Making Government Suck Less

Editor’s note: U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R) has represented California’s 49th Congressional District in the House of Representatives since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellIssa.

On June 11, 2012, I went all in on open. That day, I traveled to the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) in New York City to launch the OpenGov Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to developing and deploying technology solutions to help people participate in their governments. But a tool is only as good as the problem it solves, and we face a massive problem. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is only a symptom. Government doesn’t understand the Internet, how it works and the awesome power its networked users wield to disrupt almost anything – especially politics itself.

My job as Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is to innovate government and hold it accountable to taxpayers. Reform is inherently disruptive, and often demands speaking unpleasant truths to the powerful in Washington. That’s why, just before taking the stage at the PDF, I announced contempt charges against Attorney General Eric Holder for stonewalling the investigation of Operation Fast and Furious. A shocking contrast? To some in the crowd, probably. But since joining the fight to stop SOPA in Congress, I’ve had many head-spinning days like this.

Far from foreshadowing the Mayan apocalypse, my seemingly strange partnerships – and countless others forged in the fight to keep the web open – mean something else. Internet users can fundamentally disrupt government. You already have. And if a conservative congressman like me can join with geeks of all political persuasions to rewrite the special interest Hollywood script, we can forge an alliance to protect an open Internet, support economic freedom and secure smarter self-governance.

People deserve nothing less. They deserve the ability to create what they want, share what they want and live how they want, online and off. Personal freedom and individual liberty are what’s at stake here, and why the SOPA scuffle exploded into a cyber world war. As an engineer, entrepreneur and California congressman, I’m contributing what skills and resources I have to win this fight. I even joined the Internet Defense League, cat signal and all. But we can do far more than stop bad ideas from wrecking the web. I firmly believe that our brief tech-powered alliance can grow into a durable movement that consistently contributes to better policy, defends fundamental rights and ultimately empowers individuals to build more open, accountable and participatory governments here in the United States and around the globe. Or, to paraphrase Alexis Ohanian, we can seize this moment to make government suck less.

Just as everyone helped take down SOPA, everyone can contribute to the continuing movement. How? I neither have all the answers nor harbor any illusions about the human attention span. But I’ve been in the thick of this fight for years, as a technophile, tech entrepreneur and tech policy-maker. I hope my perspective can advance the conversation about what each of us can do – within our own distributed networks and together – to keep the web open and create a more accountable, transparent and digital democracy.

Congress: First, do no harm. Second, do no harm. Third, see points one and two. As Larry Downes points out, Washington can never catch up with Moore’s Law. It shouldn’t try. When I launched my start-up, all I wanted was the ability to invest and invent with as little government interference as possible. Congress may best serve the public at this point by letting a growing sector of our economy grow, and leave it to consumers to decide what to create, share and use online without looming threats and regulations from federal bureaucrats.

Executive Branch: Like Congress, the Executive Branch often does best what it does least. However, Uncle Sam keeps pushing bad policies like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, keeps wrapping startups in regulatory red tape, and keeps established digital job creators locked up in litigation. If it can’t be helpful, the Executive Branch can create a space for collaboration to happen and cooperation to gel by taking a break from relentless interference.

Big Tech: Thirty years ago, virtually every big tech job creator was either a small startup or didn’t yet exist. Today, they appear to many in government as little more than the next big industry to tax and regulate into line. No one knows how wrongheaded this is better than the job creators themselves. They can contribute not only their cutting-edge code and platforms to the movement, but their success stories, too. What conditions made Google possible? How did Facebook make the leap from a dorm room to an IPO? Or Apple the jump from a garage to the most valuable company in the history of the world? These are fundamentally American success stories that non-geeks can relate to and champion. In hearing them, one learns of the promise of innovation, of the principles undergirding the Internet and of the perils of government interference. With battles raging over software patents and intellectual property portfolios, I believe this is something every established tech company can do. In our endeavor, the stories behind the new products and new way of doing business are just as important as the products themselves.

Startups: Free of the hassles that accompany size, startups have the opportunity to be bold and to venture into new territory where incumbent technologies dare not tread. That freedom of action is priceless fuel for economic growth and is by definition disruptive. That’s exactly what startups can contribute: outside-the-box approaches to society-wide problems. As those problems increasingly come from government action or negligence, entrepreneurs are setting their sights on solutions, often using the effluence of government itself – data. Civic startups seeded by Code for America, for example, are proving the good things entrepreneurs can do with the data government can’t or won’t touch, while still doing well on the business side. And it’s catching on: more than 235 civic startups applied for Code for America’s first civic accelerator program announced in June 2012. “Technology is making it possible to fundamentally reframe the function of government in a way that can actually scale by strengthening civil society,” said Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka in a recent TED talk. Exactly.

Developers and Hacktivists: In the military, sergeants ensure orders are executed. Coders and developers are the sergeants here, making useful tools and embodying the collaborative ethos we seek to embed in government. “Software allows you to stand on the shoulders of everyone who came before you,” said Ohanian recently. “It’s so unbelievably inspiring when you realize, holy [crap], I can build that.” Isn’t that what America is about? Citizens inherit the code in the Constitution, build their own American dream on top and share in the responsibility to solve today’s national challenges. We open sourced the Madison Project and launched OpenGov in this spirit, standing proudly on the shoulders (and code) of civic hacktivists who came before. Coders, your country needs you. This movement needs you. And I challenge you to contribute to an open government software project or organization working in your community. If you do, please share it with me on Twitter. Code for America and OpenGov are just two of the many places in the United States and around the world where your skills can make a difference right now.

You: America is built on the principle that government at every level should be of the people, by the people and for the people. When elected leaders or career bureaucrats forget that, the people remind them through regular elections. But policy like SOPA happens between elections, when individuals have few accountability options. No more. The Internet has given incredible power back to the people, letting them access government information and act on it – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Father of the Constitution James Madison understood this, writing, “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” Believe me, when you started harnessing networks to guard against threats to the Internet we know and love, it surprised and frightened many of my colleagues in Congress. Every tweet, every meme, every email counted, quickly eroding support for SOPA and the Protect IP Act, then hastening their demise.

The ruckus did play a large part in forcing Washington to shelve its plans to hyper regulate the Internet. But it worked because you knew the issue inside and out, in most cases far better than elected officials and their staff. Imagine channeling all that collected knowledge into building up good policy rather than merely tearing down the bad. Our movement must do exactly that. For the same tools and networks used to alert, organize and act against threats can also be used to develop policies that enhance and protect those rights. From our Madison Project to the flourishing digital democracy in Estonia and new platforms like CrunchGov, it’s clear that better policy is possible through public, online collaboration; however, without individuals sharing their time and their expertise, all attempts at crowdsourced government will fail. Like any other Internet community, success depends on users both casual and contributing. Be a user. Find a place in government that needs your expertise and give it. When you log on and become a citizen legislator, you’re not just taking a stand against unaccountable government. You’re taking a stand for a government that listens, cooperates and improves.

That is what our Founding Fathers fought so hard to create. That is why we came together to stop these bad backroom bills to protect a free and open Internet. And that is why everyone, in our own way, has something to contribute to the movement to make government suck less.