U.S. government launches online traffic analytics dashboard for federal websites

There are roughly 1,361 .gov domains* operated by the executive branch of the United States federal government, 700-800 of which are live and in active use. Today, for the first time, the public can see how many people are visiting 300 executive branch government domains in real-time, including every cabinet department, by visiting analytics.usa.gov.

According to a post on the White House blog, the United States Digital Service “will use the data from the Digital Analytics Program to focus our digital service teams on the services that matter most to the American people, and analyze how much progress we are making. The Dashboard will help government agencies understand how people find, access, and use government services online to better serve the public – all while protecting privacy.  The program does not track individuals. It anonymizes the IP addresses of all visitors and then uses the resulting information in the aggregate.”

On Thursday morning, March 19th, tax-related services, weather, and immigration status are all popular. Notably, there’s an e-petition on the White House WeThePeople platform listed as well, adding data-driven transparency to what’s popular there right now.
analytics_usa_gov___The_US_government_s_web_traffic_

Former United States deputy chief technology officer Nick Sinai is excited about seeing the Web analytics data opened up online. Writing for the Harvard Shorenstein Center, where he is currently a fellow, Sinai adds some context for the new feature:

“Making government web performance open follows the digital services playbook from the new U.S. Digital Services,” he wrote. “Using data to drive decisions and defaulting to open are important strategies for building simple and useful citizen-facing digital services. Teal-time and historical government web performance is another example of how open government data holds the promise of improving government accountability and rebuilding trust in government.”

Here’s what the U.S. digital services team says they’ve already learned from analyzing this data:

Here’s what we’ve already learned from the data:

  • Our services must work well on all devices. Over the past 90 days, 33% all traffic to our sites came from people using phones and tablets. Over the same period last year, the number was 24%. Most of this growth came from an increase in mobile traffic. Every year, building digital services that work well on small screens becomes more important.
  • Seasonal services and unexpected events can cause surges in traffic. As you might expect, tax season is a busy time for the IRS. This is reflected in visits to pages on IRS.gov, which have more than tripled in the past 90 days compared with the previous quarter. Other jumps in traffic are less easy to predict. For example, a recently-announced settlement between AT&T and the Federal Trade Commissiongenerated a large increase in visits to the FTC’s website. Shortly after the settlement was announced, FTC.gov had four times more visitors than the same period in the previous year. These fluctuations underscore the importance of flexibility in the way we deploy our services so that we can scale our web hosting to support surges in traffic as well as save money when our sites are less busy.
  • Most people access our sites using newer web browsers. How do we improve digital services for everyone when not all web browsers work the same way? The data tells us that the percentage of people accessing our sites using outdated browsers is declining steadily. As users adopt newer web browsers, we can build services that use modern features and spend less time and money building services that work on outdated browsers. This change will also allow us to take advantage of features found in modern browsers that make it easier to build services that work well for Americans with disabilities, who access digital services using specialized devices such as screen readers.

If you have ideas, feedback or questions, the team behind the dashboard is working in the open on Github.

Over the coming months, we will encourage more sites to join the Digital Analytics Program, and we’ll include more information and insights about traffic to government sites with the same open source development process we used to create the Dashboard. If you have ideas for the project, or want to help improve it, let us know by contributing to the project on GitHub or emailing digitalgov@gsa.gov.

That last bit is notable; as its true all of the projects that 18F works on, this analytics dashboard is open source software.

There are some interesting additional details in 18F’s blog post on how the analytics dashbard was built, including the estimate that it took place “over the course of 2-3 weeks” with usability testing at a “local civic hacking meetup.”

First, that big number is made from HTML and D3, a Javascript library, that downloads and render the data. Using open standards means it renders well across browsers and mobile devices.

Second, 18F made an open source tool to manage the data reporting process called “analytics-reporter” that downloads Google Analytics reports and transforms that data into JSON.

Hopefully, in the years ahead, the American people will see more than the traffic to .gov websites: they’ll see concrete performance metrics like those displayed for the digital services the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Services team publishes at gov.uk/performance, including uptime, completion rate and satisfaction rate.

In the future, if the public can see the performance of Heathcare.gov, including glitches, or other government digital services, perhaps the people building and operating them will have more accountability for uptime and quality of service.

