Today, the Aspen Institute hosted a roundtable on government transparency and online hubs in Washington, DC. The discussion focused on the release of two new white papers that address specific information needs that the Knight Commission identified in its landmark commission: online hubs and increased government transparency.
You can watch the archived webcast below.
Online information hubs
The first white paper, “Creating Local Online Hubs: Three Models for Action,” by Adam Thierer, explores three different scenarios where community leaders, citizens, media, technologists, open data and — critically, local government — can collaborate in building new Internet platforms:
- Online information hubs fueled by public open government data
- Community connections: local forums and community email listservs. Example: e-democracy.org
- Community news and commentary. Example: Universal Hub
Creating such high-quality online information hubs was one of the 15 key recommendations of Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.)
“Just as communities depend on maps of physical space, they should create maps of information flow that enable members of the public to connect to the data and information they want,” said the Knight Commission. (Download PDF.
The first model, where hubs focus on community government information, where open government data feeds, civic information and events calendars are mashed up, visualized and distributed, will be familiar to Radar readers. Such ecosystems can enable civic developers to create new mobile applications like HearNear, which uses geolocation to push updates to citizens in Seattle.
“Governments need to get more information out and make it more accessible,” said Thierer today. “This shouldn’t be controversial.” In his remarks today, Thierer assrted that government could catalyze and support this development simply by doing a much better job of making such information easily available in open government formats.
While open government data stores have grown around the United States and the world at the federal and state level, Thierer noted that the trend has not trickled down. He cited the example of Manor, Texas as one example of where one local champion (former CIO Dustin Haisler) was able to get help from Stanford and other external resources to get the local open data repository online.
Thierer focused on the important role that libraries and local or state universities can play in this new ecosystem, by connected offline and online worlds. These universities could create “code toolboxes” that local communities can use, as Stanford did for Manor. He hoped that that model could be replicated nationally.
Government Transparency: Six Strategies for More Open and Participatory Government, by Jon Gant and Nicol Turner-Lee, is call to action for state and local governments to adopt open government. The six sensible strategies “focus on enhancing government expertise and transparency, educating citizens regarding the availability and utility of government information and e-government tools, expanding efforts to support greater adoption of broadband Internet access services and devices, and forging public-private-citizen partnerships in order to enhance open government solutions.” (Download PDF or Read Online)
There are three basic issues here, according to Turner-Lee:
- Do people get it?
- Do they have the resources they need?
- Can they do transparency with those resources?
“All of us who have been in this debate have seen a conflict between these three factors, said Turner-Lee. The question, she said Turner-Lee, is how we empower state and local government. The challenge is that in most open data effort, “We are still in a one-way world, where data is pushed down to the public, not in a reciprocal ecosystem.”
It’s one thing to say citizens who should be involved, said Turner-Lee, but more needs to be done. “As an organizer, I can speak to that. It’s hard to get people to a block meeting,” much less meeting online, she said. There’s also a persistent issue of the digital divide that has to be addressed in this context. “We cannot proclaim government transparency” where millions of people don’t have online access, said Turner-Lee.
“There are many examples of where open data is being put to use on the behalf of citizens now. Turner cited apps driven by transit data in Chicago, heritage trees in Portland or the use of 311 by SeeClickFix in the District of Columbia.
“Jon Grant focused on a major pain point for government at all levels for tapping into the innovation economy: procurement issues, which civic entrepreneurs run into in cities, statehouses and Washington. “It is time to look at these procurement rules more closely,” he said, and promote higher levels of innovation. “There are a lot of ideas are happening but a lot of rules restrict vendors from interacting in government,” said Grant. Turner-Lee observed that traditional procurement laws may also not be flexible enough to bring more mobile apps into government.
UPDATE: Gary Bass, the founder of OMB Watch, wrote in to talk about why his organization didn’t blog about the recommendations presented at the roundtable.
Since OMB Watch does not think the recommendations are specific enough to have much impact on local, state or federal government actions, OMB Watch decided not to blog about the papers or the roundtable. To the extent you write about it, feel free to use my comments below.
I would also add that disability advocates have a saying, “not about us without us.” Many of the recommendations in the transparency paper call for discussions of public access without involving the public. This is a fight we have had for many, many years with the federal government. There cannot be public access discussions without the public being involved.
I hate to be the skunk at the party — and as I told Charlie I was hesitant about coming to this roundtable. But, notwithstanding the respect I have for the authors, the transparency paper is subpar.
It claims to address the problem of transparency and participation but instead has a focus solely on the role of technology to access online information. That technology focus then biases the paper. For example, it is factually inaccurate that the Open Gov Directive is housed in OSTP. It is true that OSTP has been part of the team in implementing it. But that difference likely creates different recommendations. From my perspective, it was the leadership from the president, the White House team, the interagency working group, and the interaction with the non-governmental groups that made the OGD unique — even as such, depending on who you talk to, you get a glass half-full, half-empty reaction to the OGD (which the paper does note). Also, given I was deeply involved in the development of the OGD, it is safe to say that key White House staff delayed the OGD because it initially had too much of a focus on technology and not enough on policy changes — and wanted to balance that before making it public in December.
In other words, you cannot leave public access issues to IT officials. Their job is to provide the tools and the implementation designs for the policy pronouncements and objectives of government officials. And such policy pronouncements and objectives must involve the public.
There are lots of ways to have improved the recommendations in the transparency paper. One approach could have dug into some examples of transparency efforts to demonstrate what worked and didn’t. For example, at the federal level Recovery.gov and Data.gov are two major initiatives of the Obama administration. So what worked and didn’t under each. What can we learn from the experience in developing recommendations?
Another approach would be to consult with more people in developing the recommendations. OMB Watch spent two years talking to groups around the country before developing recommendations for the Obama administration. Our work — endorsed by around 250 groups — was grounded in facts, experiences, and input from those on the front lines. Last year we repeated that process in developing recommendations for environmental and health right to know, which culminated in around 100 people from around the country meeting for several days to review and refine the recommendations, which are now close to be finalized. The transparency paper would have benefited from something like these processes.
In fact the roundtable could have been a vehicle for testing the recommendations to refine them. I was surprised how many people expressed the view that the heart of the problem is freeing the information. Yet that isn’t reflected in the transparency paper and there is no opportunity to do that now.
Finally, the paper does a very weak job in addressing participation solutions. There is a whole community working on participatory democracy, including groups like AmericaSpeaks, that have very specific recommendations for improvements. LWV has been involved in many of those efforts. So it was good to have Nancy Tate at the roundtable. However, the recommendations and paper was already final for this roundtable.