Those who have been following this blog for a while certainly know me as being rather skeptical about some of the grand open government ideas that have been floating around – especially in North America and the UK, but spreading fast elsewhere too.
To the risk of sounding obnoxious and self-referential, I warned about open data application contests and their sustainability (see September 2009 or December 2009) and I have been bashing on open government initiatives and plans (see here for example) for their lack of connection with agency or city priorities and therefore the lack of a defensible case for sustainability.
It is interesting to note how two recent posts, one by Alex Howard and one by Tom Steinberg, tackle the issue of sustainability and value of open data application contests. Although with a different emphasis they stress the importance of focusing on clear user needs and planning ahead for sustainability. Quite realistically Steinberg recognizes the importance of more focused government funding as opposed to spreading the wealth through media-visible application contests.
I believe that there is nothing wrong with failure. The culture of perpetual beta and creative destruction is very important to fuel innovation at times of great uncertainty. Those agencies and cities that have launched open data initiatives and application contests have to be thanked for having tried.
What we are seeing on application contests though may just be the tip of the iceberg. Unless other aspects of open government – such as idea collections and other forms of citizen participation, social media presence, etc – do not come to fruition and deliver sustainable value, there is a clear and present danger that somebody may try to pull the plug, something we have already seen earlier this year in the US federal government.
The best way to keep open government alive and kicking is to consider it as a means rather than as an end. The questions that government executives need to ask themselves are: how can I use openness to meet my objectives? How can openness help me keep delivering services while budgets and headcount are shrinking? How can openness help me face increasing uncertainty and provide me with the agility I need ?
In an old post I wrote that selfishness is key to the success of open government. It is even more true today than it was eighteen months ago.
(Update: Some people may read this post as a criticism to those, like Alex and Tom, who have been driving the charge and following the developments of open government. This is not the case. They have been – and still are – enthusiastic, and positively so. It is indeed quite refreshing that they also start warning about possible limitations and help steer future efforts by government organizations as well as developers and other stakeholders in a more sustainable direction. I wish them and their colleagues to keep up with the excellent work they have been doing so far)