[FAQ] How do I download a tax transcript from IRS.gov?

UPDATE: This service was taken offline after IRS security was compromised.

irs-transcriptIn January 2014, the IRS quietly introduced a new feature at IRS.gov that enabled Americans to download their tax transcript over the Internet. Previously, filers could request a copy of the transcript (not the full return) but had to wait 5-10 business days to receive it in the mail. For people who needed more rapid access for applications, the delay could be critical.

What’s a tax transcript?

It’s a list of the line items that you entered onto your federal tax return (Form 1040), as it was originally filed to the IRS.

Wait, we couldn’t already download a transcript like this in 2014?

Nope. Previously, filers could request a copy of the transcript (not the full return) but they would have to wait 5-10 business days to receive it in the mail.

Why did this happen now?

The introduction of the IRS feature coincided with a major Department of Education event focused on opening up such data. A U.S. Treasury official said that the administration was doing that to make it “easier for student borrowers to access tax records he or she might need to submit loan applications or grant applications.”

Why would someone want their tax transcript?

As the IRS itself says, “IRS transcripts are often used to validate income and tax filing status for mortgage applications, student and small business loan applications, and during tax preparation.” It’s pretty useful.

OK, so what do I do to download my transcript?

Visit “get transcript” and register online. You’ll find that the process is very similar to setting up online access for a bank accounts. You’ll need to choose a pass phrase, pass image and security questions, and then answer a series of questions about your life, like where you’ve lived. If you write them down, store them somewhere safe and secure offline, perhaps with your birth certificate and other sensitive documents.

Wait, what? That sounds like a lot of of private information.

True, but remember: the IRS already has a lot of private data about you. These questions are designed to prevent someone else from setting up a fake account on your behalf and stealing it from them. If you’re uncomfortable with answering these questions, you can request a print version of your transcript. To do so, you’ll need to enter your Social Security number, data of birth and street address online. If you’re still uncomfortable doing so, you can visit or contact the IRS in person.

So is this safe?

It’s probably about as safe as doing online banking. Virtually nothing you do online is without risk. Make sure you 1) go to the right website 2) connect securely and 3) protect the transcript, just as you would paper tax records. Here’s what the IRS told me about their online security:

“The IRS has made good progress on oversight and enhanced security controls in the area of information technology. With state-of-the-art technology as the foundation for our portal (e.g. irs.gov), we continue to focus on protecting the PII of all taxpayers when communicating with the IRS.

However, security is a two-way street with both the IRS and users needing to take steps for a secure experience. On our end, our security is comparable to leaders in private industry.

Our IRS2GO app has successfully completed a security assessment and received approval to launch by our cybersecurity organization after being scanned for weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Any personally identifiable information (PII) or sensitive information transmitted to the IRS through IRS2Go for refund status or tax record requests uses secure communication channels that meet or exceed federal requirements for encryption. No PII is passed back to the taxpayer through IRS2GO and no PII is stored on the smartphone by the application.

When using our popular “Where’s My Refund?” application, taxpayers may notice just a few of our security measures. The URL for Where’s My Refund? begins with https. Just like in private industry, the “s” is a key indicator that a web user should notice indicating you are in a “secure session.” Taxpayers may also notice our message that we recommend they close their browser when finished accessing your refund status.

As we become a more mobile society and able to link to the internet while we’re on the go, we remind taxpayers to take precautions to protect themselves from being victimized, including using secure networks, firewalls, virus protection and other safeguards.

We always recommend taxpayers check with the Federal Trade Commission for the latest on reporting incidents of identity theft. You can find more information on our website, including tips if you believe you have become the victim of identity theft.”

What do I do with the transcript?

If you download tax transcripts or personal health information to a mobile device, laptop, tablet or desktop, install passcodes and full disk encryption, where available, on every machine its on. Leaving your files unprotected on computers connected to the Internet is like leaving the door to your house unlocked with your tax returns and medical records on the kitchen table.

I got an email from the IRS that asks me to email them personal information to access my transcript. Is this OK?

