The Four Pillars of an Open Civic System

Everyone is talking a lot about open government and transparency these days. It’s exhilarating stuff, and it’s even more exciting to see governments get behind it, creating sites like in the U.S. for the public to access government information via APIs. But every time I hear someone say something like “our organization is really into transparency” (which is often) it sounds odd to me. It’s only talking about a part of the puzzle, not the whole puzzle. What we really want (or what I really want anyway) is not simply government transparency, but an open civic system – a civic system that operates, and flourishes, as a fully open system, for whatever level we happen to be talking about – federal, state, city, neighborhood, whatever. And transparency is a big part of that open civic system, but it is still only one part.

In fact there are four parts to a functioning open civic system. These are:

Government to Citizen (G2C). This is what people speak of when they talk about transparency and open government data. It’s the idea of creating open pipelines for data directly from government and gov’t agencies to whoever is interested in receiving it. G2C gets you accountability – watchdog groups suddenly have easy access to the paper trails for everything that is going on, etc. It also gets you things like transit schedules, minutes from meetings, and zoning data – things that can be built on by third parties to make the civic system work better. G2C is critical stuff, but without the other three components in place, we can’t make the most of this open government data. What we need is not simply a pipe of open data, we need an ecosystem of open civic data, all interconnected, all flowing every which way. That’s what the other three “pillars” of an open civic system gets us.

Citizen to Government (C2G). The counterpart to G2C. This is the idea of creating open pipelines from the people directly to the government – hopefully with someone listening on the other end. Adding C2G to G2C completes the circuit and makes open government APIs and such that much stronger – it takes what was a uni-directional data flow and turns it into a feedback loop of information, input and output. At the city level, C2G is taking shape right now in the form of Open 311 – a open API that anyone can build on that allows residents to create “problem tickets” for their city to address one way or another. Washington D.C. is currently launching an open 311 API, and I expect more cities will follow suit soon. Other examples of C2G include UK’s FixMyStreet and from New Haven, Connecticut, both sites with a huge amount of potential. There are a million different, nuanced ways C2G could be played out, at the local, state and federal levels.

Citizen to Citizen (C2C). Okay so now we have both open G2C and C2G data flows going, and that’s great – huge amplification of civic activity, great realization of efficiency with regards to interaction between government and people. But there are all sorts of ways to improve civic life that don’t really need to involve the government at all – what about those things? That’s where Citizen to Citizen, or C2C, data flows come in. C2C is the citizens’ brigade of data flow – it’s the people doing it for themselves, whatever “it” happens to be. Clever Commute, in New Jersey, is one example of a great C2C data flow. Everyone who commutes by train into NYC subscribes to the Clever Commute feed, and then notifies each other of what the current delays are, and where, each morning. The system works better than anything New Jersey Transit has been able to pull together, and at a cost of essentially zero. This is the great thing about C2C – it is added value to the civic system at no additional cost to the system itself. The cost to operate C2C is passed on to those who are using it, and spread out amongst individuals, to the point where the costs become negligible. Instead of New Jersey Transit coming up with a system that knows how late each of its trains are at a cost of millions of tax dollars, the users of Clever Commute bear the cost of the system, and it costs pennies for each user to operate (the cost of sending a text message). C2C is a huge value-add on top of G2C and C2G, and as governments consider how to get increased services in these recessionary times, I expect C2C to be huge – once governments get used to the idea.

Government to Government (G2G). Lastly, the square is not complete without open Government-to-Government data flows. Entities within governments should have easy, open data exchange with each other, without having to issue a request, parse something out of a PDF, and so forth. The ability for, say, the NYC Department of Health to get data from the Los Angeles DoH in realtime, without having to talk to anyone or issue a request could be a huge asset. Or think of the efficiencies that could be gained if the NYC DOT were able to exchange realtime data with the NYPD. If these examples sound vague, it’s because G2G is the “pillar” I know the least about, having never worked in a government agency. From what I’ve learned though, it seems to me that there could be a huge increase to civic utility with a little bit of thought about an open G2G system.

And of course you can blend these data flows and come up with hybrids all you like. DIYcity’s SickCity, for example, is basically a C2C tool in its present, basic 1.0 incarnation – it detects instances of residents in your city saying they’re sick, and passes that news on to other residents. But a more sophisticated version of the tool would also pass that information on directly to the Department of Health when relevant, and would also, optimally, accept data from the DoH to pass that back to residents. Suddenly it has gone from a simple C2C tool to a tool that is C2C, C2G and G2C. Now we’re talking about interesting stuff. Each additional channel of data makes the system exponentially more valuable.

With all of these systems properly developed and engaged, our civic systems – local, regional, federal – should bloom and transform into the properly modern, Internet-age things they ought to be. This will translate to increases in efficiency, greater innovation and rate of change, better adaptability, and greater resilience, in addition to other advantages. To get there though, we’ve got to get beyond thinking simply in terms of transparency and government APIs.

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  • This is excellent John!

    Citizen to government communication and vice-versa is only a small part of the change that needs to be made to empower the people to improve the public space and their communities.

    On SeeClickFix we have seen utility companies, clean air non-profits, police chiefs, public works officials, State Transit officials, business improvement districts, city councilman and citizens all working together and communicating on issues to resolve them.

    Gov 2.0 is part of the much bigger picture: community 2.0

  • I like your systematic analysis as an extension of current concepts.

    If society & culture do move down the 2.0 route existing concepts will gradually become altered and new concepts emerge.

    Government mediates the community it represents – technology also mediates – there is the potential for technology to mediate much of what government does (disintermediation of current forms anyway).

    The role of Gov itself could diminish as citizens/community participate peer to peer so your c2C part may become the more dominant part.

    Will be interesting.

