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January 26, 2010

Executing Open Government, an Evolution not a Revolution

I’ve been a fan of David McClure for quite some time now. I started following him during his tenure with Gartner, having a couple opportunities over the years to spend some quality time with him. One of his traits that I’ve always admired is his ability to get right to the heart of the matter. So, true to form David delivers again during an Association for Federal Information Resources Management event in Washington last Thursday. As quoted in the article by Dawn Lim of nextgov, David points out the rational and realistic opinion that “It’s going to be an evolutionary process.” The balance of the article follows David’s thoughts on citizen participation and even mentions collaboration. Wrapping up the article are the insights of Carolyn Lukensmeyer, president and founder of AmericaSpeaks who suggests that federal agencies need move away from the traditional model of being watched over by sophisticated Beltway stakeholders to a more inclusive outreach approach that appeals more to the general public.

Ah, evolution. What a wonderful thing! But what are we really talking about here? Technologies that enable? Processes that drive? Perception of what has been and needs to be done? Expectations of the wider range of constituents? Policies that govern? To become truly open, government needs consider all these questions and more, which, in many ways, I believe the Open Government Directive begins to address. However, to Ms. Lukensmeyer point, I’m not convinced government has yet to come to grips with the expectations and desires of the larger population, namely, the general public. While discussed under the auspices of Open Government, many of the required action items are quite focused on providing information, or rather data, to the more traditional government watchdog organizations for the purpose of data analysis. Now, I’m not in anyway suggesting this practice should stop, on the contrary, I respect and admire many of the efforts put forth but such organizations. I am also a believer in the vision that freely available data can be put to use in new and as yet undiscovered ways to create better public services. However, I am suggesting that by focusing primarily on data vs. human consumable information, the Open Government Directive is missing a great opportunity to engage directly with the general public. As a general rule, people do not engage with data, they engage with information presented in some format that is applicable to the topic, such as documents, videos, images or maps. As a citizen, not only am I interested in information gleaned from government data by 3rd party organizations, I am also keenly interested in hearing directly from my government. I truly hope that in the evolution to transparency our government does not loose its direct voice to us.

In the future, I hope to witness follow on directives under the Open Government Initiative that begin to focus more intently on the general public. Government should continue to strive to become even more citizen-centric by offering guidance on better ways to transform citizen interactions into interactive, consistent experiences that truly drive public participation and collaboration into its daily workings.

So back to David McClure, “It’s going to be an evolutionary process.” Right? Right.