Nope! Don’t do it: it’s not them. The new functionality will likely inspire criminals to create mockups of the government website that look similar and then send phishing emails to consumers, urging them to “log in” to fake websites. You should know that IRS “does not send out unsolicited e-mails asking for personal information.” If you receive such an email, consider reporting the phishing to the IRS. Start at www.irs.gov/Individuals/Get-Transcript every time.

I tried to download my transcript but it didn’t work. What the heck?

You’re not alone. I had trouble using an Apple computer. Others have had technical issues as well.

Here’s what the IRS told me: “As a web application Get Transcript is supported on most modern OS/browser combinations. While there may be intermittent issues due to certain end-user configurations, IRS has not implemented any restrictions against certain browsers or operating systems. We are continuing to work open issues as they are identified and validated.”

A side note: For the best user experience, taxpayers may want to try up-to-date versions of Internet Explorer and a supported version of Microsoft Windows; however, that is certainly not a requirement.)”

What does that mean, in practice? That not all modern OS/browser combinations are supported, potentially including OS X and Android, that the IRS digital staff knows it — although they aren’t informing IRS.gov users regarding what versions of IE, Windows or other browsers/operating systems are presently supported and what is not — and are working to improve.

Unfortunately, ongoing security issues with Internet Explorer means that in 2014, we have the uncomfortable situation where the Department of Homeland Security is recommending that people avoid using Internet Explorer while the IRS recommends that its customers choose it for the “best experience.”

Given the comments from frustrated users, the IRS could and should do better on all counts.

Will I be able to file my tax return directly to the government through IRS.gov now?

You can already file your federal tax return online. According to the IRS, almost 120 million people used IRS e-file last year.

Well, OK, but shouldn’t having a user account and years of returns make it easier to file without a return at all?

It could. As you may know, other countries already have “return-free filing,” where a taxpayer can go online, login and access a pre-populated tax return, see what the government estimates her or she owes, make any necessary adjustments, and file.

Wait, that sounds pretty good. Why doesn’t the USA have return-free filing yet?

Yes, it does. As ProPublica reported last year, “the concept has been around for decades and has been endorsed by both President Ronald Reagan and a campaigning PresidentObama.”

As ProPublica reported last year, both H&R Block and Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, have lobbied against free and simple tax filing in Washington, given that it’s in their economic self-interest to do so:

In its latest annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, however, Intuit also says that free government tax preparation presents a risk to its business. Roughly 25 million Americans used TurboTax last year, and a recent GAO analysis said the software accounted for more than half of individual returns filed electronically. TurboTax products and services made up 35 percent of Intuit’s $4.2 billion in total revenues last year. Versions of TurboTax for individuals and small businesses range inprice from free to $150.

What are the chances return-free filing could be on IRS.gov soon?

Hard to say, but the IRS told me that something that sounds like a precursor to return-free filing is on the table.  According to the agency, “the IRS is considering a number of new proposals that may become a part of the online services roadmap some time in the future. This may include a taxpayer account where up to date status could be securely reviewed by the account owner.”

Creating the ability for people to establish secure access to IRS.gov to review and download tax transcripts is a big step in that direction. Whether the IRS takes any more steps  soon is more of a political and policy question than a technical one, although the details of the latter matter.  

Is the federal government offering other services like this for other agencies or personal data?

The Obama administration has been steadily modernizing government technology, although progress has been uneven across agencies. While the woes of Healthcare.gov attracted a lot of attention, many federal agencies have improved how they deliver services over the Internet. One of the themes of the administration’s digital government approach is “smart disclosure,” a form of targeted transparency in which people are offered the opportunity to download their own data, or data about them, from government or commercial services. The Blue Button is an example of this approach that has the potential to scale nationally.

Lawmakers release proposed draft to codify US CTO role, create U.S. Digital Government Office (DGO)

After months of discussion regarding how the government can avoid another healthcare.gov debacle, legislative proposals are starting to emerge in Washington. Last year, FITARA gathered steam before running into a legislative impasse. Today, a new draft bill introduced for discussion in the United House of Representatives proposes specific reforms that substantially parallel those made by the United Kingdom after a similar technology debacle in its National Health Service.

The draft bill is embedded below.

The subtext for the ‘Reforming Federal Procurement of Information Technology Act’ (RFP-IT), is the newfound awareness in Congress and the nation at large driven by the issues with Healthcare.gov that something is profoundly amiss in the way that the federal government buys, builds and maintains technology.

