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Some Washington Bureaucrats Are Adopting The Tech Tools Of Silicon Valley

Open-source tools for writing software collaboratively have long been used by technology startups. Now, some tech-savvy federal bureaucrats are using them to offer a more transparent way for the public to weigh in on proposed government policies.

As the Sunlight Foundation recently noted, the White House and some of its executive agencies are using GitHub — a code-sharing website and collaborative software tool — to solicit public feedback on their internal guidelines. If that proves to be an effective way to increase citizen participation, agencies could improve the arcane process of soliciting comments on full-blown regulations.

The federal agency spearheading this experiment is known by the carefully cool name of 18F, a division of the General Services Administration that is named for the Washington intersection where it is located. The agency, which grew out of the HealthCare.gov fiasco in October 2013, is charged with improving how Washington delivers digital services. 18F is unusual in that it operates like a Silicon Valley startup: It espouses an “agile” work philosophy, which among other things means solving problems by first creating a minimum viable product, and it uses open-source tools in all the technology it builds.

“Open source is not just about code,” said Gray Brooks, a senior architect at 18F.

This kind of software is free and often written collaboratively, and GitHub, with 9.4 million users,1 is the largest platform for open-source software projects in the world.2 (We at FiveThirtyEight use GitHub both for software development and to share data and code with our readers.)

The government most recently used it to improve the transparency of important technology legislation, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), which Congress passed as part of another bill in December. The measure overhauled how Washington selects, pays for and implements technology. 18F worked with the White House Office of Management and Budget, which drafted the FITARA policies, to post the government’s plans to implement the law. When readers click the “provide feedback” button, they are taken to GitHub.

“Normally we wouldn’t have had a public process,” said Matt Rumsey of the Sunlight Foundation, who has been tracking the government’s use of GitHub to enable greater transparency.

Normally public comment on government policies is collected through an arcane and cumbersome process after new regulations are published in the Federal Register. Few people know how to navigate it. (Though many dove in last year after John Oliver urged viewers of his HBO show to comment on the “net neutrality” regulation then being debated by the Federal Communications Commission. That segment, along with the efforts of other net-neutrality advocates, produced an avalanche of over 3 million public comments.)

“The normal process is to draft it in Word, circulate the document as an attachment and then solicit comments,” says Ben Balter, whose title at GitHub is government evangelist. “It takes months.”

For technology regulations, this notice-and-comment process seems particularly outdated.

The advantage of using GitHub to solicit comments is that it allows for inline editing and public tracking of revisions, showing who proposed which changes and who in the government accepted them. Balter and other GitHub enthusiasts say this will usher in more transparency to the opaque world of government rule-making.

GitHub itself takes some getting used to, but it is accessible to most computer users.

“For me, as a less technical person, once you get used to GitHub, it functions a lot like a message board,” said Rumsey, of the Sunlight Foundation. “A lot of people who are minimally technical have used a message board.”

GitHub isn’t the only platform for soliciting public comments. Some Washington agencies have used Genius, a collaborative annotation tool, for public feedback on bills.

The use of these platforms doesn’t guarantee greater civic participation, but it does provide a template for improving the slow notice-and-comment system. Could the federal rule-making process eventually migrate onto GitHub or a similar program? “Absolutely,” said Brooks, of 18F, because it “offers efficiencies and benefits relative to the formal model.”

By adopting open-source tools, Washington may become a little more open for citizens.

Footnotes

  1. This number was provided by Ben Balter of GitHub.

  2. GitHub is a business. Although it is free to host software publicly on GitHub, the site charges users for having private repositories. The underlying “version control” technology behind GitHub, called Git, is free and open source.

Andrew Flowers writes about economics and sports for FiveThirtyEight.

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