Are we really getting cold feet on open government or is it just the institutions?

I did make many of these points since the very beginning of the open government initiative, and I have been warning other jurisdictions not to enter a competition based on how many data sets, or how many Facebook pages or idea contests they would run vs. other jurisdictions.

What very few have done, and should have been hardwired in the directive, is to link openness to value and mission objectives. There is still time, although the clock is ticking as the Congress – which is no longer as favorable as it was at the beginning of the Obama administration – starts looking more closely into this matter.

Gartner analyst, Andrea Di Maio, comments on the recently released US Congressional Report on Open Government, which appears to challenge some of the rhetoric of open government supporters – Di Maio clearly thinks, to put it in commercial lanaguage, its all about return on investment.

I haven’t had time to read the report myself, so I’m taking Di Maio’s comments on face value – surprisingly, I agree with some of them in principle. It is very easy to get caught up with app building and open data, while not actually really doing anything innovative to extend, improve or reduce the cost of community services, they way they organise or how they are delivered.

However, the thing I would challenge is who exactly do we mean as the beneficiary of the return on investment in open government – the institutions or the citizens? And is this report really just the sign of government institutions fighting against change and the FUD created by Wikileaks?

The issue of what Clay Shirky calls “Coase’s Floor also comes to mind – the problem might be that governments are making it too expensive is some cases to move to open government, by trying to measure and make the effort visible so they can analyse it before taking action.

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2 thoughts on “Are we really getting cold feet on open government or is it just the institutions?

  1. I wonder what the business case for telephones looked like – or the business case for computers on desktops. We have seen recently what the business case for a National Broadband Network looks like…Often stepping into the unknown involves exactly that – understanding that the ROI may not be calculable simply by looking at a linear progression from the past.There is no evidence to suggest that 10% greater openness will lead to x% increased ROI – equally there’s no evidence to suggest it will not, or what the unanticipated benefits – and disbenefits – may be.Open government is, by its nature, not about releasing more information or public use of data, but about a cultural and philosophical change regarding the ownership and right to access public data. Just like any cultural or philosophical change, the return is not easily measured in dollar terms, instead the return is in a more supportive and effective society, improved happiness and welfare – intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, returns.When you can show me the ROI of democracy, I’ll show you the ROI of open data.

  2. I wouldn’t confuse the investment in the US road network post WWII (or AU’s current investment in a NBN) with Open Data. The former was an investment in an asset which the government of the time made largely on faith, an investment which is currently seen to be returning $14 billion to the U.S. economy annually. The AU NBN might be headed on a similar journey. The latter is actually a philosophical point of view about an approach to government.The problem is that we confuse “Open Data” with “Open Government”. They’re related, but not the same. Open Government is a move to streamline service acquisition and delivery by exposing the bureaucracy of government and integrating it more tightly with other service providers, and has been progressing nicely for a decade or more now. Open Data is a desire to change the relationship between government and the population, reducing the government to a simple data conduit between the public (or corporations) providing services and the public consuming them.Open Government has made government easier to deal with by making it easier to find and consume the services you need, and by fostering community. Everything from applying for the dole, getting a grant through to organising a council supported street party is orders of magnitude easier than it was a few decades ago, mainly due to increased transparency. This has been delivered via a range of means, from publishing information on line, through providing better explanations for the services offered and promoting multi-channel access and self service delivery. The latest wave of Open Government is seeing departments integrating external services with their own, and putting even more data out in public in the process, as they move from a service-provider to a service-enabler. Ultimately though, if government (as separate from politics) is focused on keeping folk feed and feeling safe then it’s doing it’s job. It’s basic Maslow.Open Data, though, is based on the view that government should do as little as possible, hand over the data, and let individuals in the public get on with doing what they want. It’s claimed that this will provide both transparency (the public has all the data, after all) as well as fostering innovative solutions to the many problems that confront us today.It’s quite possible to have transparency and Open Government without the need to publish all your data, and maintain these published versions, as claimed by Open Data. People need to understand how the wheels of government turn if they want to trust it, and the best way of doing this is usually through key figures and analysis which builds a story and names the important players. Drowning people in data has the opposite effect, hiding government operation behind a wall of impenetrable details. Wikileaks was a great study in this, as it was only when the traditional journalist got involved, with their traditional analysis and publication weaving together a narrative the broader public could consumer, that it started to have a real impact. (It’s also interesting that the combination of the anonymous drop boxes being created by conventional media and Open Leaks – anonymous mass distribution to conventional media – looks to be a more potent tool than the ideologically pure Wikileaks.)Nor is treating government as an integration medium the only way to solve the world’s problems. While entrepreneurs and VCs might be the darlings of the moment, there’s many other organisations and governments which are also successfully chipping away at these problems. For every Bloom Box who has mastered marketing hype, there’s a more boring organisation that might have already overtaken them. The entrepreneur model will be part of the solution, but it’s not the silver bullet many claim it to be.The problem is that Open Data is the result of a libertarian political mindset rather and a solution to a pressing need. Forcing government to publish all its data sets does not provide or guarantee transparency nor does it has no direct impact on the services offered by the government. It can also consume significant government resources that might be better spent providing services that the community needs. Publish a data set of no obvious value, or build a homeless shelter? Invest in Semantic Web enabling another data set few use, or pay for disaster relief? These are the tradeoffs that people responsible for the day-to-day operation of government are forced to make. Claims by folk like Tim Berners-Lee that magic will happen once data is out there and ontology enabled have proven to be largely wrong.However, Open Data does align with a particular political point view. Open Data assumes that we, as a population, want such a small government model, an assumption which is completely unjustified. Some people trust, and want, the government to take responsibility for a lot of these services. Some want to meet the government somewhere in the middle. Open Data tries to force a world that works in shades of grey into a black-or-white choice that promotes a particular world view.Deciding what and how much the government should be responsible for is a political decision, and it’s one that we revisit every time we visit the ballot box. Each time we visit the ballot box we evolve, by a small amount, the role government plays in our lives. (Occasionally we avoid the ballot box and revolt instead.) Should government own the roads? The answer appears to still be yes. Should government own power stations? Generally, no. Should they own the dams? We’re still deciding that one.It’s in the context of the incremental and ongoing evolution of government’s role in our lives that we can best understand open data. Forcing open data onto government through mandate (as Obama did) was a political act driven by a desire to force one group’s preferred mode of operation on everyone else. You might want Open Data, but other people have differing priorities. Just because they disagree doesn’t make them wrong. The US congressional report is the mechanism of government responding by documenting the benefits open data brought, the problems it caused, and the cost. The benefits (or not) of open data will now be debated, and its future will be decided at the ballot box.Open Government is alive and well, and is driving the evolution of government as we know it. Services will be improved, government services will increasingly be integrated be integrated with those of the private sector, and more data will be released to support this. The assumption that all government data should remain secret unless proven otherwise has been flipped, and many public servants now assume that data should be made public unless there’s a good reason not to publish. Government is investing in moving specific information assets online, were it makes sense, and departments are opening up to social media and much closer involvement (and scrutiny) with the public sector. The mechanism of government is evolving, and this is a good thing.Open Data, though, as an expression of a political point of view, looks like it’s in trouble.

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