“Studies show that 94 percent of major government IT projects between 2003 and 2012 came in over budget, behind schedule, or failed completely, said Representative Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA), ranking member of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, and co-sponsor of RFP-IT, in a statement. “In an $80 billion sector of our federal government’s budget, this is an absolutely unacceptable waste of taxpayer dollars. Furthermore, thousands of pages of procurement regulations discourage small innovative businesses from even attempting to navigate the rules. Our draft bill puts proven best practices to work by instituting a White House office of IT procurement and gives all American innovators a fair shake at competing for valuable federal IT contracts by lowering the burden of entry.”

Specifically, RFP-IT would:

  • Make the position of the U.S. chief technology officer and Presidential Innovation Fellows program permanent
  • Create a U.S. Digital Government Office (DGO) that would not only govern the country’s mammoth federal information technology project portfolio more effectively but actively build and maintain aspects of it
  • Increase the size of a contract for IT services allowable under the Small Business Act from $100,000 to $500,000
  • Create a U.S. DGO fund supported by 5% of the fees collected by executive agencies for various types of contracts

“In the 21st century, effective governance is inextricably linked with how well government leverages technology to serve its citizens,” said Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA), ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee, and co-sponsor of RFP-IT, in a statement. “Despite incremental improvements in federal IT management over the years, the bottom line is that large-scale federal IT program failures continue to waste taxpayers’ dollars, while jeopardizing our Nation’s ability to carry out fundamental constitutional responsibilities, from conducting a census to securing our borders. Our RFP-IT discussion draft recognizes that transforming how the federal government procures critical IT assets will likely require bolstering ongoing efforts to comprehensively strengthen general federal IT management practices with targeted enhancements that promote innovative and bold procurement strategies from the White House on down.”

The legislative proposal earned qualified praise from Clay Johnson, former Presidential Innovation Fellow and CEO of the Department for Better Technology, whose advocacy for reforming government IT procurement and fixing the issues behind Healthcare.gov seemed to be on every cable news channel and editorial page last fall and winter.

“This, I think, really works well alongside FITARA, which calls for increased agency CIO authority,” wrote Johnson. “What will hopefully end up happening if both bills pass, is that good talent can get inside of government, and agencies that perform well can operate independently, and agencies that don’t can be pulled back in and reformed, while still having operational continuity (meaning: while that reform is happening, IT projects can still be done well, and run by the DGO).”

In 2014, digital government supports open government. What’s unclear is whether this proposal from two Democratic lawmakers can gain a Republican co-sponsor in the GOP-controlled legislative body or if a federal IT reform-minded Senator like Mr. Carper or Mr. Booker will take it up in the Senate.

This is singular bill isn’t a panacea, however, Johnson emphasized, pointing to the need to fix SAM.gov, the error-prone website for contractors to register with the federal government, and reforms to registration for “set-aside” business.

“We’re not sure how Congress writes a ‘stop throwing errors when a user clicks submit on sam.gov’ law,” wrote Johnson. “That’s going to take hearings, and most likely, a digital government office to fix. And we think this is a bill that complements Issa’s FITARA. Since this bill is at the discussion draft stage, perhaps soon we’ll see some Republicans jump on board.

UPDATE:
On July 30, RFP-IT was officially introduced. (Full text of the bill, via Rep. Eshoo’s office): “The Reforming Federal Procurement of Information Technology (RFP-IT) Act, introduced by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), Ranking Member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Ranking Member of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee, Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), Chairman of the Small Business Subcommittee on Contracting and Workforce, and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Ranking Member of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Energy Subcommittee, and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.)”

Here’s the quick summary of revised RFP-IT Act:

1) It would officially establish a Digital Government Office within the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), with the U.S. CIO at its head as a Senate-confirmed presidential appointee, reporting to the head of the OMB, shifting from “electronic government” to “digital government.”
2) It would codify the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.
3) It would expand competition for federal IT contracting under a simplified process that would ease the regulatory and compliance burden upon smaller companies bidding, bumping the threshold for information tech projects up to $500,000.
4) Establish a digital service pilot program
5) Direct the General Services Administrator to conduct an in-depth analysis of IT Schedule 70.
6) Direct the Comptroller General of the United States to produce three reports to Congress within 2 years of the law passing, on 1) the effectiveness of the 18F program of the General Services Administration, 2) IT Schedule 70, and 3) “challenges and barriers to entry for small business technology firms.”

