Technology and MIT Government

How the Institute Can Learn From Obama’s Call for Change

MIT is quite similar to the United States; the economy is suffering, the police are trying to protect our children without destroying culture, financial aid is trying to spread the wealth around, the administration lacks transparency, and community members want a say in decisions affecting their everyday life …

Along with millions of people around the world, I celebrated Barack Obama’s victory on election night. “If Obama really has the answers to all of America’s problems,” I thought in my Obama frenzy, “surely some of them would come in handy at MIT.” I then came across Obama’s “comprehensive technology and innovation plan”:

“OPEN UP GOVERNMENT TO ITS CITIZENS: The Bush Administration has been one of the most secretive, closed administrations in American history. An Obama presidency will use cutting edge technologies to reverse this dynamic, creating a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America’s citizens. Obama will integrate citizens into the actual business of government:

…open up government decision­making and involve the public in the work of agencies, not simply by soliciting opinions, but by tapping into the vast and distributed expertise of the American citizenry to help government make more informed decisions.”

The MIT administration claims to be big on soliciting opinions from students, but it always feels like students’ opinions enter one ear and exit the other.

… conduct the significant business of the agency in public, so that any citizen can watch a live feed on the Internet as the agencies debate and deliberate the issues that affect American society … ensure that these proceedings are archived for all Americans to review, discuss and respond. … employ all the technological tools available to allow citizens not just to observe, but also to participate and be heard in these meetings.

Unfortunately, MIT administrators seem extremely averse to the idea of recording meetings or making them observable. It appears as though they just don’t do business that way.

“Restoring the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best­ available, scientifically ­valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials.”

Dining decisions based on students’ food preferences would be better than ones based on the community building ideals of an out of touch administrator, and cheaper than hiring a consulting firm.

“Giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days before signing any non­emergency legislation.”

Maybe administrative decisions at MIT could follow this pattern: who wouldn’t like to have five days’ time to appeal if someone is about to slap a mandatory meal plan on them or kick them out of their living space?

“Bringing democracy and policy deliberations directly to the people by requiring his Cabinet officials to have periodic national online town hall meetings to answer questions and discuss issues before their agencies.”

The GIR town hall meetings are good step in this direction. I hope to see more town hall meetings in the future, both online and in person.

“Employing technologies, including blogs, wikis and social networking tools, to modernize internal, cross­agency, and public communication and information sharing to improve government decision­ making.”

MIT already has IS&T and an incredible computing environment along with an “Information Processing Board” run by students. Surely it isn’t too much to ask for a website where administrators post records of their meetings and get feedback.

“… Obama believes in the American people and in their intelligence, expertise, and ability and willingness to give and to give back to make government work better.”

The MIT administration needs to believe in the MIT community. One way for the MIT administration to show its support would be to consider suggestions made in the student newspaper.

MIT prides itself in being a model community of innovative world leaders. Obama plans to change the nation with the technology that was born here. We’re certainly not going to look like world leaders in technology if we’re a step behind the rest of the United States. It’s still not too late for the MIT government to open up to its citizens — using the very technology that MIT is an institute of.

Obama’s full technology and innovation plan can be found online at: http://www.barackobama.com/pdf/issues/technology/Fact_Sheet_Innovation_and_Technology.pdf