The State of Open Government

What’s the state of the open government movement? What are the good examples and where is more attention needed? This overview goes through many of the open government initiatives that have been formalized as official government policies and looks to see what they say about the overall state of open government.

Data.gov just recently had it’s first year anniversary as did the Vancouver Open Motion. Both of these were precedents in open data and open government as a whole. Since the White House Open Government Memorandum was issued about a year and a half ago, a number of likeminded initiatives have also been established. Much of the work at OpenPlans around Open Government has focused on better establishing and disseminating best practices and open standards associated with these initiatives. Some of this is simply observing new case studies for policy or implementation and documenting them on a wiki. Yet we’re also working to better codify this based on projects like Open311 and OpenTripPlanner. These projects involve a great deal of interaction with government agencies as well as proactive civic communities and they help to highlight approaches to open data and collaboration. The historical mark of one year offers a good opportunity to look at some of the open government initiatives which have emphasized best practices and standards for open government implementation.

The Vancouver Open Motion set the precedent for passing a law to emphasize the importance of open data, open standards, and open source. Since this was passed in May of 2009 many similar policies have emerged from other governments including (in chronological order) the City of Portland, San Francisco, The United States of America, the State of California, the State of Vermont, the Government of Australia, and the City of Ottawa. Two of these stand out: the U.S. Open Government Directive (established December 2009) and the Australian Government 2.0 Report (established May 2010). Both of these initiatives represent significant paradigm shifts that affect national government, but they’re also unique in that they emphasize the importance of participation and collaboration. The UK government also established a similar report titled Putting the Frontline First: smarter government (published December 2009). Some of these policies, such as the ones established in the State of California and Vermont, have more of a specific focus on opportunities for public involvement in technology development through emphasis on open source software. Yet many of these are worth noting for the ways they cite existing precedents and established best practices.

The Open Source Software Policy from the State of California was the first legislation to cite the most broadly recognized definition of open source, often known as the OSI or Perens definition of open source (after the author Bruce Perens). This definition outlines open source with ten points summarized as:

  1. Free Redistribution
  2. Source Code
  3. Derived Works
  4. Integrity of The Author’s Source Code
  5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups
  6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor
  7. Distribution of License
  8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product
  9. License Must Not Contaminate Other Software
  10. Example Licenses

A similar policy established in the State of Vermont was the first legislation to cite the most broadly recognized definition of an open standard. This definition was also authored by Bruce Perens. This definition is broken down based around principles and practices, outlined as:

Principles

  1. Availability
  2. Maximize End-User Choice
  3. No Royalty
  4. No Discrimination
  5. Extension or Subset
  6. Predatory Practices

Practice

  1. Availability
  2. Maximize End-User Choice
  3. No Royalty
  4. No Discrimination
  5. Extension or Subset
  6. Predatory Practices

In May of 2010 the City of Ottawa agreed on the recommendations of their Open Data report. This report was exemplary in that it thoroughly cited the international precedents for open data and open government initiatives. This was also a great example of policy that cities the most broadly recognized definition of open data for government, the 8 Principles of Government Data. This set of principles was established by an Open Government Working Group organized by Carl Malamud and Tim O’Reilly in 2007. The 8 principles are outlined as:

  1. Complete
  2. Primary
  3. Timely
  4. Accessible
  5. Machine processable
  6. Non-discriminatory
  7. Non-proprietary
  8. License-free

Additional principles like “Permanence” are also often added to this set. See Open Data is Civic Capital: Best Practices for “Open Government Data” by Joshua Tauberer

What we are clearly missing is a more ubiquitous emphasis on participation and collaboration as well as a broadly recognized definition or set of principles that helps to qualify and articulate how those interactions can be implemented. Even within the UK report, the Open Government Directive, and the Australian Gov2.0 Taskforce Report, there is very little depth to help consistently define, guide, and affirm the implementation of participation and collaboration. The Open Government Directive provides some general examples like “New feedback mechanisms, including innovative tools and practices that create new and easier methods for public engagement,” as well as “Innovative methods, such as prizes and competitions, to obtain ideas from and to increase collaboration with those in the private sector, non-profit, and academic communities.” The UK report cites some more specific examples like “Involving those who use services in their design and delivery. Websites such as fixmystreet.org and the NHS Choices website are receiving feedback on local services in volumes never experienced before. Web 2.0 takes this a stage further by offering communities the chance to pass real time comment.” The Gov2.0 Taskforce Report slightly clarifies the theme by describing “Projects to make use of social networking and ‘crowdsourcing’ tools and techniques to enhance agency policymaking, implementation and continuous improvement,” as well as “Projects to increase the use of online tools and platforms for internal collaboration within their agency and between agencies that they work with across the public sector. Yet, even with the positive and tangible picture these initiatives paint, they do little to articulate or delineate principles or provide any sort of codification that might act to qualify the proper implementation of participation and collaboration.

