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Why we need a National CTO

About a year ago, one presidential candidate announced his plans for a Chief Technology Officer:
To ensure that every government agency is meeting 21st century standards, I will appoint the nation's first Chief Technology Officer to coordinate and make certain that we are always at the forefront of technology and that we are incorporating it into every decision that we make.


Right now there's a good deal of buzz about the who and why rather than the how .

Why good government needs good technology

Let's say you wanted to see on a senator's website what they think about the bailout, HR 1424.

Here's how it goes for me:
1) Find senator ( John Sununu at http://sununu.senate.gov/ )
2) Shucks, nothing on the front page, including October press releases.
3) Under "Issues" I find the critical issues he's taken on like "Internet Tax Ban", but no Economy.
4) Using Google, I find an unlinked "Finance" page which hasn't been updated since 2006. This has an old list of "Issues" - so he's not using competent web design.
5) Fail.

A geeky solution emerges

Let me introduce you to something called URL variables. Look at the address for this note, and you'll see a set of &variable=value pairs.
It's a very clear request to Facebook to deliver a specific page. But it has larger applications.

I should be able to link to his view on a bill like this:
http://sununu.senate.gov/bill.php?committee=finance&bill=hr1424&amendment=2

This gives Sununu's website several options. He can route my request to his generic Finance page. He can show specific comments he has on HR1424, or he can use the information to display Senate information on this bill and how he voted.
Also, the site could record that a voter wanted to know about HR-1424's Amendment 2. If enough people are asking, he better write something.
The staff has responses to these issues already. They could save a lot of time and money by posting them instead of mailing them out.

The system behind the Congress-querying sites should be made public under a free software license. This will allow state and local governments to adopt the technology without expense.

And there you have it. No glitz, no magic, no sparkle. Just functionality.

But... why care?
The NRA and ACLU and every other political organization in between does care. Students on assignments and researchers for the news care. It's frustrating when you can't find out how your Senator voted or what the bill says. It's scary when a commercial attacks a candidate's vote, and you have no idea how to check.

Side note: every bill should be available online before voting so that it can be picked apart. It should also be possible to link directly to specific paragraphs in each bill and amendment. What Google has done for books, I demand for Congressional bills.

For true participatory government, for online activism and information to truly let us into the halls of government, we need a simple REST-based system to respond automagically to citizen's queries.