IRS enables Americans to download their tax transcripts over the Internet

UPDATE: This service was taken offline after IRS security was compromised.

UPDATE: Learn how to download your tax transcript from IRS.gov.

button_online_transcript

Earlier today, at the White House Education Datapalooza, an official from the United States Department of the Treasury informed a packed theater and livestream that students, parents and citizens would finally be able to do something simple and profoundly useful over the Internet: download a transcript of their tax return from the Internal Revenue Service.

“I am very excited to announce that the IRS has just launched, this week, a transcript application which will give taxpayers the ability to view, print, and download tax transcripts,” said Katherine Sydor, a policy advisor in the Office of Consumer Policy of the Treasury, “making it easier for student borrowers to access tax records he or she might need to submit loan applications or grant applications.” [VIDEO]

Previously, filers could request a copy of the transcript (not the full return) but would have to wait 5-10 business days to receive it in the mail. For people who needed more rapid access for applications, the delay could be critical. A White House fact sheet subsequently confirmed the news, under the rubric of “streamlining application paperwork,” and a quick follow up with an official secured the correct URL for the new IRS Web application to get a tax transcript.

irs-transcript

I created an account, which involved jumping through the  hoops familiar from establishing online access bank accounts — choosing pass phrase, pass image and security questions — and then answered a number of questions that made it pretty clear that the IRS knew exactly who I was and where I had lived. (It’s not clear whether they hold this information or used a credit bureau, from the consumer-side.)

When I tried to actually download the transcript, though, I ran into some issues: first, a browser error in Chrome — “This XML file does not appear to have any style information associated with it. The document tree is shown below.” Using Firefox, however, I was able to at least get the page where I could choose from various years of transcripts.

irs-transcript-purposes

Unfortunately, clicking any of the links delivered a file that my Macbook was unable to parse. I was, however, able to log into IRS.gov and easily download last year’s tax return with one click to my iPhone. Success!

While the technical problems I ran into suggest that Apple computer users might run into some issues, I have a funny feeling that (the vast majority) of people who are running Internet Explorer on a Windows machine will fare better.

The fact that American citizens could not access their own tax returns online in 2014 might seem jarring but, until this week, that was the status quo. This advance represents the sort of somewhat mundane but important shift that the Obama administration’s approach to digital government have enabled over the past five years.

While the troubles behind the botched launch of Healthcare.gov have shaken the confidence of many citizens in the capacity of this administration to deliver effective digital services and months of headlines about digital surveillance by the National Security Agency have diminished trust in government overall, the ability of the “tech surge” to fix the site and the success of the technology team at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau not only offers a guide for how to avoid similar issues but highlights a less salacious and boring reality that will generate no headlines nor heated rhetoric on cable news shows: most public officials and civil servants are quietly working to deliver better customer service for citizens.

Being able to download a tax transcript online is not, however, without risks. The Internal Revenue Service will need to continue to be vigilant about security. The new functionality will almost certainly inspire fraudsters to create mockups of the government website that look similar and then send phishing emails to consumers, urging them to “log in” to fake websites.

Perhaps most problematically, people will download tax transcripts to mobile devices and laptops and then not take steps to protect them with encryption. If you do download your transcripts or personal health information, make sure to also install full disk encryption on every machine you own. Leaving your files unprotected there is like leaving the door to your house unlocked with your tax returns and medical records on the kitchen table.

I have asked the IRS for comment on the new feature, browser and operating system and security guidance and will update this post if and when I receive any.

Update: comment from the IRS on follows.

How much time and technical resources did the IRS invest in deploying the feature? Has the IRS increased the capacity of the website for more demand?

From establishing the business case and receiving funding plus approval to start the work to implementation took approximately one year. Additional time was spent in ideation, innovation, and confirming requirements of the product prior to receiving approval.

I had trouble downloading my transcript on an Apple computer using Chrome and Firefox. (I was able to get it through my iPhone.) What browsers and operating systems does the new function officially support?

