Over the last ten years I have come across countless consultants and advisors to government and the broader public sector who have been asserting the unquestionable benefits of anything preceded by the term “open”. Open standards, open source, open data, open government, open innovation, and so forth. Those who are younger in the business may not remember, but often the very same individuals who got some notoriety around – say – promoting open source in government, can now be found among the supporters of open data.
As an analyst I always have to keep at a distance from innovations,.products, services, vendors and in general anything that gets particularly hyped. The reason why clients subscribe to services provided by Gartner and other IT analyst firms is to have an unbiased view about technologies and technology-intensive innovations, in order to adopt them where and when they are a clear fir for their strategic priorities. Of course we can have personal preferences, and like some technologies more than others, but this cannot and does not influence the way we operate.
Now, I happen to like everything “open” quite a lot. Especially when associated to government, which is owned by the people, the idea of sharing code, data, ideas, like the best thing to do. On the other hand, when it comes to spending public money, it is absolutely essential to make sure it is being spent wisely.
When there was a burst of open source enthusiasm, primarily in Europe (Germany and France) and South East Asia (Malaysia) but also in certain parts of the US (Oregon, Massachusetts), I and my colleagues helped clients look into a fair total cost of ownership comparison that would allow them to make considerate decisions about where open source would provide better value for money. We also looked at a very interesting phenomenon called “community source”, where government organizations were forming open-source-like communities to share and cooperatively develop and maintain specific applications: there were some good examples in France(ADULLACT) and in the US (Open eGov by the City of Newport News), but also failures, like GOCC in New England. From time to time I have client inquiries about reuse of custom software solutions across jurisdictional boundaries that would be conducive to the establishment of communities, but often the business case collapses under the complexity of governance and unanswered questions such as: what would keep a number of distinct government organizations together for a sufficiently long period of time? how would a basically home-grown solution compete with emerging market offerings?
The reality of open source today is that only horizontal solutions, with large and largely vendor-dominated communities thrive. Ironically, those same vendors that some governments wanted to get rid of by adopting open source got the most benefits from joining the open source movement.
Things are not different with open government and open data. The zealots (or Templars, as I referred to them a while ago) push for everything open, or open by default, and insist that opening data and opening processes to citizen participation is an absolute priority. On the other hand many governments are dealing with financial sustainability, struggling with shrinking budgets and increasing demand, especially from the most vulnerable part of their citizenry, affected by recession or sluggish growth. For how cynical I may come across on open data and open government, all I am saying is that our intimate belief (which I share) that open as much as possible is the right thing to do is not enough to make it work and stick in a challenging environment.
Which brings me back to my earlier argument on selfishness in collaboration and open government. Some commentators have pointed out that I would either lack the skills or the evidence or both to state that collaboration endeavors are sustainable only if tightly connected to personal purposes and objectives. Besides the tons of evidence I get through my daily interaction with clients (who are unlikely to give an interview or publish a case study about something that went wrong), it is just a matter of applying experience and common sense. Most people do not change the way they work, unless they have a reason to, and very much so in government. Further, when they are assessed individually or by organizational teams, they may not see the reason to join a community unless that benefit their own or their team.
As employees are more inclined to collaborate across organizational boundaries if they get an answer to the “what’s in it for me” question, so their employers are more inclined to embrace openness if this helps solve their immediate or highest priority problems.
There is a great potential for open “anything” to become mainstream and not to remain confined to the circle of consultants, vendors, advisors, political pundits and journalists who keep insisting that open anything must be right and it is just a matter of time for that to take over the world. I guess we all agree with the principle, but anybody with some hands-on experience in government should know very well that in order for a principle to become business as usual it must prove its value. Only this will move openness from a “Yes Minister” attitude, where government officials comply with a mandate with the minimum possible effort, to an indispensible tool that is hardwired in everything government employees – and not just their organizations – do.