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Social Networking Sites May Be Model for the Government

The Obama administration has found some rough waters as it tries to navigate through Congress with a plan to reshape financial regulation.

[IMGCAP(1)]Plans to centralize authority and merge agencies like the Commodities Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission have foundered on Capitol Hill, not the least reason being turf jealousies among Congressional committees with jurisdiction over the different entities.

The turf wars in Congress are not the only reasons for a scaled-back reform plan. It is still not clear how much of the problem with the financial meltdown was caused by an inadequate regulatory structure, or how much a future meltdown could be headed off by a new one. At the same time, as Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service wrote in the Washington Post recently, reorganizations — shuffling the boxes around, or merging agencies — all have substantial costs and bring years or more of turmoil. That is true in public and private sectors; Exhibit A is the bloated Department of Homeland Security, still trying to pull more than 20 disparate agencies, offices and bureaus together, and responsible in large part for the Hurricane Katrina debacle.

Then there is the Congressional committee system itself. Overlapping jurisdictions and turf wars inside Congress hamper the ability to write good laws and oversee agencies. In the House, the Homeland Security Committee created after DHS was formed was set up to fail as a robust overseer; then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) stacked the panel with chairmen of the existing authorizing committees with pieces of the homeland security action, and they made sure the new committee would do nothing to challenge their jurisdictions. Jealousies and turf also meant that a full 88 committees and subcommittees claimed a piece of the homeland security action, and all demanded access to the secretary and deputy secretary, leaving them with precious little time to actually do their jobs.

Thus, the reform dilemma. For the executive branch, Congress may block for its own parochial reasons the constructive merger of agencies, but at the same time, such mergers or reorganizations have at least as many costs and short-term dangers as they do benefits. The alternatives in the past has been things like Cabinet Councils, awkward multi-agency committees that meet regularly or intermittently, with their success dependent as much on the schedules and personalities of the principals in the agencies as on the structures themselves, or czars, figures simply imposed at the top of multi-agency pyramids without much emphasis on lines of authority, accountability or communication.

For Congress, attempts to reorganize the committee system are doomed either to failure or modest and incremental change, even when prompted by sweeping executive reorganization. What to do? It is time to consider a different approach to governance across policy and issue lines — social networking.

One of the most successful innovations in government over the past five years has been Intellipedia, the 2004 idea of a CIA analyst named Calvin Andrus that has blossomed since its early, shaky beginnings. Intellipedia is a proprietary, Wikipedia-like system set up to enable 16 separate intelligence-related agencies, from the CIA to the FBI, the National Security Agency and various entities in the Department of Defense, to share information, data, theories, insights and ideas in an interactive fashion, and to edit the entries that are put onto the network. There are now tens of thousands of articles on Intellipedia, with hundreds added every week.

For the first time, the endemic problem of “stovepiping,— of agencies focusing laser-like and in proprietary fashion on their own bailiwicks, with no one inclined or able to integrate intelligence or ideas across the firmament, has been countered. Analysts who see something interesting or suspicious may find another piece of the puzzle on Intellipedia or may find someone in a completely different agency or place able to connect some dots or provide some useful and fresh perspective. At the same time, a piece of data uncovered by one analyst may be shot down by another, reducing the likelihood of dry holes or actions taken on the basis of faulty intelligence.

Of course, Intellipedia is far from perfect. Turf wars and jealousies in the agencies still exist; many analysts won’t use the network, and many agencies are developing their own models, re-creating the stovepiping phenomenon. Technology does not eliminate human nature or bureaucratic imperatives. But the intelligence social network has made a difference; had it existed in 2001, the information that the FBI had on incipient terrorists like Zacarias Moussaoui might have been shared with other agencies and averted catastrophe.

The Obama campaign made brilliant use of new technology and adapted social networking to build its formidable campaign machine. Now it has taken that spirit into the White House to try to apply cutting-edge tools to bring citizens closer to their government.

It is time to turn those cutting-edge tools to work in organizing government itself. If there is no political will to merge the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, or if such a merger would cause too much turmoil for too long, maybe there is a way to create a financial regulation wiki network, Finapedia, to bring synergies and create lines of communication to serve the regulatory function without disrupting the existing agencies (or Congressional committee jurisdictions). Of course, there may well be new technologies or applications that soon will make existing ones like Facebook or Wikipedia less effective, if not obsolete.

For Congress, the failure to do joint hearings of committees with overlapping jurisdictions, or where compelling policy goals could be enhanced by merging different perspectives — say, on science, research and development — could be ameliorated with a Legispedia, allowing staffers and Members to share insights and polish ideas about policies, witnesses, data sources and so on.

The structure of the federal government was largely crafted in the 1930s, with additional jerry-built entities added for World War II and the Cold War. Little if anything has changed even as the economy globalized and we moved headlong into the Information Age.

In a networked world, wholesale reorganization of government is not the best idea — networking is. Applying it to problems as diverse and cross-cutting as financial regulation, trade, and energy and climate change, by bringing the best minds in the tech world together with the best minds in public administration and policymaking should be a new priority.

Norman Ornstein is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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