Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice

It’s The Consumer, Stupid!

This book is comprised of 34 essays written by thought leaders in both technology and government who are passionate about open data. The authors argue the case for “openness” in government and offer best practices and examples (several case studies included at the end as well) for building, supporting and evangelizing Open Platforms in government.

With the clout of Social Networks and hacker communities, the idea of being “open” isn’t as radical as it used to be several years ago, and the book clearly capitalizes on that. Almost all successful companies have open APIs today. These companies realize that it is “data accessibility” that will invariably create value for the consumer–and their business.

So why can’t governments do the same? The book argues the case for governments to “open up” and give access to their data (e.g. documents, bills, voting records, proceedings, initiatives, …etc) so that the electorate is informed and able to fully participate in governance, which is in effect the ultimate goal of democracy.

Out of all 34 essays, Tim O’Reilly’s “Government as a Platform” offered the most comprehensive blueprint for what needs to be done to get to the next level in Open Government. He offers seven lessons, or principles, that lead to Open Platform. These aren’t government specific, which makes them even more valuable to anyone interested in the subject of Open Platform.

The seven principles are:

  1. Open Standards Spark Innovation and Growth
  2. Build a Simple System and Let It Evolve
  3. Design for Participation
  4. Learn From Your “Hackers”
  5. Data Mining Allows You To Harness Implicit Participation
  6. Lower the Barriers to Experimentation
  7. Lead by Example

The principles are pretty self-explanatory and Tim fleshes each one out with examples and guiding thoughts. I highly recommend reading those sections twice to fully understand what they require of you and your company to build a successful Open Platform.

The principle that resonated with me the most was #2. I see this all the time (I’m guilty of it sometimes too): Engineers embark on an elaborative architecture quest to build the most “awesome” or “kick ass” software that will undeniably be the best platform EVER. The only thing is they often end up with a convoluted, unmaintainable system that ends up being “legacy” in no time. Tim quotes John Gall’s Systemantics:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true. A complex system designed from scratch never workes and cannot be make to work. You have to start over, beginning witha  working simple system.

It’s so very true.

At the end of his essay, Tim O’Reilly offers ten practical steps that government agencies can adopt to be more open. If you don’t have time to read the entire book, I strongly recommend you read his chapter.

In the end, the paramount beneficiary of Open Platforms is the Consumer. In government, the consumer is the Electorate. President Obama understood that. He is the first US President to fully embrace the Open Government movement. We saw clear signs of that during his campaign in 2008 and in the release of data.gov and change.gov.

A few weeks back, I went to interview protesters at the Occupy LA encampment in downtown Los Angeles as part of my research for the new startup I co-founded, Voterspring.com. When I asked the question, “how do you think we can hold government accountable?” The overwhelming answer was, “information and transparent access to it.”

This book paves the road to open and transparent government. Now the ball is in the government’s court.

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