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June 25, 2010

A Slightly Different Twist

I had the opportunity this week to visit and present at the Tennessee Digital Government Summit. I always enjoy these events because they tend to be up close and personal and this particular event was no exception! I was asked to share my thoughts about open government and the implications on state government.

When asked the question, “what does open government mean to you”, the general response from the audience was ‘open access to data’ so that citizens can ‘see where money is being spent’. With almost all state and local governments across the country being under severe budget crunches, being able to account for every dollar spent is increasingly critical. In addition, a few folks also expressed that once the citizens knew where the money was spent, the citizens could now in influence policy change. These are, of course, very good answers. Open access to data equals transparency and the ability to influence change equates to participation.

Now, here’s where things got more interesting. I proposed taking the ideas of transparency and participation and applying them to citizen services. Rather than focusing exclusively on data access, why not expose government processes to the citizens in such a way that makes sense to them rather than the way, for instance, a system defines the process. Let’s use an example. Let’s say a citizen wishes to start a new business in your jurisdiction. Who knows the process better than the government agencies involved? However, how many jurisdictions have this process clearly documented or even better, automated? Some do, yes, but certainly not all. Now apply this same idea to any kind of service meant for those in need or those at risk. Again, no one knows better what services a citizen is entitled to than the government itself, so why not focus on making the process as open and transparent as possible? In fact, this approach leads to making citizens more participatory, not necessarily in changing government policy, but in something more tangible. They become a partner with the government in serving themselves!

So, you might be asking, beyond generally happier, better served citizens, what does this approach offer budget constrained government agencies? Simple. Making government services more open and available to citizens in an easy to use, online environment that is consistent with the expectations and experiences of the ‘Facebook/Youtube’ generation can have a significant impact on the cost to deliver said services. Each time a transaction is completed online vs using the telephone, the agency saves dollars, not pennies, dollars!

Here’s an neat perspective. Making your citizen services more transparent and participatory has a nice, positive impact on the data you make transparent. I like it when a plan comes together….