Open government and "next generation democracy"

The pieces are in place and the time is right for government to reinvent itself.

The following is from the foreword of “Next Generation Democracy: What the Open-Source Revolution Means for Power, Politics, and Change” by Jared Duval.

The use of technology to connect government with the governed is not a new idea. The printing press was the Internet of the 17th and 18th centuries; news and opinion was circulated by a myriad homegrown newspapers eagerly read and discussed in coffeehouses and cafes. Benjamin Franklin pioneered the idea of “publick printer” in
Pennsylvania and other colonies before the American Revolution (though the US Government Printing Office was not established as a federal function until 1860.)

Governments quickly adopted radio and television as well. In the UK, the BBC was established in the 1920s to harness the new power of radio to advance the mission of government. In the US, government funding of radio and TV came later, with Voice of America established in 1944, PBS in 1970, and C-SPAN in 1979. Starting with the activism of Carl Malamud to put the SEC online in 1993, the first Federal government websites appeared only a few years after the introduction of the World Wide Web.

Open government is also not a new idea. The conviction that transparency is a check on the power of government is a crucial element of modern democracies. When it was forbidden to provide transcription or reports of debates in the British Parliament, Samuel Johnson, among others, was hired by The Gentleman’s Magazine to imaginatively recreate the debates as if they’d happened in some other, fictional kingdom. Freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Napoleon reportedly said “I fear the newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets.”

Organizations like mySociety in the UK and the Sunlight Foundation in the US, which apply the latest technology to provide greater government transparency, are the direct heir to the newspapers of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, which played so important a role in shaping the expectations of modern democracy.

Next generation democracy means more than just reporting on the activities of those in power. Society today is much larger, more complex, more impenetrable. The entire Constitution of the United States can be read and understood by a layman; today, a single bill may run to thousands of pages, full of loopholes and language that even trained lawyers might disagree over. What’s more, the “information economy” is inseparable from the industrial economy of nations. Vast databases collect information about every aspect of society; but while the complexity of society and the amount of information necessary to make decisions has increased by orders of magnitude, most government decision-making still relies on processes designed decades, or even centuries ago.

There is a greater and greater gap between the systems used to manage complexity in the private sector and the same systems in the public sector. An average citizen carrying an iPhone has access to real-time “situational awareness” that outstrips military systems costing millions of dollars. From WalMart to Wall Street, from Google to the next generation of personal robotics, intelligent algorithms process massive amounts of data in
real time, and respond automatically in close to real time. Meanwhile, government regulators too often rely on paper-based processes and reports that trail events by months, if not years.

The enormous explosion of innovation in the private sector comes from a confluence of several factors. The personal computer started a path of commoditization for computer hardware that has continued unabated for nearly 30 years; every 18 months, you can get twice the performance for the same or lower cost. The open source software
movement and the open protocols of the Internet have brought the same commoditization — and the same competitive acceleration — to software and even to information products.

One remarkable discovery made by open source pioneers was that providing complete software source code (for free) to a community of volunteers not only sped up development but improved quality. But even more important, it sped up innovation, as developers could easily build on the work of others. But it wasn’t just access to source code: systems like Linux, the Internet, and the World Wide Web have “architectures of participation.” They are designed as loosely coupled systems that allow a wide range of independent actors to build a collaborative product.

Collaborative content creation is also possible, as demonstrated most convincingly by Wikipedia. Structured entries that anyone can edit (though with a management layer of active volunteers policing activity) turns out, however improbably, to work remarkably well.

Other kinds of content aggregations, from Flickr and YouTube to Facebook and Twitter, don’t allow collaborative editing of content, but they do rely heavily on user contribution to drive the most valuable content to the top, and to find content that is relevant to any individual user.

The next generation of applications, often referred to as “Web 2.0,” are based on massive databases that literally harness the collective intelligence of all their users. This collective intelligence goes far beyond just “crowdsourcing” or “the wisdom of crowds.” It relies on algorithms that detect patterns and hidden meaning in everyday user activity. Google’s PageRank, which improves search results by using citation analysis of links to find the most authoritative pages, was the marquee demonstration of the power of this concept, but today it powers everything from search engine advertising to online games. Systems respond to their users; they have become adaptive.

The result has been the emergence of a new worldwide computing platform, connected, data-rich, and increasingly intelligent. Cloud computing back ends drive data applications delivered on mobile devices.

Now government is getting into the act.

The Obama administration’s Open Government Initiative is about far more than transparency. It is about making government a first class player in the emerging Internet data operating system. When government data is made available as a set of web services rather than a set of documents, computer applications can process that data, draw meaning from it, and make it relevant to the daily lives of citizens. You can see as the “Software Development Kit” for government as a platform.

The same process is happening at state and local levels.

And now, the applications are starting to arrive. In this time of budget deficits, there is a unique teachable moment unfolding with the success of the iPhone app store. Apple produced a phone with unique new features. But it wasn’t just those new features of the iPhone that has electrified and transformed the mobile phone market, it was that Apple offered an open platform for developers. Now there are hundreds of thousands of specialized applications for the iPhone, and tens of thousands more for other smartphones that have followed Apple’s lead.

The idea of building a platform, rather than building all of the end user applications yourself, turns out to be surprisingly relevant for government, allowing the private sector to build applications that the government might never have imagined, or been able to budget for if they did. As governments open their data and services to developers, we’re seeing an explosion of innovation, and the development of new citizen services by the citizens themselves.

Some of the early applications might almost seem trivial, if they weren’t so useful. SeeClickFix, for example, allows citizens to report potholes, graffiti, streetlights out, and other similar problems to their local city officials. When citizens carrying mobile phones can act as data collectors, a city will eventually be able to devote resources that once were occupied by inspection to responding more quickly to problems.

Thankfully, the lessons of the Internet: open standards, open source software, and data-driven applications, are all being followed, albeit with greater or lesser focus in one project or another. (That’s true in the private sector as well.) Open APIs are being developed that allow applications to work across the country (and eventually, internationally), rather than being bound to the systems of any one city. Projects like Code For America are working to build mechanisms for sharing code, expertise, and best practices between cities. We’re seeing new alliances between government at the federal, state, and local level to increase citizen services, eliminate redundancy, and reduce costs.

We need to tell these stories of success and failure, of thinking differently, of connecting communities to strengthen bonds, of sharing and coming together to solve problems, and of working on stuff that matters. It connects the dots from humanitarian relief in disaster situations like Katrina, to the open source movement (which continues to evolve in exciting ways), to changing the way government works by engaging citizens by using simple apps and Web 2.0 tools, and, most importantly, to the challenges of our connected lives. These are all big problems, but by working together we can build a better world and government.

There’s a clear vision from the top, not only in the US and the UK, but in many other countries, that now is the time for government to reinvent itself, to take the old idea of government “for the people, by the people, and of the people” to a new level. — Tim O’Reilly


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