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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