Inviting citizens in
By Greg Pellegrino - April 26, 2010
Back to square one
Democratic government was conceived to be by the people and for the people. Because government and the populace it served was so small initially, an intimate relationship between the two was more easily maintained. But that relationship changed over time as government bureaucracy grew larger and people grew more distant from elected officials and the work those officials do.
The sheer size and impersonal nature of governments today make citizens feel cut off from government, and skeptical about what government is doing for them.
The Internet shortened the distance between government and the citizens it serves because government agencies began to put an electronic face on formerly paper-bound services. But e-government was then; this is now.
Unlocking the doors
Our latest research report “Unlocking government” looks at this issue in the here and now. We examine how modern technologies can truly create “open government,” the next phase of the government/public relationship.
Take transparency in government. Initially, transparency translated to a government making its data available to the public. But, in practice, this meant that the data was available only in the format of the government’s choosing (try reading a government’s annual budget!) and produced at the government’s convenience (only during business hours of course…). E-government improved transparency by taking away the paper and the whole “normal business hours” concept, but the data was then posted to a Web site in a format of the agency's choosing.
Open government is about government letting the citizens in. However, it can become reality only when government unlocks its data. And it's starting to happen.
After some experimenting with making raw data freely available to whomever wants to download it, some public-sector leaders now understand the value of unlocking government. Leaders are seeing just how much the relationship between citizens and government can advance if citizens finally feel like their government is open to them.
Though it's a plus that government can get an image make-over by opening data, taking this step holds even more promise for improved public sector performance.
In the United States, Washington, D.C.’s Data Catalog is a model for best practice. It began in 2007, and now provides more than 200 data sets that anybody can tap to create new applications or Web sites that shed light on crime, properties, construction projects, local businesses and much more.
By readily sharing its raw data, the District allows residents to design applications they want to use. This puts government in a role of data platform manager, instead of a simple data publisher, and creates the possibility for a two-way dialog instead of one-way dictation. It's a role that the public expects government to perform.
Government is the steward of public data. Why shouldn't the public be able to use that data? Forward thinking public-sector leaders realize that governing should be a collaborative effort – government and the public can work together to improve a community's standard of living.
Share the load
Say what you will about social media, it's an incredibly powerful set of tools. The Ontario government found this out the hard way.
When Ontario's government announced stronger laws for young drivers, the “Young Drivers against New Ontario Laws” group was created on Facebook. Two hundred people joined the group within hours. By day two, the group counted 14,500 members; by day four, that number jumped to 95,000. The group eventually grew to more than 140,000 members. Ontario's government didn't foresee the strength and speed of this groundswell of online opposition, and ultimately chose to weaken some of the most restrictive provisions in the proposed laws. This is why I urge public leaders to organize themselves online, before citizens organize against them.
Why not work with the public in entirely new ways to solve difficult problems? Governments will be forced to make tough economic choices as revenues continue to stagnate. Sharing raw data with constituents through open government platforms gives government the opportunity to harness the talent pool of its citizens. Governments can simply ask the public to design applications, thereby saving internal resources and instantly increasing its economic competitiveness.
There's no doubt that opening raw data carries a price and demands consideration of privacy regulations and expectations. Nonetheless, governments that are embracing the open government movement are also opening themselves to a higher standard of accountability. They are finding it is a trade-off that's well worth the price. There's simply no reason for government to go it alone when so much outside talent and creativity can be tapped for help. No government is an island, and it's time for the public sector to let the public in.