Toward the Next Phase of Open Gov

July 20, 2013  • Panthea Lee

Obama’s favorite librarian, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, a British knight of artificial intelligence, and the former CTO of Obama for America walk into a room.

Start of a bad #opengov joke?

Not exactly. This was the start of the 2013 Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS) recently hosted by the Aspen Institute. These four individuals were among the 37 participants seeking to advance the promise of open government.

FOCAS has a history of bringing together thinkers, makers, and doers to leverage information and communication technologies to benefit society. Past forums have featured Madeleine Albright, Marissa Mayer, Craig Newmark, and Eric Schmidt, to name a few. These forums have resulted in initiatives like the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, which helped frame the Federal Communications Commission’s New Media Inquiry.

Titled “Beyond the Tools: Connecting Citizens and their Governments” and sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, this year’s FOCAS aimed to advance participatory governance by surfacing new approaches to improve both citizen-government interaction and measuring the impact of open government.

Participants were practitioners working on a range of open government initiatives, including federal and local government officials, civic technologists, and academics. Several were winners of the Knight News Challenge on Open Government, including Open Gov for the Rest of UsProcure.ioGitMachines, and Plan in a Box.

After three days, the Forum’s working groups proposed four initiatives: a program to enable citizens with specialized expertise to help address civic challenges; an initiative to support institutional innovators within government; a platform to improve public service delivery by stimulating competition between government agencies; and a new advocacy organization to advance open data culture in the US.

What are the Barriers to Open Gov?

The Forum raised several key challenges raised preventing the realization of open government’s full potential. These included ambiguity around the term “open government”, lack of awareness of and technical ability to leverage open data among the broader public, and difficulty in overcoming legacy systemsPolicy challenges also remain, but there are a number of disruptive innovators who have not traditionally worked in the public sector trying to drive change from within.

As Greg Elin, a recent Obama recruit to the Federal Communications Commission, put it: “We are developing the systems to lower barriers to entry [to open government] so that more people can participate.”

Nick Sinai, a venture capitalist until 2009 and now the US Deputy Chief Technology Officer, agreed that the government needs a range of partners to be successful in this space: “There are a lot of conversations in government about what’s possible [in terms of open government], but prototypes and MVPs [minimum viable products] can help crystallize the opportunities. That’s where outside partners can add value.”

Joel Mahoney, Co-founder of OpenCounter, and Seamus Kraft, Co-founder of the OpenGov Foundation, gather to discuss open government tools.

Joel Mahoney, Co-founder of OpenCounter, and Seamus Kraft, Co-founder of the OpenGov Foundation, gather to discuss open government tools.

Joel Mahoney, Co-founder of OpenCounter, and Seamus Kraft,
Co-founder of the OpenGov Foundation, gather to discuss
open government tools.

How to Move Open Gov Forward?

From these wide-ranging conversations around the state of open government and how to realize its promise, several principles for the design and implementation of open government initiatives were identified. But as Ellen Miller, Executive Director of the Sunlight Foundation, pointed out, implementation doesn’t need to be uniform and models will inevitably vary.

Below is a summary of the key points. A more complete report is forthcoming.

  • Open government initiatives must be rooted in a sophisticated understanding of citizens.

One question open government folks often ask is: “How do we stimulate citizen demand for open data?” The secret: citizens don’t want open data; they want useful services. Citizen embrace of open government, therefore, depends on understanding and designing for citizen needs—and not for technological function.

Many bemoan the lack of citizen awareness about the benefits of open government. But is it lack of awareness or is it lack of demonstrated utility? And if it’s the latter, how can we build tools and initiatives that transform the experience of being an engaged citizen?

Speaking of which, who is this mystical “citizen”? Greater segmentation and definition of citizens and the intermediaries that may use open government tools to better serve them (e.g. social workers) would enable well-designed solutions that are tailored to users’ specific needs. Much as private companies don’t sell to “the person”, public agencies should not seek to serve “the citizen”.

  • Initiatives must be informed by empathy for government workers.

Open government advocates frequently cite lessons the District can take from the Valley. But government culture and start-up culture are vastly different. A Silicon Valley axiom is “if you don’t break something, you’re doing something wrong”. Put simply, innovation requires risk-taking.

The public sector, however, is naturally risk-averse, and with good reason: government’s duty is to protect the public interest. While venture capitalists accept failure as a necessary cost of innovation, taxpayers may not be so forgiving. There is disconnect between what the Open Government Initiative asks of civil servants and what the institutional culture they work within permits.

Greater empathy for government officials is needed. We must adapt human resource policy, offer appropriate incentives, and provide appropriate political cover to allow public officers to experiment and innovate.

The City of Philadelphia has done this well but, similar to “citizens”, “government officials”, too, must be segmented. The needs and capacities of a San Francisco or a New York are very different from that of a small town. Similarly, the ability of a political appointee to navigate bureaucratic challenges and get things done may be wholly different from that of a long-time civil servant.