The Open Government Directive might provide an example of why this is still needed. The OGD does little to make a distinction between participation and collaboration and it allows agencies to interpret what these terms mean and how they’re implemented on their own terms. There’s also nothing said to establish a benchmark to measure a meaningful application of these principles since the agencies decide how to measure this on their own. To be fair, the design of the directive uses a holistically participatory process to coalesce the principles through new iterations of the initiative, but this is still an ongoing process. The OGD’s leading practices for participation and collaboration outlined thus far include:

  1. Creation of multiple participation channels based on feedback sought
  2. Impact of participation
  3. Ongoing public participation

Outside of the initiatives themselves there are some attempts to provide frameworks or perspectives for organizing principles of engagement for the public and civil servants. Some of these are referenced in an essay I wrote last year titled The Root, Branches, and Fruit of Government as an Open Platform which draws parallels between the layers of open platforms for a government like a democracy and the layers of an open platform like the Web. This also cites John Geraci’s The Four Pillars of an Open Civic System and Micah Sifry’s Three Branches of We.gov. Much of what I wanted to do by writing this piece was to reframe the OGD focus on transparency, participation, and collaboration by merging the interpretation of collaboration into an overall principle of participation and to also establish accessibility as a foundational component necessary to enable participation and transparency. I think this distinction helps establish a framework that depicts how each of these components is integral in supporting the other.

A few months ago Nat Torkington wrote a piece titled Truly Open Data which depicts the necessity to treat open data like a healthy open source project. This means that open data can only truly be open if paired with a community and resources to ensure that the data has a feedback mechanism to ensure continuous improvement. A community must be engaged to ensure that the data is accurate, that it is released in the most accessible way, and that it can be leveraged as much as possible. Clay Johnson offers a way to distinguish between disingenuously exposing data and providing it within a participatory context. He refers to this as naked versus open. Naked denotes uneasyness and often defensiveness whereas open denotes an objective proactive sensibility that leverages feedback to improve itself.  This transformative relationship can be observed with the recent developments around open transit data and the ways agencies like the Massachusetts DOT and now the NYC MTA have truly engaged with their developer communities to improve the publication and accuracy of their data and to help ensure that it’s fully leveraged.

Integrating participation is crucial every step of the way: in government data, technology, and every element of democratic society. What these perspectives emphasize is how necessary participation is to provide true transparency and that ultimately transparency and participation have a very symbiotic relationship. What has become clear through the various implementations of the public forum model for Open311 and other public services is that people are encouraged to participate when they can see the feedback of transparency, where there’s a whole community affirming that their voices can be heard.

All of this thinking helps to address some of the core issues around effective integration and implementation of open government principles, but I think we still need to further explore ways to establish a framework for participation that can be accessed and leveraged for every process of government and not just those that relate to open data and technology. Historically, democratic society has codified this through processes of voting and public hearings, but how can we provide a more comprehensive set of principles for civic participation that can be thoroughly integrated into a democratic society and be leveraged by scalable networks like the web?

As open government initiatives continue to evolve we should strive to better define the properties of civic participation and recognize them as the most fundamental components of our daily democratic process much like the scientific method exists as a fundamental process of scientific inquiry. We must close the loop to constantly refine our understanding of effective government. This feedback mechanism is also important on a more comprehensive level to provide benchmarks for the effectiveness and value derived from open government initiatives as well as to ensure that they are effectively enforced and upheld by those responsible for them: us.

How would you define the principles of participation within an open government initiative? How would you qualify those principles as integral to the philosophy and implementation of democracy? How can we ensure that our government is a dialog at the most atomic level?

The list of open government policies in various parts of the world aims to highlight the most recent wave of open government initiatives in terms of official policy, but there are surely others including some that were established early on. Countries like Mexico, India, Brazil, and Finland also have histories of making great strides in open government. Many other government bodies have established open government initiatives or simply instated open data catalogs and many of these are listed at http://wiki.openmuni.org. A number of recent reports help to provide a sense of the current breadth of open data and open government initiatives. See the Open Society Institute report on open data, the two reports from the Parliament of Canada, and the Ottawa Open Data report. I also recommend Open Data is Civic Capital: Best Practices for “Open Government Data” by Joshua Tauberer

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