Open Government and Its Constraints

November 1, 2013  • Panthea Lee, Guest Blogger

Panthea Lee is a principal at Reboot, a social enterprise working to improve governance and development worldwide.

The Aspen Institute Communications and Society program series on open government will appear on the Aspen Institute blog over the next five weeks. By sharing the conversations at the 2013 Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS) and the ideas they inspired, we hope to advance a constructive dialogue around open government and a future of more equitable and accountable governance.

“Open government” is everywhere.

Search the term and you’ll find,, Open Government Initiative, Open Gov Hub and the Open Gov Foundation; you’ll find open government initiatives for New York City, Boston, Kansas, Virginia, Tennessee and the list goes on; you’ll find dedicated open government plans for the White House, State Department, USAID, Treasury, Justice Department, Commerce, Energy and just about every other major federal agency. Even the departments of Defense and Homeland Security are in on open government.

And that’s just in the United States.

There is Open Government Africa, Open Government in the EU and Open Government Data. The World Bank has an Open Government Data Toolkit and recently announced a three-year initiative to help developing countries leverage open data. And this week, over 1,000 delegates from over 60 countries are in London for the annual meeting of the Open Government Partnership, which has grown from 8 to 60 member states in just two years.

Fair to say, “open government” has entered the big leagues. However, just as the global movement is gaining momentum, those of us in the open government community seem to be plowing forth without a clear game plan.

Many of us have no consensus or clarity on just what exactly “open government” is, what we hope to achieve from it or how to measure our progress. Too often, our initiatives are designed through the narrow lenses of our own biases and without a concrete understanding of those they are intended for — both those in and out of government.

If we hope to realize the promise of more open governments, let’s be clear about the barriers we face so that we may start to overcome them.

Barrier 1: “Open Gov” is…?

Open government is… not new, for starters.

A product of the Enlightenment and freedom of press movements, the enshrining principles of open government — such as transparency, accountability and participation — have been the hallmarks of modern democracy since its inception. The contemporary use of the term stems from the global push for freedom of information legislation beginning in the mid-20th century.

More recently, the ideas and activities known as “open government” have ballooned with enabling trends in technology usage, such as the growth of social media, mobile phones and Big Data. And that’s precisely the problem: “open government” has become incredibly ambiguous.

There is much spoken about empowering citizens to hold their governments accountable. Yet many initiatives under the open government umbrella focus on obtaining information about public services or resources: when my street will be swept, whether my car was towed or where the nearest parking spot is.

Part of the challenge is that we are using the same term to describe too many different and distinct initiatives. Are we trying to make public agencies more efficient, hold elected officials accountable, tackle corruption, influence policy, or achieve any number of other objectives that we associate with open government?

As much as we are working toward “open government,” we need a coherent vision of what exactly that is and how we hope to achieve it.

Barrier 2: Open Gov is Not Inclusive

The central irony of open government is that it’s often not “open” at all. Conversations on open government are dominated by those with the means to participate. Studies — including those from Turkey, Japan and Italy — show that participants in open government and civic engagement initiatives are often more privileged members of society. Demographics differ in context, but over-represented groups include: the young or educated, who know how to use the technologies that enable many open government initiatives; those already politically active individuals who have another channel to push their agenda; and the relatively wealthy, who can afford both the time and the tools to participate.

The practical result of those with power, privilege and access tinkering for solutions, while large citizen segments remain uninvolved, is that open government initiatives are clouded by our own biases and tunnel vision. As advocates of open government, we assume that citizens and governments are eager to join the movement. As technologists, we assume everyone is an enthusiast and early adopter.

So when there’s low uptake on a new app, site or other initiative, we scratch our heads and say, “the space is too young,” “citizens just don’t care enough,” or “governments are so outdated.”

“Why don’t they get it?” we ask.

“Why don’t we get it?” is the better question.

We want open government of the people, by the people, for the people — not open government by some people, for some other people. To ensure open government does not become a hollow buzzword and lives up to the promise of its name, we need to overcome our biases.

Barrier 3: Open Gov Lacks Empathy

Open government practitioners love to speak of “the citizen” and “the government.” But who exactly are these people? Too often, we don’t really know. We are builders, makers and creators with insufficient understanding of whom we are building, making and creating for.

No company worth its salt hawking a new product would claim “the consumer” is its market. And with good reason. A company has clear incentives to ensure it knows exactly which consumers are going to buy which products. No market intelligence means no sale and no company. Granted, government agencies are obviously without these same incentives. But the absence of market intelligence on the citizens that may use or benefit from an open government initiative yields the same results: no uptake and no open government.

On the flip side, who do we mean by “the government?” And why, gosh darn it, is it so slow to innovate? Simply put, “the government” is comprised of individual people working in environments that are not conducive to innovation. Management professor Sanford Borins explains:

Innovations developed by public servants in the employ of government are generally government property. Public sector organizations are funded by legislative appropriations; there are no venture capitalists to seed public management innovations. There is no share ownership in the public sector, and public servants are paid fixed salaries, with bonuses that, at best, are minuscule in comparison to those in the private sector. In other words, the rewards for successful innovations in the public sector are meager.

If we hope to get beyond a world of perpetual pilots with few success stories, we need to move beyond “the citizen” and “the government,” and toward sophisticated and informed understanding of the people we seek to serve and influence.

Toward the Next Phase of Open Government

For open government to realize its potential, we must overcome these barriers.

This is the first post of a six-part series that grew out the 16th Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS 2013) held earlier this year at the Aspen Institute. Titled “Beyond the Tools: Connecting Citizens and their Government,” and sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, this year’s Forum aimed to advance participatory governance by improving the interactions between citizens and government. As Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, framed the opening session, “How can we encourage citizen demand of open government? How do we institutionalize projects? How do we evaluate successes?

Participants at the 2013 Forum on Communications and Society (Photo credit: Daniel Bayer)

The discussions at FOCAS balanced the need for reflection with the need for action. Participants deliberated on the current state of open government and barriers preventing the movement from fulfilling its promise. And they proposed — and, in some cases, moved forward with — concepts to represent the next phase of open government.

“[The participants here] are not just edge thinkers, but edge builders as well,” remarked Deloitte Center for the Edge’s John Seely Brown at the Forum. “Let us take these ideas from the edge to drive change within and outside of government. Let us think bigger in terms of what we can achieve with open government.”