As a web application, Get Transcript is supported on most modern OS/browser combinations. While there may be intermittent issues due to certain end-user configurations, IRS has not implemented any restrictions against certain browsers or operating systems. We are continuing to work open issues as they are identified and validated.

A side note: For the best user experience, taxpayers may want to try up-to-date versions of internet explorer and a supported version of Microsoft windows; however, that is certainly not a requirement.)

Does the IRS have any guidance for ensuring that Americans connect securely to the website and then protect tax returns on their home computers once they have downloaded them?

The IRS has made good progress on oversight and enhanced security controls in the area of information technology. With state-of-the-art technology as the foundation for our portal (e.g. irs.gov), we continue to focus on protecting the PII of all taxpayers when communicating with the IRS.

However, security is a two-way street with both the IRS and users needing to take steps for a secure experience. On our end, our security is comparable to leaders in private industry.

Our IRS2GO app has successfully completed a security assessment and received approval to launch by our cybersecurity organization after being scanned for weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Any personally identifiable information (PII) or sensitive information transmitted to the IRS through IRS2Go for refund status or tax record requests uses secure communication channels that meet or exceed federal requirements for encryption. No PII is passed back to the taxpayer through IRS2GO and no PII is stored on the smartphone by the application.

When using our popular Where’s My Refund? application, taxpayers may notice just a few of our security measures. The URL for Where’s My Refund? begins with https. Just like in private industry, the “s” is a key indicator that a web user should notice indicating you are in a “secure session.” Taxpayers may also notice our message that we recommend they close their browser when finished accessing your refund status.

As we become a more mobile society and able to link to the internet while we’re on the go, we remind taxpayers to take precautions to protect themselves from being victimized, including using secure networks, firewalls, virus protection and other safeguards.

We always recommend taxpayers check with the Federal Trade Commission for the latest on reporting incidents of identity theft. You can find more information on our website, including tips if you believe you have become the victim of identity theft.

Does the IRS have any plans to provide Americans with access or insight to estimated tax returns online in the future? Now that we have the ability to establish user accounts, would it ever be possible, for instance, for people with simple taxes (1040EZ, etc) to log in, review an estimated return, make any required edits, and then e-file it on IRS.gov?

IRS: The IRS is considering a number of new proposals that may become a part of the online services roadmap some time in the future. This may include a taxpayer account where up to date status could be securely reviewed by the account owner.

Note: This post has been updated throughout to make it clear that the IRS has provided online access to tax transcripts, not the entire return. You can read up on the difference between a tax transcript and tax return here.

When digital government supports open government

photo (17)

As I looked back at the annual Open Government Partnership Summit in London, I was struck by how much technology continues to dominate discussion, particularly when many of the issues that confront people and governments around the world are political or systemic, and thus resistant to simply “fixes.”

Given that so many of the new country commitments for the partnership either involve improving the use of technology or are enabled by technology, it’s tempting to frame the release of government data and other digital efforts as efforts that will primarily serve elites, not the poor, and to warn of the encroachment of commercial interests in that delivery.

The years ahead will be messy, full of anger, violence, ignorance and the worst of human nature, expressed in political conflicts and entrenched institutions and industries fighting against a rising tide of populism and industrial disruption fueled by an explosion of connection technologies.

Near the end of 2013, the majority of humanity is living through the consequences of wars, natural disasters, disease, food shortages or inequality in access to resources. On many days, access to healthy food, electricity and clean water are critical needs. Access to information, however, has rapidly become critical in this new millennium.

That such information will be delivered through the Internet and mobile devices is clearly one of the megatrends of this decade. Similarly, access to one another through those same devices, mediated by social media and video, is shifting how we all can understand, document and experience the world.

While 56% of American adults now own a smartphone, the rest of the world hasn’t hasn’t caught up yet. That’s changing quickly, however, as the cost of mobile hardware continues to drop. There have now been over 1 billion Android activations worldwide. As cheaper smartphones and tablets become available, and more wireless Internet access rolls out through ISPs, mesh networks and perhaps even Google blimps, the pressure to provide digital services will only increase.

