Why is this important? Part 1: To me, it’s about reaching for an ideal

John asks the deep question, what are we really doing here? Why is Open House so important to many of us, and why should it be important to our elected representatives? It’s important to first separate out our specific recommendations from the overall goals. Whether you agree or not with the recommendation for Congress to stream all of its hearings on the Web, or whether CRS reports should be made generally public, we hope that we can find the common ground that transparency in government is, generally speaking, a good thing.

I’m not sure why transparency is so important to me. In part, probably I’m clinging to an idealization of our government taught to me as a kid. No taxation without representation, the creation of a new government by and for the public, and founding mandates for openness in government, such as (as I know now) the Constitutional provision for the Congressional Record and the early creation of the Government Printing Office to inform the public about what laws were being enacted. According to this rosy picture, among the few principles our government is based on is the ability for the public to know enough about our government to be able to competently choose their representatives.

But I’m no history buff, and the idealized picture is probably just that. Maybe the founding fathers cared less about representation and more about ending taxation (one of my dad’s favorite factoids), and more about helping their friends in the printing industry than printing for the public’s benefit

And, for all I know, I would be a happier person if I didn’t have access to the information I do about Congress (not because Congress is depressing, but for instance because life would be that much simpler). The public of the late 1700s may have, overall, known less about their government than I do of ours today, since information moved much slower then, and they seemed to get by just fine. It’s hard to argue why transparency should be a good thing, since it’s not at all clear that transparency really benefits anyone, except for transparency’s sake.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with striving toward those idealized principles of living under an open government. Given the choice, I would prefer to live in a country with an open, honest government, even if that meant I would be less happy.

So why is Open House so important to me? It’s about reaching for an ideal that I think many others share, and it’s about putting ourselves out there, as either technologists like myself or politics experts like others in our group, as a resource to policy makers about what the Congress can do to move closer to that ideal by using information technology. We want policy makers to use us. Yes, we’ve assembled some two dozen or so discrete recommendations that we think are good starting points (see our report for details, of course), but more importantly we want to start a renewed dialog. So if you’re a policy maker that shares these ideals, please use us and we can help you use technology to realize some of those goals. (And if you’re wondering how to use us, please see our contact information on our Press page.)

(I’m going on a short trip, but when I get back I’ll have a Part 2 to this post on a more concrete level, addressing the utility of the recommendations I helped draft.)

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