A massive new “digital mall” with a $7.2 billion price tag is near completion.  It’s built with public funds and, due to its large size, boasts a capacity to store and display virtually the entire federal establishment and every local government unit in the US — rent free. The grand opening is slated for 2014.

There’s one problem though: despite being built by the government, no one has made plans for occupancy or told local governments what to do with the space they now have.  As a result, the mall sits curiously vacant. Luckily, there’s a viable solution in time for the grand opening.

The digital mall to which I refer is the National Broadband Plan. To give you some context, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (often referred to as the “Stimulus Bill” or “Bailout”) provided the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) with $7.2 billion to expand access to broadband services in the United States. Of those funds, the Act provided $4.7 billion to NTIA to support the deployment of broadband infrastructure, enhance and expand public computer centers and encourage sustainable adoption of broadband service.

High speed Internet service already benefits thousands of communities and institutions. Projects are underway in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories to advance the American digital economy.  In fact, just a few days ago (March 4, 2013), the next phase of funding – completed through the Connect America Fund II – removes the price caps to allow for more expensive expansion plans, further accelerating deployment and adding an additional $185 million in funding.

So, in effect, the mall is built — 4G Internet speeds available across all of America — but available long before local governments are ready to use it.

Back to the allegory: “Build it and they will come” just isn’t true.  Developers know that securing “anchor tenants” is critical to avoiding an empty shopping mall.  Stores like Macy’s and JCPenny usually anchor opposite ends of a mall to increase the public flow between them, thereby stimulating further occupancy from smaller businesses.

Enter www.Regulations.gov and www.NoticeandComment.com, anchor tenants available at the opposite ends of the digital mall. Being taxpayer funded and purposed to include innovative applications that increase access to government services and information, populating this mall with official federal and local government public data (public notices, documents, press releases, etc.) would be a welcome step by the President to embolden e-Government and civic engagement.

This is a “hear ye, hear ye” to our President to mandate full occupancy of the digital mall by all local governments. It’s a solution to the vacancy problem grounded in real, proven and recent successes.  Our current presidential “town crier” should apply the lessons learned from his predecessor to make the post-9/11 reorganization of national and local intelligence assets a success.  Meanwhile, we’re still largely stuck with a system where agencies use different networks, are unable to share critical data, and can’t gather data in a coherent, useful fashion.

So while federal data is being digitized and shared with the public by the innovative work of  www.Regulations.gov, (to date saving taxpayers over $127 million in printing costs alone), local government digital data remains a fragmented national mess and detrimental to the greater productivity that the national broadband initiative promises to bring.

The digital mall provides a national opportunity for real transparency in federal and local government, and a presidential mandate is the insurance we need. It’s been done many times before on programs of less consequence. In fact, mandates such as direct orders, crosscutting requirements, crossover sanctions and partial preemption have been used by the federal government for decades to gain state and local compliance when federal dollars are at stake. This time too, there should be strings attached, but in the name of an obvious, mutual benefit.

Our task at www.NoticeandComment.com is to become that second anchor tenant in Obama’s digital mall, as the public’s only centralized, one-stop-shop for all official local digital data. What’s more, data occupancy is free and furnished with a cloud-based content management system that will ultimately save taxpayers the billions now spent on newspaper advertisements and other print-based publications.

In the mall NoticeandComment envisions, the products are bits of free official data, organized, packaged and merchandised to gain one thing from the public — a thoughtful digital response.

The mall is built. All our leaders have to do is hang the “Open for Business” sign.

By: John W. Davis, II, JD
CEO, N&C, Inc