Why all the hullabaloo? Isn’t this just “e-government redux,” with phones? It would also be a gross mistake to view digital government as simply rebranding or scaling the existing approaches to buying, building and maintaining government IT.

Unfortunately, the bad news here is that government technology around the world is dominated by regulations, tangled hiring practices and procurement policies that get in the way of building important software, along with politics and poor management. The good news is that the example of the United Kingdom’s new Government Digital Services team shows a potential way forward for building a digital core for 21st century government online.

Adopting a digital government strategy is not the same as moving to a system of government more open and accountable to the people, as a comparison of the democratic accountability in countries as diverse as Singapore, Denmark, Iran and Brazil demonstrate.

Given that technology can and will underpin many efforts to reduce corruption, improve accountability and empower citizen activism and public engagement, dismissing the importance of public-private partnerships or digital government initiatives as inherently “ephemeral” would be a mistake in this young century.

Russia withdraws from Open Government Partnership. Too much transparency? [UPDATED]

russia-OGP

“Inevitably, there will be questions about what we are each prepared to sign up to,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron in January, in his letter to his fellow G8 leaders. For months later, Russia has made clear it clear what it wasn’t willing to sign onto: the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The most recent update on Russia is that the Kremlin will be pursuing “open government” on its own terms. Russia has withdrawn the letter of intent that it submitted on April 2012 in Brazil, at the first annual meeting of the Open Government Partnership.

Update: On May 23, The Moscow Times reported that Russia had just “postponed” its entry into OGP. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian daily newspaper Kommersant that “we are not talking about winding up plans to join, but corrections in timing and the scale of participation are possible.” Open government advocate  David Eaves interprets this state of affairs to mean A) “transparency matters” and B) that “Russia may still be in OGP. Just not soon. And maybe never.” For now, Russia has withdrawn its letter of intent to join the Open Government Partnership and with that action, its commitments to transparency. OGP itself has  “adjusted” its website to reflect the change, which is to say that the former page for Russia can no longer be found. So what will open government mean in the largest country in the world? Read on.

If the dominant binary of the 21st century is between open and closed, Russia looks more interested in opting towards more controllable, technocratic options that involve discretionary data releases instead of an independent judiciary or freedom of assembly or the press.

One of the challenges of the Open Government Partnership has always been the criteria that a country had to pass to join and then continue to be a member. Russia’s inclusion in OGP instantly raised eyebrows, doubts and fears last April, given rampant corruption in the public sector and Russia’s terrible record on press freedom.

“Russia’s withdrawal from the OGP is an important reminder that open government isn’t easy or politically simple,” said Nathaniel Heller, executive director of Global Integrity. “While we don’t yet fully understand why Russia is leaving OGP, it’s safe to assume that the powers that be in the Kremlin decided that it was untenable to give reformers elsewhere in the Russian government the freedom to advance the open government agenda within the bureaucracy.”

The choices of Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, who had publicly supported joining the OGP and made open government a principle of his government, may well have been called into question by Russia’s powerful president, Vladimir Putin.

Medvedev had been signaling a move towards adopting more comfortable sorts of “openness” for some time, leading up to and following Russia joining the Open Government Partnership in December 2012. Russia’s prime minister has sought to position himself as a reformer on the world stage, making a pitch at Davis for Russia being “open for business” earlier this year at the Davos economic forum. Adopting substantive open government reforms could well make a difference with respect to foreign investors concerns about corruption and governance.

While the Kremlin shows few signs of loosening its iron grip on national security and defense secrets, Russia faces the same need to modernize to meet the increasing demand of its citizens for online services as every developed nation.

Even if Russia may not be continue its membership in the Open Government Partnership, the Russian government’s version of “openness” may endure, at least with respect to federal, city and state IT systems. Over the winter, a version of “Open Government a la Russe” – in Cyrillic, большоеправительство or “big government” — seemed to accelerating at the national level and catching on in its capital. Maybe that will still happen, and Russion national action plan will go forward.

“While Russia’s approach to open government may be primarily technocratic, there’s a sense in which even the strongest legal requirements are only tools we give to our allies in governments,” said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunight Foundation. “FOI officers analyzing records, or judges deciding whether or not to enforce laws are embodying both legal and cultural realities when they determine how open a country will be, just as much as policy makers who determine which policies to pass. While Russia’s initial commitment to OGP was likely a surprising boon for internal champions for reform, its withdrawal will also serve as a demonstration of the difficulty of making a political commitment to openness there.”

