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What Obama could learn from Mozilla

The U.S. government is drowning in politics. Could open information help? What we do matters much more than who gets credit.

As the global economy continues its slide, U.S. politicians have staked out their positions at the stimulus trough, stopping only long enough to blame the other party for the world's problems. Now, more than ever, we need to focus on sound policy, not savvy politics. President Obama ran on the promise of bipartisanship but has come up against the stiff reality of a deep Republican-Democrat divide.

Given such serious divisions, how can we focus our government on policies, not politics? Mozilla, the creator of the Firefox browser, offers some clues.

Yes, that's right. Mozilla. For those who wonder how software could have anything to do with politics, well, you haven't been around open-source software long enough. There's a good reason the tagline for this blog is, "The business and politics of open source." For something as simple as a collection of ones and zeroes, open-source software drags its diverse adherents through a myriad of ideological minefields on a daily basis.

Just think of the bile spewed over the Windows-Linux war, or the antagonism between free-software revolutionaries and open-source advocates, and you get a taste for how deeply political open source can be.

And yet the Mozilla Foundation largely evades divisive jingoism. It just helps create an exceptional browser without mucking through the mire of ideological debates in the process.

The same holds true for the Eclipse and Linux foundations, in their spheres. Each of these foundations provides an opportunity for corporate and community interests to tackle difficult development projects with minimal rancor and little politicking, at least as exposed to the general public's view.

I've noted before that I think open-source foundations provide a clue as to one bright future for open source, but I'm also starting to wonder if they could provide a clue as to how to enable President Obama in the U.S., and other government executives across the globe, to encourage collaboration toward resolution of difficult, seemingly intractable policy problems.

Much of the problem with politics is that the information that feeds into political debates is suspect because it is so biased. As in computer science, garbage in, garbage out. Information is the "source code" of political debate, yet its nutritional content is sorely lacking here in the States.

Here's how Mozilla and open-source foundations provide a clue as to how to improve things. I liken Mozilla to a Rand of sorts: an organization dedicated to discussing and resolving difficult problems with little concern for who is right.

It may sound utopian, but I wonder if, in similar manner, President Obama couldn't require some form of Rand-esque analysis in congressional disputes to serve as a primary information source, rather than leaving it to competing special interests to funnel biased information into the Congresspersons of their choice?

Or, more broadly still, maybe what the federal government needs is more open caucuses, in which the big, thorny issues are discussed and debated. Perhaps it would help if the people stumping for votes aren't the ones in the debate: perhaps they would simply be consumers of the information, rather creators of it.

This, after all, is how the Linux Foundation and the Eclipse Foundation function. Big, partisan corporate interests fund these foundations, and then largely get out of the way, while developers, sometimes subsidized by this corporate funding, write the code. Congress could do the same.

What we do matters much more than who gets credit. If Congress will fund "open-source foundations" to create information which, in turn, will fuel its votes, perhaps we'd be one step closer to intelligent policies, rather than inane politics.

Too idealistic?

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.