P.J. O'Rourke famously equated giving money and power to Uncle Sam to "giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys." Now that the government has the booze and the wheel, how do we make sure that it drives the economy home safely?
To ensure success from the $787 billion federal stimulus package we obviously need great governance, more ideas, and wiser use of technology. But taxpayers also need a platform so they can get involved. We need an end to apathy (or we'll get more of the same). What we need something that I call Wiki-Ocracy.
The idea is simple, yet powerful. Use technology to generate the best thinking, from the best people, while creating a powerful governance model with complete transparency. The concept is based on the model pioneered by Wikipedia. Wikipedia.org is a free Internet encyclopedia where almost all of its content is written and edited for free by users. In practice, what this means is that users-self govern and self-edit the content which appears on the site. Wikipedia harnesses the wisdom of the crowd to represent a vast range of topics which are always in the process of being updated and edited. The result: Wikipedia now claims to be the most popular general reference work on the Internet.
Wiki-Ocracy could become a potent model for voter engagement. In our current model, after an election, voters are not a big part of the process for governing. While our public officials are elected to govern, the reality is that without proactive oversight, things can go horribly wrong. Having a free press makes a difference by making sure there's a spotlight on bad policy and behavior. But, in today's world, it is not enough. We need more engagement from "we the people."
Washington's mind-numbing bureaucracy and the shark-infested sea of lobbyists have made it hard for individual voices to be heard. Oh, and let's not forget the general laziness of many of us taxpayers and voters. Now with the advent of new Internet technologies and the Wiki-Ocracy idea, we have an opportunity to transform voter apathy into action.
The federal stimulus law contains governance and transparency requirements. The Obama administration also is using the Internet to show taxpayers what, how, and where the stimulus dollars are being used. All good, but not enough. Here are five ideas to realize the pay off we want:
1) Make Recovery.gov a social web site
To better engage taxpayers, Recovery.gov and state web sites must become social platforms, more like Facebook and Twitter and less like static information web sites. With a Wiki-Ocracy approach, taxpayers could more powerfully collaborate in the process of generating ideas, evaluating proposals, choosing what to fund, and tracking the results from their investments.
State governors should use a Wiki-Ocracy approach to choosing if, and how much, federal funding to accept. As of now, this has been mostly a political issue creating a disparity amongst red and blue states. With higher levels of taxpayer involvement, governors would have more accurate, real time insight into what their constituents want them to do. This way they could make more informed and less political choices as to what money to accept. And taxpayers could better hold governors accountable for their choices. It so happens that this week the Obama administration is conducting an online dialogue with the public in a bid to answer this question: What ideas, tools, and approaches can make recovery.gov a place where all citizens can transparently monitor the expenditure and use of recovery funds? This is a great step. Now, we need to make sure the government uses technology to get the best ideas, from the best people, ensures transparency and most importantly that the stimulus investments pay dividends.
2) Strong Federal and State Oversight Boards
In a Wiki-Ocracy model, federal and state boards need to act like the board of directors of a corporation where tax payers are the shareholders.
The Recovery Accountability and Transparency board was created at the federal level when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act came into law. Its chairman, Earl Devaney, is a former cop, secret service agent, and the former Inspector General for the United States Department of the Interior. According to Time Magazine, Devaney has a history of uncovering "shady dealings" in Washington. The role of the board is "to coordinate and conduct oversight of funds distributed under this law in order to prevent fraud, waste and abuse". Good.
Now that they have the cash, Devaney & Co. need to have the craniums and cojones to make sure the money is well invested and abusers get punished. We need the states to do the same. Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Ohio, (to name a few) have set up oversight boards. Every state getting federal funds should be required to have a strong board, with a rock-star chairman, and board members from a mix of business, government, and social service before the states get another penny.
Public company CEOs and CFOs must report to their shareholders quarterly.
The federal board is required by law to do the same. These updates need to
be broadcast live on TV and the Internet. And state boards should be required to do the same.
Boards need to act more like Venture capitalists The role of the boards must be more than oversight and enforcement. VCs make strategic investments, expecting to see big returns. To make sure their investments pay off they take a seat on the boards of companies they back, then govern them closely.
Oversight board officials need to do the same. If you are the guy who invested $2.2 million dollars in taxpayer money with the Reno Airport, you need to join its board, make sure they do the right things, and report back to your partners (the Oversight Board and the taxpayers). All of this needs to be reported on www.recovery.gov.
4) Accountability: Make Everyone Sign Personally
Signing personally increases accountability. One of the key changes in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was to force CEOs and CFOs of public companies to personally certify their books. Federal and State Board members should be required do the same. Each board member should personally certify that every penny they invest meets with the requirements set out by the federal government. In addition, each CEO, CFO, and board member of every agency and every government contractor should have to do the same, before they get a penny. And the certification documents should be posted on recovery.gov for all to see.
5) Send Evildoers To Jail
The federal law needs to make it clear that if government officials and/or contractors getting our money waste it or steal it they will go to jail. Period. For a long time. Just like Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Ebbers, and now, Joe Nacchio. Now that the $787 billion has been committed, it must be well invested. It must produce a return. With the best governance, ideas, and technology we can use wiki-ocracy to make sure that all this paying, truly pays off for the American taxpayer.
By Christopher Lochhead