Can NewsGenius make annotated government documents more understandable?


Last year, Rap Genius launched News Genius to help decode current events. Today, the General Service Administration (GSA) announced that digital annotation service News Genius is now available to help decode federal government Web projects:

“The federal government can now unlock the collaborative “genius” of citizens and communities to make public services easier to access and understand with a new free social media platform launched by GSA today at the Federal #SocialGov Summit on Entrepreneurship and Small Business,” writes Justin Herman, federal social media manager.

“News Genius, an annotation wiki based on Rap Genius now featuring federal-friendly Terms of Service, allows users to enhance policies, regulations and other documents with in-depth explanations, background information and paths to more resources. In the hands of government managers it will improve public services through citizen feedback and plain language, and will reduce costs by delivering these benefits on a free platform that doesn’t require a contract.”

This could be a significant improvement in making complicated policy documents and regulations understandable to the governed. While plain writing is indispensable for open government and mandated by law and regulation, the practice isn’t exactly uniformly practiced in Washington.

If people can understand more about what a given policy, proposed rule or regulation actually says, they may well be more likely to participate in the process of revising it. We’ll see if people adopt the tool, but on balance, that sounds like a step ahead.

600-x-320-GSA-Mentor-Protege-Program-subpart-519-70-on-cell-phoneWhat could this look like? As Herman noted, Chicago’s SmartChicago Collaborative uses RapGenius to annotate municipal documents.

Another recent example comes from DOBTCO founder and CEO Clay Johnson, who memorably put RapGenius to good use last year decoding testimony on

The GSA’s first use is for a mentor-protege program.

Here’s hoping more subject matter experts start annotating.

[Image Credit: Huffington Post]

Plain writing is “indispensable” for open government

Obama confers with advisors before the Cairo speech

President Barack Obama confers about the Cairo speech with Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough, right, and speechwriter Ben Rhodes on Air Force One en route to Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Open government is not expressly defined as embracing technology, although it can and is be empowered by smart use of it. Last year, Cass Sunstein made plain language an essential part of open government.

Last week, Sunstein, who serves as the administrator of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, finalized his guidance for the use of plain language in government communication a core part of open government.

For those who have tried to make sense of complex rulemaking, regulations, official announcements or directives, the change will be welcome. For the average citizen trying to comply with them, it’s essential.

“Plain writing is indispensable” to achieving the goals of establishing “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration,” wrote Sunstein on the White House blog. “…far too often, agencies use confusing, technical, and acronym-filled language. Such language can cost consumers and small business owners precious time in their efforts to play by the rules.”

By July 13, 2011, federal agencies must:

  • designate a senior official oversee plain language
  • create and maintain a “plain writing section” of the agency website that is
    accessible from the agency homepage
  • train employees to use plain language

“Whenever officials provide information about Federal benefits and services, produce documents that are necessary for filing taxes, or offer notices or instructions to the public, they must now write clearly and concisely,” wrote Sunstein.

Will it matter? In measuring the progress of the Open Government Directive, implementation matters. It will be no different here, as changing the culture of government to plain language will never be a matter of installing “a better app for that.”

It was clear back in September that in the United States, open government remains in beta. A year after federal government agencies published their open government plans, the projects are starting to roll out, like the rebooted or NASA’s Open Source Summit. Compiling an Open Government Week in Review this month served as a useful reminder of how much is happening in this space.

As agencies update their progress on open government, however, the focus has often been upon new digital initiatives. Now they have a mission that has very little to do with technology and everything to do with better communicating the activities of government to citizens: adopt the Elements of Gov 2.0 Style.

Below is the full, finalized guidance. More information is available at
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