The Promise of Open Government

How the Obama administration's Open Government Directive can unlock government and open it up to citizens as never before.
by | December 16, 2009

Last week, the Obama administration unveiled its much-anticipated Open Government Directive. Obama's bottom-up, participatory campaign strategy is now officially part of the federal governance model. It will also undoubtedly reset expectations for how citizens interact with their state and local governments.

The directive lays out specific actions that federal agencies should take to open up their operations to the public. This includes developing a plan that details their efforts to increase transparency, participation and collaboration.

Bill Eggers looks past the currently fashionable phrases of transparency and open-source government in order to provide specific suggestions on how these important goals can fulfill the promised hype. Buy-in by public officials and use by social networkers provide much of the value.

- Stephen Goldsmith

The directive is a promising first step, but it isn't without its critics. Gartner's Andrea DiMaio and others in the Gov 2.0 community complain that it doesn't go far enough in promoting participation and collaboration. They also worry that it runs the risk of becoming just another painful exercise in check-the-box compliance. These concerns are as valid as they are preventable.

We studied dozens of efforts to open up government, both in the United States and overseas. Four key lessons emerged that can improve the likelihood that Open Gov will be successful:

Tie into the mission. To be transformational, Open Gov will need to transcend CIOs and garner support from senior management throughout government. To this end, it must be closely tied into mission.

The Alabama Department of Homeland Security, for example, developed Virtual Alabama, an online platform that uses Google Earth to merge government-owned data from across the state. When disaster strikes, first responders are able to quickly access information on everything from flood zones to the location of water, power and gas lines. This information enables first responders to better execute their mission by developing more effective disaster response strategies. More than 1,450 agencies across the state now make use of the platform.

Virtual Alabama shows how applying the principles of Open Gov to an agency's unique constituency - in this case, an internal one - can help government better accomplish its work. A national version of the program, Virtual USA, is now being piloted in eight states.

Let the users design. What do Google Earth, Apple's iPhone and Twitter all have in common? They each represent platforms off which developers have built thousands or even hundreds of thousands of applications. Taking a cue from the tech world, governments should open up their data and let users design innovative applications.

One model is the city and county of San Francisco's DataSF. In addition to making the raw data available to the public, the city provides tools that encourage application development, including developer camps and wikis.

By making it easy for developers to work with data, DataSF helps lay the groundwork for others to develop innovative applications that increase the utility of public data.

Tune into social networks to solicit feedback. It would be a shame if Open Gov consisted of just a giant data dump. Another important goal should be to facilitate a much richer, two-way conversation with citizens. Doing so requires government agencies to proactively go to where their constituents are: social networks.

Every agency should have a presence on Facebook, Twitter and various specialist communities of practice. Data generated through social media interactions can provide a previously untapped source of user feedback for governments, often in real-time.

It can also help government connect with citizens far more quickly than through traditional methods. In early 2009, salmonella contamination forced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to recall a number of products containing peanuts. The FDA used social networks to get the word out on what products to avoid.

The FDA created a Twitter feed for the recall that gained 12,000 followers. It also built a widget that anyone could post on a blog, Facebook page or other site that allowed people to look up recalled products on the FDA's database and see a list of snack products to avoid. The popular widget eventually appeared on 20,000 sites across the Internet.

Make data analytics a core competency. If unlocking public data is to have a truly transformative effective on how government works, data analytics will need to become a core competency in government.

Crime maps are a great model. These combine geographic data, census data, land use information, crime incident reports and other sources of information. In England and Wales, where such maps are widely used, police officers report that they provide much better intelligence than their own more subjective experience.

Police use the maps to gain information on a single offense, multiple offenses of a single type or a series of offenses that have become a significant local crime problem. The maps are also made available to the public on the Web.

The Obama administration staked its credibility on ushering in a new era of open government in Washington and putting an end to the culture of secrecy that kept government information effectively locked up. The Open Gov initiative could be transformational - much as the Obama campaign was - and set off a national wave that opens government to citizens as never before.

The key to success: a robust, two-way engagement of governments and citizens to maximize the return on openness and foster improved accountability and performance.

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