Open Gov Is a Dialogue, Not a Monologue

At last week’s Personal Democracy Forum I had a conversation with someone working for a city (I won’t say which city), who was tasked with opening up that city’s data. We were talking about the Apps for Democracy contests held recently in Washington D.C., and he explained his feeling about them:

“There were some interesting apps in there, but overall they didn’t meet with the mayor’s agenda for the city.”

Being the non-confrontational person I generally am when in conversation with total strangers, I said “Oh yeah?” and the discussion continued without incident. Inwardly though I was thinking, did he really just say that? My god, this guy is missing the point ENTIRELY.

A city that opens up its data but expects that people building on that data should follow the mayor’s agenda is going to fail miserably in its attempt at creating an open system.

Open government is about government as platform. And being a platform means letting people do whatever they like with your tools, letting them build in ways that meet their own agendas, not yours. It’s about coming to see your users’ agendas as your own agenda. If your users win, you win.

On the other hand, if you force your own agenda on your users, then they don’t build anything, and everyone loses.

Open gov is a dialogue between governments and constituents, not a monologue. Everyone gets to decide what gets talked about and what gets built, not just the people with the data.

Everyone who works in the web understands this, of course. I know many of the people who are working on opening up government from the inside get this as well. But this conversation, with a senior-level employee at a government agency, made me wonder how many in government don’t understand what open gov means, and what the real value and opportunity is to them. How many think of opening up APIs and such as a way to extend their own reach and increase their office’s power?

This is one problem with grafting new ideas about platforms and APIs onto an age-old system rooted in a culture of contracts and RFPs. Can this graft produce a living, thriving hybrid of the two? Or will one necessarily become the subordinate of the other? If the latter is the case, which notion wins out? Open platform or fixed agenda?

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  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/5/167/942 Ken Williams

    I wasn’t there, so maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think it’s fair to assume the guy meant this “our way or the highway” sentiment you ascribe to him. For example, perhaps he meant that none of the apps created an open enough environment; perhaps he didn’t think they would engage his constituents enough; perhaps he just couldn’t get his mind around how they’d “integrate” it and needed some help talking through it.

    If you fail to ask questions in person (in the guise of being “non-confrontational”) and then blog in public about it, where the guy doesn’t even have a chance to respond to the criticism, that strikes me as an unfair approach to reporting the story.

  • Lineman for the county

    Being a gov’t employee, I can say that the person you were talking to may have just wanted to give you a neutral answer and not reveal their personal assessment of what they saw for the sake of propriety. I wouldn’t assign too much significance to that kind of comment. I give those kinds of answers to product vendors all the time to avoid the rabid follow up sales calls and indiscreet offers to write the RFP for me! (Conflict of interest anyone?)

    I’m bound by a code of ethics to follow a purchase process that is supposed to ensure all qualified players gain access to the opportunity to do business with our agency and not make purchasing decisions based on one person’s opinion – the RFI, RFP, RFQ processes. I realize this is super idealistic, but that’s how I run my part of the show. I can’t speak for others in government concerned with purchasing.

    I’m pro-open government, pro-user enablement, and pro-information sharing. I’m one of the good guys working for positive change on the inside. Thanks for the blog articles!

  • http://diycity.org John Geraci

    Ken and Lineman

    I knew I would take flack in this post for not having pressed this man on his exact point. I should have, absolutely. But it wasn’t done under the guise of anything, it was just a shortcoming of mine.

    Your alternate interpretations of this man’s comments are fine – let’s add them to the record. The comment still illustrates a valid point, which is that the culture of official agendas is at odds with the culture of open platforms and open innovation, and those two cultures are now coming together under the banner of open gov. It will be interesting to see how that plays out over the next year or so.

  • http://www.ahier.blogspot.com/ Brian Ahier

    I serve on the City Council here and have been pushing hard (somewhat successfully)for new goals at open government and transparency.

    http://ahier.blogspot.com/2009/07/opening-up-government.html

    Working with old legacy systems, and trying to pull along a rural community into the Web 2.0, Gov 2.0 world is trying at times, but I am excited about the potential.

  • http://friendfeed.com/njt Nat Torkington

    “There were some interesting apps in there, but overall they didn’t meet with the mayor’s agenda for the city.” Open government is about government as platform. And being a platform means letting people do whatever they like with your tools, letting them build in ways that meet their own agendas, not yours. It’s about coming to see your users’ agendas as your own agenda. If your users win, you win.

  • http://lewisshepherd.wordpress.com lewis shepherd

    I’m going to suggest something which you probably know intuitively, but I think it bears pointing out concretely. I used to work for several mayors (San Francisco, San Jose), and am really familiar with the staffer’s mindset. Now I work on Gov 2.0 & open-gov projects (among other things), and I’d suggest that it’s quicker & easier than you think – and very important – to win over folks like that guy.

