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My.Gov: How Obama Can Use the Net to Improve Government

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President-elect Obama promised during his campaign to create a “Google for government.” Now that he’s on his way to the White House, let’s imagine what this might look like, and how such a tool could change the way people relate to those tasked with running our country. The first image this phrase brings to mind is some sort of search engine that would allow citizens to see what the government is doing, especially how it’s spending money. While useful, it’s not enough, as it lacks a key element: a personalized front end for government services. Think “Amazon for government,” where a vast array of products and data is personalized and displayed in simplified form. Many people view the government, the federal government specifically, as a remote entity that imposes taxes and provides little tangible benefit in return. There is an opportunity here to fundamentally alter the relationship between government and citizen to be more like that of a customer and vendor.

What I would like to see is, where I can go to get a snapshot view of government services I use or for which I am eligible. By way of comparison, consider banks, most of which now offer sophisticated web services that aggregate financial data from many sources (deposit accounts, credit cards, investments, mortgage, etc.) and display them on a financial dashboard.

What would a dashboard for government look like? It could include, among, other things:

  • A summary of your current social security account, projected benefits, etc. (you get one of these in the mail each year, no reason the same data can’t be delivered via web)
  • Your IRS account, including a summary of what’s been paid in, contact information for your account rep, links to online filing forms, etc.
  • Stats about recent projects funded in your vicinity, so you can see how federal funds are being spent in your area.
  • Stats such as treasury bond yields and a current balance sheet for the government as a whole.
  • Votes by your elected officials in Congress, compared against other districts, averages, etc.
  • White House decisions or court rulings
  • Support for RSS and other push/alert mechanisms

The point is that given the right tools, you could build a portal that provides you with personalized information about government services you are enrolled in and mandates and rulings that affect you by pulling in data from various systems behind the scenes. It might start out with just a few pieces of info, but could be expanded over time. The key is personalization, with an emphasis on customer service, so users visit frequently.

In the long run, the goal should be to build something that is a cross between Amazon (s amzn) (for viewing and managing government services) and Google (s amzn) (for finding and managing information, such as funded projects in your district). Whether they be average citizens or those whose job it is to track the government, the idea is to build an interface that makes government more transparent and more like a vendor or service provider, rather than a faceless abyss for taxpayer dollars

This practice of aggregating information from many sources and providing tools for personalizing a site to meet individual needs is old hat for those of us in the web industry. The Obama administration would do well to commission people from companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and others to draw up wireframes of what could be, as well as a strategy for building a first-generation version of it. My guess is that, if allowed to experiment, a skunkworks team could build an impressive site in not much time. After all, Silicon Valley’s leading companies and sites were built using paltry amounts of money and on far more limited timeframes compared to federal projects (the Dept. of Homeland Security, for example).

The most important benefit of such a system, apart from improving accessibility and customer service, would be to recast the relationship between taxpayer and government. If the user can see direct relationships between taxes paid in, and services provided or benefits delivered to his or her community, it will become clear that government is not as wasteful as it may first seem, and that it does many things that most people are unaware of.

I think we’re entering a period of great change, one comparable to that of FDR. It would be a great thing if we could apply what we’ve learned from the past decade in web commerce to build similar interfaces for government services and statistics. The result for us as taxpayers — more transparency and better service — would be a win for everyone involved.

15 Responses to “My.Gov: How Obama Can Use the Net to Improve Government”

  1. @Mark,

    The point of ‘’ would be to enable citizens to easily interact with and better understand government as it relates to them and their community. The majority of the government’s budget goes toward entitlement programs and services that the public interacts with (roads, air traffic control, etc). If people can understand what services are delivered to them, their community, etc, they’ll have a better understand of what the government actually does.

    Of course there is waste in government, and of course, politicians make bad decisions, but most people do not want to make a full time job out of mining for pork barrel projects. That’s for the press and non-government organizations to do, and they’re already pretty good at digging for information. Also, the private sector can no longer hold itself up as holier than thou, not after the financial services industry successfully destroyed trillions of dollars in shareholder wealth.

  2. Mark Carbone

    Brian – what experience do you have to make this comment – –

    Your last part of the article where you said, we’ll now see where our money is going and we’ll see how good government is

    My thought is that this is great news, Google Government, because it’s finally going to expose all the waste in government

    What research do you do? Did you even go over the first page of the bailout. 450+ pages. Only a few pages were about quality needs that benefited the people. The rest was waste and pork. If we as tax payers knew about what they added to that bill it never would have passed.

  3. I spent three years in government working as a website manager and can assure you that you’re not the only thinking of a I think the solution would be to partner with someone like Google or Yahoo to bring together publicly available information in a nice front-end. In the beginning, this page could be comprised of your elected reps, post office, weather, a calendar and government-funded projects near you. Much of this information is already available in RSS format (see so it shouldn’t be too difficult.

    Bear in mind, however, that government sites are subject to strict privacy and security regulations, such as a ban on cookies. I wrote about some of the barriers to web 2.0 in government on my blog:

  4. Two items from my wishlist:
    1. I would like to be able to click on any “public” asset on Google Maps, say a park, and would like to get a breakdown of where the funding came from for this asset and where the maintenance funds are coming from
    2. I would like to be able to get a maps-based annotated version of the entire budget of any county, city, state etc.

  5. Dave Goulden

    Great post. I agree with everything you said, but would add one more key piece of functionality. would have social features like blog posts, forums, groups, and friends.

    This stuff was really well done on the Obama campaign site and made a big difference for getting people involved. The features would make the site more insteresting to “customers” and provide a feedback mechanism for goverment.

    Imagine all the great data that could be mined on public opinion, plus providing the ability to be vocal on issues we care about.

  6. I’ve actually founded a startup on this very principle – I would like to see all information regarding government (federal, state AND local) and it’s activities exposed and centralized. I’ve already scraped together data on the federal and state levels. I’m now working to integrate the local data as well. I wouldn’t hope for the government to do anything substantial in this area (although I hope they do). It will probably be up to the private sector and companies like mine to really make a profound impact.

    Jason Kiesel
    Founder & CEO
    Freedom Speaks LLC