  • I have to shake my head, I am sorry. This sounds illuminating and harmonic. A sort of equation a mathematician or a physicist would come up with. Or a philosopher. But this ideal is not applicable to the real world. Counties and States have their own authority for a reason. The Federal system works in other ways. Connecting everything is great to a certain point. But it also has it’s perils. Who has actually access to what? Who ensures the citizens rights? NGO’s with no actual powers? The Supreme Court, depending on the ‘Constellation du jour?’ Transparency is great, but more important is to know who gets to see what and who controls whom? – We live in a world where 1 Billion people have no access to clean water. The poorest US-citizens cannot afford their houses, not to mention Internet access. 12 Million illegal immigrants, how do they fit in, in this plan? – I am scared to death to think how all my private information is floating around an might (and WILL) be compromised by mismanagement, fraud, hackers, creative companies, authoritative next ‘Homeland-Security’ Governments, Anit-Gay, Anti-Whatever state/federal laws, etc… Privacy and Identity have to be guaranteed by all means. Dreaming about an ideal Utopian constellation is fine, but seeing the realities and knowing how many things need to be addressed beforehand – is also very well needed. Utopists need a Cassandra next to them. Dream, but with your feet on the ground.

  • beautiful articulation.

    another way to think about the problem with focusing wholesale on transparency – as I believe I’ve seen written around the interwebs, e.g. by the likes of Kevin Kelly – is by making an analogy to US constitutional law. our constitutional law is conceptualized as a balance between freedom and equality. i.e. in some cases we surrender freedom for purposes of equality, and vice versa. similarly, in some cases we may have to surrender transparency in favor of X (think Obama’s Guantanamo policy, and situations in general in which transparency may not be the ideal strategy).

    essentially: I Love your conceptualization of transparency as simply one pillar in an “ecosystem of open civic data,” and thought you might buffer your argument with an analogy to constitutional law and/or the broader (albeit potentially obvious) point that keeping the G2C pipe wide open may not be ideal in all circumstances.

  • John, I like the framework you’ve laid out here — I think it’s a good start for understanding how the pieces fit together and what roles various players (public agencies, entrepreneurs, citizens, nonprofits) might play to make it happen.

    I wholeheartedly agree that transparency is just a start and that the end goal is the fulfillment of the channels you’ve outlined. I personally find C2C and C2G particularly interesting.

    For others out there who are interested in this conversation, you should definitely come to ParticipationCamp in NYC later this month.

  • james chun

    There’s a fascinating post on the UK government site you might be interested in about governance, digital engagement and providing citizen access to data:

    The comments are quite interesting too, including suggestions of using realtime services like and social data discovery services like for making this data most useful to us citizens

  • Good post.
    As the founder of Clever Commute, I’ll share that it has grown beyond my wildest dreams. FYI – we cover all major commuter lines in NJ, NY and CT. We’re also live in Boston and in various stages of deployment in several other cities.
    The costs to manage and run a 6,000 person community is not trivial…but is offset two ways. (1) ads in the messages (which the community has embraced) and (2) actually being able to sell the content about the commute (NOT about the people).Our insight is so good that a major media company licenses it from us for their traffic/transit reports!
    Overall…I am amazed at how far it’s come…and how well the people do at self-policing and self-regulating. It’s been a hoot.

  • JIm

    Today has been one of the ultimate days in history for thinking digital democracy. Thank you to Twitter for postponing maintenance.

  • regarding fixmystreets and open 311s, I want to restate again that perhaps its not installing the tools here, but retraining and sensetizing staff on the public service facing side to be ready to do act once these tools are in place. It’s one those classic tech stories where geeks are great at making tools but its ultimately people that use them. I’m excited about these initiatives as any person as i’m building these toolsets too (in the Netherlands). Does anyone have any experience on how best to approach training and service response to these new forms of citizen/gov communication when your organization is used to the old way of doing things?

  • Thanks for the positive mention of SeeClickFix. I thought that the readers here might be interested in an update.

    Last week SeeClickFix blogged on the growing need for an open API for 311 and local issues/service requests. To automate C2G and G2G in a way that is working automate G2C.

    Take a look and let us know what you think.

  • Regarding G2G – it sounds like we presuppose flows within the National boundaries – when would it make sense to transcend the nation? The principal under which this data flow is desirable – comparison of effects of particular policies for example – makes a good deal of sense, but would very well be the same data other entities in your flow would desire. Any political unit likely has little sense of what is being tried by peer units of government, let alone the effects unless a third party writes it up.

    However, having a clear sense of policy effects would require visualizations, or other means of comparison of the state of the law and the state of funding for any particular initiative, and when any complex social phenomenon depends on multiple factors we are talking about some complex tools for interpretation. Nevertheless, I look forward to a day when those are available.

  • vallor

    I think I like Alex’s comments the most.

    Open minds are fine…but not so open that our brains fall out. ;P

  • Thanks for sharing your framework. We increasingly need conceptual structures to help figure out the best ways to move forward during this info upheaval.

    I would like to echo @Alex a bit and add to the transparency pillar the privacy pillar. Mashing up data sets can have unintended consequences, for example see

    What to do? Build frameworks for policy discussions that include conflicting goals. We need to figure out how to make this work. Thanks for your contribution.

  • Jeff

    Good apps to point out, John, but what do you make of the fact that most are run as businesses and some are even under patent protection (such as CleverCommute?)

    What implications does the commercialization of government by these companies and even larger ones like Google have on issues of transparency, access and data? And what about some of these “open” processes being patent protected?

  • John, although you’ve created a clear structure, I think reality has more nuances. I’ve used your structure and the one Mark Drapeau recently published for the DoD to come to a different vision, from a Dutch point of view.

    If you’re interested, this is the translation by Google Translate: