Open government offers a society a number of attractive benefits. Transparency begets accountability. The provision of information enhances the ability of governments to provide valuable public goods and services. Its data, furthermore, can be analyzed and used by third parties in innovative ways, resulting in other socially beneficial products. The classic example here are the private weather forecasts made possible from government-supplied weather information. Or the maps that derive from GPS. By governments making information easily accessible, citizens are also more likely to get engaged in some form of their governance.
Despite these benefits, however, open government has spun a few wheels on the road to achieving its potential. For the past two summers, the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program has convened its Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS) on the topic of open governance, with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. From those meetings, I'd like to suggest five goals for open government in 2014.
1. Improve the procurement process Procurement plays a critical role in technology's implementation and utilization at all government levels. The problematic rollout of the Affordable Care Act's website, www.healthcare.gov, epitomizes how ineffective procurement processes can derail or stall a public project. Labeled as the definition of a bad IT project and one of the worst product flops of 2013, it appears that (with some notable exceptions) government's deployment of information and communication technologies is still stuck in the last century. As explained in the last two FOCAS reports, cumbersome rules for how agencies can buy and use software create a barrier to integrating lightweight and open alternatives into government operations. This inevitably inhibits progress.
Improving the procurement process will help spur innovation. With technology now enabling cheaper, innovative solutions to both narrow and large-scale problems, participants at FOCAS agreed that we need a more flexible procurement system that promotes and encourages the integration of effective and innovative services. For example, reforms that provide the opportunity for smaller, more nimble companies to solve software problems might lead to more efficient and successful outcomes. Procurement rules should make it easier for these small companies to bid and for government to pay out winning bids to non-legacy contractors. The system needs to embrace more experimentation and allow for risk absorption.
It often takes an urgency to bring about a reform. Let's hope that the learning moment from the breakdown of healthcare.gov can result in positive reforms of government procurement processes at all levels in 2014.
2. Increase transparency
Early in December, the Obama Administration released the second US Open Government National Action Plan, announcing 23 new or expanded open-government commitments that aim to advance such efforts further. 'We the People," Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Modernization, The Global Initiative on Fiscal Transparency (GIFT), Open Data to the Public and Participatory Budgeting are among the highlights. Despite these worthy initiatives, particularly enhanced by the excellent work coming out of the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy, openness has not been a pervasive enough theme of this administration. As New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote, "Instead, it's turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and of unprecedented attacks on a free press."
Indeed, the administration's effort to prevent leaks and control information is said to be the most aggressive since the Nixon administration. And the White House has increasingly sought to control the news emanating from Washington. "Transparency" just isn't getting the data out.
State and local governments have also claimed to increase transparency in government, and again there have been advances at these levels. But much work remains in this area, and the rhetoric does not always correlate to the actions. For example, Georgia's governor, Nathan Deal, touted a need for trust and transparency in government, saying, "Our success as leaders of Georgia depends heavily on the public's ability to trust us." Yet the governor faces allegations that some of his administration worked with the state ethics staff to destroy evidence from an investigation into the governor's financial records from his 2010 campaign. (Over the years, it is alleged, the governor collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in unreported contributions.) The case of Nathan Deal demonstrates a need for transparency in government and the important role journalism plays in exposing potentially unethical activities.
3. Encourage citizen engagement
The full potential of open government and its ability to engage citizens has yet to be realized. Organizations such as Code for America and the Sunlight Foundation have created ecosystems for innovation and citizen interaction. However, as a whole, we are moving forward without a clear understanding of just how to encourage engagement, or even what we mean by that word.
A big takeaway from the 2013 FOCAS conference is the need for empathy in open government. As Panthea Lee, Principal and Co-Founder at Reboot explains, "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."
Steven Clift's e-Democracy.org is an online public space with the mission of harnessing online tools to support participation in public life, strengthen communities, and build democracy. It is within spaces such as this that we can inspire more inclusive community engagements in 2014.
4. Use government data for social good
Access to a broad range of government data in usable formats encourages ingenuity and unlocks value by allowing the free flow of information. Its full potential to empower citizens, revolutionize how government works, and improve delivery of public goods and services has not been fully utilized. McKinsey research determined that government data could unlock more than $3 trillion in value every year in seven domains of the global economy. By not harnessing this data, we stand to lose the transformative social impacts as well.
This is where organizations like the Open Data Institute (ODI) come in. ODI is catalyzing the evolution of open data culture to create economic, environmental, and social value. Located in the United Kingdom, it has affiliates around the world to help reveal supply, generate demand, create and disseminate knowledge to address local and global issues.
In a positive step forward, a group of practitioners and transparency advocates recently started a similar US organization to test the ODI model in the United States. ODI USA, made possible by a grant from the Knight Foundation (that materialized as a result of the FOCAS Forum), will help facilitate the sharing of data through convenings and open source projects. By connecting businesses, government agencies and non-profits, ODI USA aims to help overcome some of the barriers that currently impede these organizations from sharing valuable data and collaborating in innovate ways. The year ahead will test the effectiveness of these organizations. But with or without ODI, entrepreneurs from the for-profit and non-profit worlds can analyze, manipulate and use government supplied data in new, socially beneficial ways.
5. Government, Don't Overreach
Not much needs to be said here - so many are already addressing the topic. But given recent NSA events, an important goal for the upcoming year is protection over individuals' data. We need assurances that when governments peruse, collect or use personal data, they will not overreach their boundaries and that the appropriate controls exist. It is a classic clash of values--security vs. personal privacy. It is also a case where protection against one harm can lead to detrimental effects in another important area of national interest, its foreign relations.
In the year ahead, the US president and Congress will address the extensive surveillance techniques of the NSA. We might see FISA Court reforms, increased Congressional oversight, and a variety of other suggestions from the president's oversight committee, and organizations such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center. All this in the Hippocratic words, "first, do no harm."
So the year 2014 presents open government advocates with a large agenda and an opportunity to make significant progress in this emerging and important field.