    Every elected official, at whatever level, got elected on an agenda. Barack Obama included “open data” and transparent government on his list, and perhaps more will do so, but most certainly haven’t done so up to now. And at the city level, most mayoral candidates & incumbents are focusing, especially in the recession, on rubber-meets-the-road priorities and projects. So I’d suggest asking, “Ok, what are your Mayor’s priorities?” You’ll likely get a short list of urgent things like “cutting car thefts on the east side,” or “new high schools to house influx of immigrant students,” or “finding the funding for the stalled transit line-reconstruction through downtown, which will cut congestion and provide new jobs.” It sounds like the staffer you spoke with took a look at the Kundra list with that kind of filtering list in mind, and didn’t see any apps that particularly met their priorities. He had no clue that “Gov-as-platform” was the underlying premise (and to be fair, that’s a relatively new locution anyway).

    Until more candidates & their staffs come into office with campaign planks showing they’re hip to Gov 2.0, I think it’d be easier for all of us to do the mental/verbal jujitsu on the Gov2.0-proponent side: (1) find out from the politico’s what the actual local priorities are; (2) apply a bit of flexibile creativity to how open-data might apply to those problems; (3) use a sales pitch designed to ring that local bell. Simply talking about the philosophical importance & universal value won’t make any difference to most elected officials and bureaucrats for a while to come.

  • http://ahier.blogspot.com/ Brian Ahier

    Thanks Lewis, you give some great insight into how to promote Gov2.0 initiatives at the local level. Do you have any examples of bits of flexibile creativity on how open-data might apply to local gov problems?
    I have been trying to promote some web2.0 initiatives from my city council perch, but trying pull data from some of these legacy financial systems can be tough (nothing buckets of money won’t solve :-)

  • http://friendfeed.com/you2gov Alan W Silberberg

    Interesting post. As CEO of http://www.you2gov.org I am particularly fascinated by the many responses we see to Government 2.0 and Open Government Initiatives. There is broad understanding that “Government needs to move to Open Gov/Gov 2.0″ but little understanding as to what that means. What is “Open Government” for one City or State is simply “Bad Government” for others. The terms used right now are subjective, as are the impact and results seen and heard from officials like your “city worker”. What is for sure is that change is now, not in the future. Many of these early adoptions will be remade into something else in just a few short years. But those Governments and those people who work for Governments that see the vision and understand it is needed now; especially in light of tough budgetary conditions will be the “winners” in the early Government 2.0 race.

  • http://stephaniegerson.weebly.com stephanie gerson

    @johngeraci: “The comment still illustrates a valid point, which is that the culture of official agendas is at odds with the culture of open platforms and open innovation, and those two cultures are now coming together under the banner of open gov. It will be interesting to see how that plays out over the next year or so.”

    which is a very (VERY) interesting point, and you’re wading into Science, Technology & Society (STS) here. more specifically, you’re wading into the question, as Langdon Winner puts it, of whether/how “artifacts have politics” (in this case, of whether how the artifact of open platforms have politics that might diverge with the status quo). [note: be careful with the dual uses of politics here: Winner is asking whether/how artifacts have politics, and you’re asking whether/how artifacts’ politics interact with, quite literally, politics.] methinks you’d enjoy reading Winner’s entire article on this:

    http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&ct=res&cd=1&url=http%3A%2F%2Fzaphod.mindlab.umd.edu%2FdocSeminar%2Fpdfs%2FWinner.pdf&ei=cI1fSv_vNI-HlAfvrrCTDQ&usg=AFQjCNEb-y4tgq_F8ZABT34WZ5pmgw0GLw&sig2=gbns-gL7KFBrtWrwon6v0w

    alternatively, here’s an old synthesis of mine:

    “In ‘Do artifacts have politics?,’ Langdon Winner identifies two ways in which artifacts can have politics. The second way refers to artifacts that correlate with particular kinds of political relationships, which Winner refers to as inherently political artifacts (Winner, p. 22, 1999). He distinguishes between two types of inherently political artifacts: those that require a particular sociological system and those that are strongly compatible with a particular sociological system (Winner, p. 29, 1999). A further distinction is made between conditions internal to the workings of a given technical system and those that are external to it (Winner, p. 33, 1999). I visualized this second way as this 2-by-2 matrix [http://www.flickr.com/photos/stequoianie/2070050419/] consisting of four ‘types’ of artifacts: those requiring a particular internal sociological system, those compatible with a particular internal sociological system, those requiring a particular external sociological system, and those compatible with a particular external sociological system. Winner himself didn’t put forth and doesn’t necessarily agree with this interpretation, but I consider it useful for thinking about the political qualities artifacts have and how they may change through time.”

    tying it all together….where in this matrix [[http://www.flickr.com/photos/stequoianie/2070050419/] would open platforms be situated, and what are the implications for their effect on politics?

  • http://www.forextradingreviewed.com John Shepard

    Open government is a brilliant idea, but I think there is such deep rooted resistance in government to share information (especially bad information!) that schemes like these will take quite some time to start working as intended.