CONGRESS

Will the GOP Embrace Innovation and Transparency?

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John Boehner.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

For correspondents who follow the application of Web 2.0 technologies to government, commonly described as Gov 2.0, the past two years have been a whirlwind of change. The Obama administration's use of technology in the 2008 campaign and subsequent upgrades to the White House's communication strategies have been receiving attention for years, whether it's the use of YouTube, Twitter, the redesigned Whitehouse.gov, or mobile applications.

Sweeping election gains for Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections, however, will shape the way technology is used in government for years to come, and not just in the executive branch. That makes sense. After all, government transparency has been a key issue for Republicans for years as a means of identifying waste and corruption, and ensuring a more accountable government.

The use of information technology as a means for greater government transparency has a legacy that goes back many years, at least to the founding of Thomas.gov by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.

Republicans have a history of advocating for more open government, including support for C-SPAN, new models of communications, and, more recently, rapid adoption of social media by candidates and elected representatives alike.

While some of the Obama administration's open government programs could receive more scrutiny from House committees in the new Congress, it's more likely that challenging the implementation of health care or financial legislation will be a priority. What is clear is that the new Republican House will bring an updated version of open government to Congress, along with substantial new media prowess. While it seems as if every new Speaker makes substantial promises to use technology and transparency in new ways, House Republicans can already point to ways they've done just that, including asking for feedback on the America Speaking Out platform and YouCut, where users can suggest and vote for government programs they wish to be cut from the federal budget. The agenda that's been put forward to date by leading Republicans like incoming Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has the potential to increase the use of technology in enforcing congressional transparency.

"Let Americans read bills before they are brought to a vote," wrote Boehner in a Wall Street Journal op-ed after Election Day entitled "What the Next Speaker Must Do." Boehner wrote, "The speaker of the House should not allow any bill to come to a vote that has not been posted publicly online for at least three days. Members of Congress and the American people must have the opportunity to read it."

There's bipartisan support for this idea, and if the new House establishes that benchmark for transparency, it would be a win for open government in Congress.

Open standards may also play a part in the new Congress, given the signals that Issa and others have sent in recent weeks.

In an October Washington Examiner op-ed, Issa argued that technology is key to achieving transparency in government. "Better transparency will enable voters, media, and watchdog groups to hold the bureaucracy accountable," he wrote.

Issa, who is set to become chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, indicated on election night that he intends to help the president do his job better, not bring down the office. Supporting the transparency that the White House has talked about -- with extended use of XBRL and other open data standards -- would be a step in the right direction. Cost-cutting around IT programs may well be a point of focus, as it has already been for federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra and chief performance officer Jeffrey Zients. It's in these areas that the administration and House Republicans may find the most common ground -- if the White House and congressional leadership can find a way to cooperate.

As the dust settles after the election, the White House and Congress are still faced with the same problems that existed before: high unemployment, wars abroad, rising costs for health care and energy, aging infrastructure, lagging STEM skills in education, and historic lows in trust for government institutions themselves. The election of Tea Party candidates who campaigned on deficit issues and smaller government platforms shows that there is a hunger for finding ways to halt the growth of spending and doing more with less.

While the history of Congress encourages skepticism when it comes to bold talk of technology-fueled reform, there's also good reason to think that House Republicans can do something about it. The rules of the House give substantial powers to the ruling party to self-regulate, which may make it easier for the GOP to apply new technology to open government in the House than it will be for the Obama administration to implement the Open Government Directive over the next year. That makes this open government story one to watch, perhaps from the comfort of your tablet PC.

Alexander B. Howard (@digiphile) is the Government 2.0 Washington Correspondent for O'Reilly Media, where he reports on technology, open government and online civics.

 
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