If a present-day version of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg was looking for a way to easily release important confidential information, he might find himself drawn to Posterous or its micro-blogging/lifestreaming competitor, Tumblr. These services have the potential to offer a new level of simplicity for releasing government information, and help open up the closed doors of Congress.
Beyond becoming tools for leaking information, experts also say these new platforms, which are easy to use and encourage brevity, could help change the way government communicates with citizens.
Mark Drapeau, co-chair of the Gov 2.0 Expo and adjunct professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, suggested recently that government agencies could use Posterous to open up government in significant ways.
“Good information can be hard to find…New media technologies like Posterous blogs don’t directly change that, but if they become a ‘gateway page’ for getting people interested in a topic and then driving them to the ‘hardcore stuff’ on a .gov website, then that’s a huge indirect value,” Drapeau wrote in an email.
As an example, Drapeau suggested that when a lengthy jobs report is released on a .gov website, someone from the Bureau of Labor Statistics should blog about it in a short, casual post of roughly 500 words. That could inspire curiosity, which would cause people to follow a link to the more detailed report.
“It’s a marketing tool and it’s a community relations tool as well,” Drapeau said.
The Promise of Posterous
The simple email-to-blog-post functionality of Posterous is making it an increasingly popular tool for people. (While Tumblr also offers email posting functionality and limited auto-posting features, the ability to sync Posterous directly to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and other accounts gives it a clear edge, according to Jennifer Van Grove.*)
“You can do more than a tweet and get out more information, and there is no delay in that happening,” said Jennifer Van Grove, associate editor of the widely read social media blog Mashable.
Van Grove recently wrote a thorough comparison of Tumblr and Posterous. She suggested that while Tumblr’s web interface is “killer,” it is the ease of sending an email to publish on Posterous that makes the service truly innovative.
“I’ll take a picture and just email it to my Posterous account, which takes literally 10 seconds and it is already up,” Van Grove said in a phone interview. “And, it will auto-post out to Twitter and Facebook … [there is] a potential for an instant mass communication.”
Government IT teams have their hands full, thanks to the rapid pace of new media innovation. They can’t make all of the latest, greatest tools and services available internally, which can hamper transparency efforts. But the availability of these outside services can help continue the march toward government openness and transparency, whether IT teams and policymakers like it or not.
Government Could be Educational
Clay Johnson is director of Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on government transparency. He said that government IT teams aren’t able to control what employees can and can’t use.
“New stuff gets invented everyday,” Johnson said. “It seems like things [such as the blocking of certain websites] are fairly easy to circumvent.”
Johnson suggested that government agencies should take a more proactive approach if they don’t want sensitive information published on blogs.
“The government would be in a better spot if it were being educational rather than being restrictive,” Johnson said. “If you educate rather than restrict, I think they’ll have better results.”
Johnson praised Posterous and Tumblr as “cheap and easy” in comparison to websites like recovery.gov, which was designed to communicate how stimulus funds are being spent. That site cost about $9.5 million to create. Johnson said simple blogging platforms are best used to inspire participation and collaboration with government.
A Different View
David Moore, executive director of the Participatory Politics Foundation said in a phone interview that commercial services like Tumblr offer the illusion of transparency and engagement with government, but they are not a good solution for the long term.
The Participatory Politics Foundation, with help from the Sunlight Foundation, created OpenCongress, an open-source website that aggregates government data and provides news coverage, blog posts and commenting functionality. Moore suggested that it’s a good thing for government agencies to dabble in new media technologies, but it’s dangerous for them to get entrenched in them because these services are not truly open.
“They look really great at first and you say, ‘Okay now the government is getting involved, they are out where people are,’” Moore said. “What’s necessary is that government always publishes their source data first in ways that are fully compliant with fully open principles. Then after that, they can delve into social networking tools and blogging platforms like Tumblr.”
Moore views Posterous and Tumblr as “walled gardens,” and is skeptical of any footprint government agencies establish in closed proprietary services.
“As a society, we don’t want to have to rely on the Pentagon Papers model of keeping the government accountable,” Moore said. “If you were designing a system, no one would say that having someone leak something is ideal. Rather, if you step back and redesign how government can and should work in the 21st century, people would say that all public data be released publicly and from a primary source…so that they can give their feedback throughout the process.”
*Editor’s Note: The sentence comparing the email-to-blog-post functionality of Posterous and Tumblr was added on December 15 in order to provide additional context, and to respond to this comment.
Steven Davy is a freelance journalist, and freelance radio reporter/producer. He regularly covers the defense industry and security related issues for UPI. Additionally he hosts a current affairs news magazine radio show called the Nonchalant Café Hour which broadcasts live in Kalamazoo, Mich. Steven is a second year graduate student at Michigan State University in the School of Journalism.