May 20, 2014
This post from OTI’s Civic Innovation Team originally appeared on OpenSource.com
Open government is a critical dimension to democracy. It is also difficult. If it were easy, our work would be over. Yet, open government by its nature needs constant iteration. Open government, much like open source, is grounded in collaborative and participatory processes that ultimately shape how we experience our cities, states, and country. It requires several dimensions—from releasing information to creating structures and processes to empower people inside and out of government.
This requires a culture change that naturally takes time. Open government needs feedback mechanisms to ensure citizens can truly hold elected officials accountable which requires an "all hands on deck" approach. These processes should be collaborative, reflect contributors, and result in a better end product. A feedback process enables citizens to participate and government, and in turn to reflect the people it’s governing.
Public institutions contain unique challenges and opportunities for openness. Criticism can be wrongly associated with failure. Elected officials can be rightly concerned of policies that can make them electorally vulnerable. Yet, there is a misconception that openness will necessarily lead to criticism. Oftentimes, constructive criticism can lead to improved process outcomes. This defensive posture stifles necessary governance innovation. With the myriad of ever pressing public problems, the public sector simply does not have a choice but to try these new approaches. Additionally, unlike the private sector—where getting to market first is critical—the public sector can be more participatory, collaborative, and open source.
Citizens have vast local expertise that can be channeled toward governance. Through empowering citizens as information providers, verifiers, and consumers, government can be both more open and effective. For example, Open311 is a collaborative and open standard for sharing and tracking 311 complaints. By pushing for an open standard format, 311 is one of the most widely used systems, consistent across municipalities, for citizens to share their non emergency issues and interact with government. Open311 provides an accountability platform towards ensuring governments can respond to citizen requests and foster civic trust. Importantly, it provides multiple channels with which residents can interact with government including phone, app, and web interface.
Foster multi-stakeholder partnerships
Engaging non-governmental actors, including academia, civil society, and the private sector, can help ease burdens on government. The Open Government Partnership has leveraged multi-stakeholder support. Civil society can help bring a unique perspective and build local level capacity. Open source companies could be vital partners to support multi-national open government efforts. Ongoing partnerships, with various actors interacting, helps re-imagine the traditional relationship of the state. This is critical with ever growing resource constraints on the public sector. Government need not open alone.
Build sustainable infrastructure and system to collaborate
Open government has the best chance for success through collaboration, sharing lessons learned, and best practices. For example, Chicago is building SmartData Platform: an open source predictive analytics tool that other governments can use to translate open data to improve service delivery. Chicago has also open sourced their geocoder—the code that they use for address location—on GitHub, which allows residents to contribute corrections and additions to improve the geocoder’s efficacy. This approach creates infrastructure that other governments can easily replicate. Systematic, open approaches can lower costs, create new avenues of participation, and build capacity across geographic boundaries.
These approaches suggest that open government is more than a set of processes: it’s also a mind shift. Government can work to engage citizens, enlist outside partnerships, and collaborate towards a more open future.