Give Government Permission to Speak Freely

By Robert L. Read and Fen Labalmewhitehouse-square

These ideas were generated at a CivicActions retreat, during an Open Space brainstorming session. As CivicActions is fiercely open, we are releasing these ideas to the public for anyone to use as they see fit.

Transparent government requires open and frequent communication. Ideally, the government should communicate early and often about its plans and ideas. But plans change. “The government” consists of human beings trying to work out complicated plans, and as part of that process they disagree as conversations evolve.

As a society, we hold the government accountable for what it says with the tools of journalism and free press. Furthermore, we tend to take any statement made by a government employee to be the official position of the government.

This has a chilling effect on communications from the government to the people. There is pressure on government employees to refrain from communicating any information to the public until all points are perfectly clear and firmly decided. By demanding too much precision from our government, we inadvertently cause a delay in communications.

Far better would be for the government to immediately communicate the current status of a discussion or process, even if a final decision has not been reached. Such a statement could include a disclaimer like: “If I may speak freely, it appears 60% likely that we will use the new standard, but a certain faction believes we should stick with the old. This decision will probably be firmed up in three months.” However, to speak in such noncommittal terms is uncomfortable for government employees, because it can be taken as an official pronouncement. Government employees have learned to fear the prospect of testifying before Congress or explaining themselves to their bosses.

We therefore propose the creation of a new firm that might be called “Permission To Speak Freely”. This firm could create authenticated but pseudonymous online identities which the government could use to communicate information, without fear of it being taken as an official pronouncement or that reprimands would arise for giving inaccurate information. In other words, government employees would be empowered to “Speak Freely”.

Two primary modes of operation would be possible:

  • Secure, verified pseudonymous: The owner of a PTSF account is verified to be in a branch or agency of the government (Justice, Army, Executive Office of the President, etc.) but their true identity is unknown to the general user.
  • Simple pseudonymous: The name and government agency of an account owner is available to all, but the fact that they are requesting to speak freely separates them from their “official” persona.

For example, a group of twenty Admirals could create a humorous, pseudonymous identity, such as ”ptsf_JohnPaulJones”. The identity would clearly be labelled as “ptsf” (or perhaps just “sf”) to avoid confusion.

Any of the Admirals could make a Facebook post explaining the Navy’s procurement plans for a particular project, so that interested citizens or firms that provide services could be informed of the latest developments. However, the viewers of the post would not know which Admiral it came from. In fact, sf_JohnPaulJones might not even be completely consistent — various Admirals might express differing opinions at different times.

Alternatively, an individual might create sf_CIO_of_Silly_Walks. Everyone would know who the CIO of Silly Walks really is. However, anything posted under the identity of sf_CIO_of_Silly_Walks would unequivocally be understood to be free speech rather than official dogma. It would give this government official permission to express opinions and make predictions that are not fully verified, for the sake of communicating frankly with citizens. However, Permission To Speak Freely, as a firm, must guarantee that the communication really comes from the owner of that account.

Perhaps the government subdivision would be willing to pay a small fee (less than $1000) for the ability to provide more updates to the public than is usually possible for official pronouncements — and for ability to speak freely without fear of a lawsuit, formal protest, or Congressional hearing. The government would be forthright about the imprecision of its communication, to the benefit of the public.

2017-03-31T06:19:53+00:00 Categories: Culture, Government|

About the Author:

Fen joined CivicActions as an Engineer in 2005. Bridging the gap between the technical and business aspects of projects, he has a hand in all stages of software development, from requirements gathering and analysis to specification, implementation, documentation and maintenance. Fen is a change-maker both at work and in the world community, constantly seeking solutions to make things work better — from software to social justice and beyond.

Having spent over twenty years at the leading edge of programming, networks, system architecture, and information technology, Fen combines his deep experience and inventive drive to bring valuable improvements to CivicActions teams, processes, and clients. His pivotal contributions include:

  • Developing tools to support process flow and empower distributed teams to collaborate
  • Implementing a public key management system for smooth transitions of team members
  • Co-authoring the CivicActions Security Policy to ensure the safe handling of client data
  • Adding automated testing into the tool chain for better system performance
  • Exploring the inclusion of security compliance as part of continuous integration

Fen has served many high-profile clients during his tenure at CivicActions, including Amnesty International, Buckminster Fuller Institute, Democracy Now!, the Grammys, Women’s Funding Network, CNU, Sedona, SACNAS, EJUSA, Smithsonian Institution, and FosterClub. He is currently implementing an automated compliance process as the Information System Security Officer (ISSO) for the U.S. Department of Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA).

Prior to joining CivicActions, Fen made many valuable contributions to his field through the founding of two companies (OpenPrivacy and Identity Commons) and his work on the Inter-Process Communication “socket” protocol with Bill Joy at Berkeley Systems Design. He also worked for General Magic and Oracle. As a student at M.I.T., he developed the first personalized “digital newspaper,” which resulted in a grant that helped launch the M.I.T. Media Lab.

Fen earned a combined Bachelors and Masters degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was the founder and first president of the M.I.T. Ultimate Frisbee Club. He enjoys disc golf, mountain biking, photography, and watching his teenage son play hockey.