What is more clear, however, is that the Kremlin seems much more interested the sort of “open government” that creates economic value, as opposed to sustaining independent auditors, press or civil society that’s required in functional democracies. Plutocracy and kleptrocacy doesn’t typically co-exist well open, democratic governments — or vice versa.

Given that the United States efforts on open government prominently feature the pursuit of similar value in releasing government data, Russia’s focus isn’t novel. In fact, “open data” is part of more than half of the plans of the participating countries in OGP, along with e-government reforms. In May of 2012, a presidential declaration directed governmental bodies to open up government data.

In February, Moscow launched an open data platform, at data.mos.ru, that supplied material for digital atlas of the city. Russia established an “open data council” the same month. Those steps forward could stand to benefit Russian citizens and bring some tangential benefits to transparency and accountability, if Russia and its cities can stomach the release of embarrassing data about spending, budgets or performance.

While some accounts of open government in Russia highlighted the potential of Russia to tap into new opportunities for innovation afforded by connected citizenry that exist around the world, crackdowns on civil society and transparency organizations have sorely tested the Russian government’s credibility on the issue. This trial of anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny for corruption this spring showed how far Russia has to go.

“Open government isn’t just open data nor is it e-government, two areas in which the Russian Federal had appeared to be willing to engage on the open government agenda,” said Heller. “Many observers doubted how far Russia could take open government in a climate of political repression, civil society crackdowns, and judicial abuse of power.”

Today’s news looks like a victory of conservatives in the Kremlin over government reformers interested in reducing corruption and adopting modern public sector management techniques. “We need to use modern technologies, crowd sourcing,” said Medvedev said in January 2013. “Those technologies change the status and enhance the legitimacy of decisions made in government.”

Changes in technology will undoubtedly influence Russia, as they will every country, albeit within the cultural and economic context of each. This withdrawal from OGP, however, may be a missed opportunity for civil society, at least with respect to losing a lever for reform, reduced corruption and institutions accountable to the people. Leaving the partnership suggests that Russia may be a bit scared of real transparency, or least the sort where the national government willing allows itself to be criticized by civil society and foreign non-governmental organizations.

It’s something of a mixed victory for the Open Government Partnership, too: getting to be a member and stay one means something, after all.

“For the Open Government Partnership, this will be seen as a bit of a blow to their progress, but its success was never predicated on getting every qualifying government to join,” said Wonderlich. “In a sense, Russia’s withdrawal may alleviate the need for OGP to grapple with Russia’s recent, severe treatment of NGOs there. More broadly, Russia’s withdrawal may better define the space in which the OGP mechanism can function well. Building a movement around commitments from heads of state has allowed OGP’s ranks to rapidly grow, but we’re also probably entering a new time for OGP, where the depth and reliability of those commitments will become clearer. Transitions between governments, domestic politics, corruption scandals, hypocritical behavior, uncooperative legislatures, exclusion of domestic NGOs, and internal power struggles may all threaten individual national commitments, and OGP will need to determine how to adapt to each of these challenges. OGP will need to determine whether it wants to be the arbiter of appropriate behavior on each of these dimensions, or whether its role is better left to the commitments and National Action Plans on which it was founded. ”

If OGP is to endure and have a meaningful impact on the world, its imprimatur has to have integrity and some weight of moral justice, based upon internationally shared norms on human rights and civil liberties. As press freedom goes, so to does open government and democracy.

“International boosters of open government may want to remain cautious at embracing open government reformers at the first whiff of ‘openness’ or rhetorical commitment to the agenda,” said Heller. “Within weeks of Russia first making noise around joining OGP, the World Bank and others rushed to assemble a major international conference in the country around open government to boost reformers inside the bureaucracy as they sought to move the country into OGP. While no one should criticize those efforts, they are a sobering reminder that initial rhetorical commitment to open government can only take us so far, and it’s wise to keep the political powder dry for other downstream fights.”

Given the scale of bribery and the impact of corruption on growth, Russians can only hope that more “openness” with teeth comes to their country soon.