Know thy audience and design accordingly.

  • We need to understand what works and what doesn’t.

For all the talk of the promise of open government, we need more empirical evidence on the progress being made. To do so, we first need more precision and standardization in our use of language. What do we mean when we say “open government”? Are we trying to enable civic engagement, government accountability, quality public service delivery, or economic development?

Once we define each project’s goals, we need to understand whether they are working. Scale is an overused metric. The number of people using a civic platform is a crude and often inaccurate measure of success. Understanding whether an initiative made citizens more engaged or changed the attitudes of government offices are more telling indicators of progress. Capturing unintended negative consequences will also allow us to design better next time.

By better understanding how civic innovation happens, we can be more strategic and evidence-driven in our open government investments in the future.

From Principles to Prototypes

The above principles can guide the design of open government initiatives, and the Forum’s working groups proposed four such concepts. In aggregate, they underscore key FOCAS themes—citizen experience, institutional change, demonstrating impact—and speak to the need for enabling conditions for open government. A summary of the concepts follow, with links to notes from the relevant conversations at FOCAS:

  • Public Experience Network (PEN): Solving many of today’s challenges require collaboration outside government. Built upon the premise that all citizens have untapped expertise that could benefit government – and inspired by Catchafire and Public Insight Network – PEN would enable clearly defined, time-bound collaborations between government and citizens. For example, resource-constrained city officials tasked with adapting local playgrounds for children with disabilities may canvass development psychologists, social workers, urban planners, and parents with special needs children. Based on personal experiences, participants detailed the needs, motivations, and habits of both citizens and government officials that may use PEN, and proposed mechanisms to encourage uptake and sustain engagement. (More details here.)
  • Government Innovator Cohorts: To address barriers to institutional change in the public sector, a cohort program for government innovators –– akin to Code for America or the Broad Residency — could help them build the trust, skills, and networks needed to accelerate innovation within public agencies. Targeted at federal, state, and local officials with executive visibility and implementation resources, participants would learn how to bring about organizational change in the public sector and what are the design processes that enable successful institutional innovation. (More detailshere.)
  • 100 Worst: Inspired by initiatives such as The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, 100 Worst would rank the best and worst government offices in particular categories (e.g. the DMV) to spur better service delivery through competition. Rigorous evaluation could help understand the impact of the platform on government agencies. Featured offices, for example, could be compared with a control group to track changes in service quality over time. Further, data could be analyzed against factors such as demographic indicators to understand whether there are correlations between quality of services and factors such as income or ethnicity.
  • Open Data Institute US: The Open Data Institute (ODI) is a UK-based non-profit that seeks to catalyze the evolution of open data culture globally. Founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shaboldt (a FOCAS participant), it has a wide portfolio of work that includes coaching organizations that want to use open data and a certification program to help open data publishers make their data more useful to the global public. ODI US could act as an evangelist and catalyst for open data in America, helping organizations—public and private—contribute to and benefit from open data. It could also advocate for open data through media and select, high-profile initiatives. (More details here. Note: ODI is currently developing a global network, of which ODI US would be a member.)

Beyond these working group proposals, several other concepts were surfaced: for example, an XPRIZEstyle challenge to unlock PDF data or enterprise zones for civic innovation.

There are ongoing discussions around next steps for these proposals, and some have early prototypes in development. The working groups encourage public input through the above links.

Toward the Next Phase of Open Gov, And its Discontents

For a group largely comprised of technologists, the conversations at FOCAS were largely (and refreshingly) not dominated by technology. Digital tools, participants widely agreed, are but means to enable collaboration and catalyze innovation, and not ends in themselves.

“Don’t try to find technology solutions for people problems,” warned Harper Reed, formerly of the Obama campaign. “Instead, start by building products people love.”

Still, some of the side conversations outside the (livestreamed) plenary were less rosy, touching on how recent public revelations around government secrecy may impact the open government movement. As Alec Ross, the former Senior Advisor for Innovation at the State Department, noted, the culture within the administration is not particularly fertile for open government outside a few anomalies.

Health and Human Services, for example, has embraced open data and greatly benefits from the crowd using its data with minimal risk. Law enforcement agencies, on the other hand, see the opening up of data as a threat to their ability to conduct their duties. There are still swathes of government officials that are hostile to open government, Ross noted, perceptions that are not helped by their recent experiences with Wikileaks and the Snowden affair.

Overcoming these institutional culture hurdles will require especially well designed and implemented initiatives moving forward.

The 16th Aspen Institute Forum on Communications and Society took place from July 10 to 13, 2013. See the agenda and participants. Recordings from the event can be found here. A full report from the event is forthcoming and will be available on the Aspen Institute and Knight Foundation websites.

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