Blog post

Why Should I and Joe Smith Care About Open Government?

By Andrea Di Maio | December 13, 2009 | 6 Comments

open government data

Last week has been an exciting time for government 2.0 and open government, with reports and directives published by major nations, a wave of tweets and blog posts praising and sometimes criticizing these, and the usual stream of (sometimes trite) examples from leading government organizations showing the way to openness.

The debate so far has been mostly between those who applaud the Open Government directive issued by the US Federal Government, and those who are either more neutral (“let’s wait and see”) or  openly (ahhh what an irony here!) critical about what the Directive is missing.

However, as it often happens around topics like government 2.0 (and as the history of e-government clearly shows), these discussions focus on those who have familiarity with the terminology and with technology, but do not really look at the millions of citizens – and they are the vast majority – who don’t.

In the early days of e-government people used to the term “digital divide” to indicate the separation between those who access technology (i.e. computers, Internet, broadband depending on time and place of discussion) and those who do not. Today, at least in developed countries like the US, it is fair to say that most people have access to the Internet and actually use it on a daily basis. Of course there are still people who don’t – because of demographics, income, culture or simply personal taste – and have remained on the “wrong” side of the divide.

But what has happened is that we have created multiple divides on the “right” side too. Divides between people who use the Internet in very different ways: mostly for fun, or for work, to buy, to socialize, to harass, to save money, to make money, and so forth. It is fair to say that there are plenty of behavioral patterns and they can only partly be associated to demographics. Youngsters are most likely to behave differently with respect to their parents, even if they spend a comparable amount of time on the Internet. But, as you have kids who like different sports or have different hobbies or a different attitude towards music or sex or fashion, so you can observe different ways of using the Internet for different groups. It is quite clear that what is compelling to those groups, and similar groups in different demographics, is very different and hardly predictable (that’s why marketing folks still have a job :-).

Now, if we tried to identify the characteristics and estimate the size of groups who are interested in open government data to the point that they would spend time looking at those, mashing them up, commenting, rating, in other terms helping government do its job, well, I’m not sure the outcome would be too encouraging.

I like Mark Drapeau’s point about government data not being fun enough, and he goes in the right direction suggesting that governments should make an effort to make “playing with open data” easier and funnier. However I doubt any investment in cool technology would make more than an abysmal fraction of citizens more interested in open data.

In the past few months I have been insisting (without making too many friends) on the fact that all these very well publicized initiatives – such as mashup contests, jams, barcamps, unconferences, open data splashes – cannot but scratch the surface of the problem of how to engage citizens. They are a useful component of a possible solution, but not the whole solution and not even its most important part.

What the Open Data Directive and other similar initiatives around the world will do is to give established organizations (including corporations, political parties, associations, activist groups, and so forth) additional fuel to make their points.

Don’t get me wrong here: this is indeed going to help democracy, as all these groups will have easier access to the same data sets, and will be able to use those to evolve and support their agendas and positions. Unions will be better informed when they deal with industry associations to raise salaries, industry association will be better informed when they ask for government investments, consumer groups will be better informed about which corporations receive and use government subsidies, and so forth. People like me and Joe Smith will access such information through one or several of those groups, and we will be able to make up our mind depending on what they tell us.

My only contention is that this is not terribly different from what we see today. In all democracies a draft law goes through comments from various groups, goes through parliamentary discussion, and many MPs or Congressmen engage their electors in commenting about that. Probably all this open data will spur a few more groups who can establish themselves at a much lower cost than they would before, thanks to the Internet. But, as we debated around a previous post, this is very unlikely to change how I and Joe Smith spend our time on the Internet and feel engaged.

I would argue that it would be far better to recognize that open data will be used by “open data professionals”, period. Therefore the next stage in both citizen engagement and to assess the success of open data initiatives, is to look into which groups are using this data and to do what. There will be both very commendable uses of this data, as well as questionable ones. But it is only by understanding them all, and anticipating how they may slowly change the way I and Joe Smith “engage” with government, that government 2.0 leaders can figure out what the next steps should be.

Without forgetting that it may be worthwhile, in the meantime, to understand what compels both me and Joe Smith and millions of people to socialize, join causes and help each other in ways that have little or nothing to do with open government data.

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6 Comments

  • Claudia says:

    I’ve raised this point before, but how do we avoid the unintended consequence of open gov and access to data making gov become all about the data…so that employees have to focus on being sure that all the data fields/forms are totally filled out and every aspect is collected and entered, rather than on completing the tasks that the data are meant to reflect? It might be hard, given funding realities and caseloads, to do both. And you know what the bureaucracy is going to emphasize. Ticking things off, percentages, CYA, etc. Rather than helping people. I see open government, though the intention is the opposite, potentially making things worse in this area.

  • this is a classical political theory question and we are seeing to little of these types of questions in the debate. Other questions that need to be asked of open government processes are:

    – are we thinking in terms of deliberative or representative democracy?
    – if deliberative, how do we assure the non-coerciveness of the discourse?
    – if representative, how many participants would satisfy our legitimacy requirement?

  • Jed Sundwall says:

    “In the past few months I have been insisting (without making too many friends) on the fact that all these very well publicized initiatives – such as mashup contests, jams, barcamps, unconferences, open data splashes – cannot but scratch the surface of the problem of how to engage citizens.”

    Hey! You have a friend in me.

    I share yours and Claudia’s concern. At USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov, we’re trying to reach the “Joe Smiths” of the world. I’m constantly on guard (particularly as “the social media guy”) to avoid highlighting data-heavy content that, while open, means nothing to Joe Smith.

    The benefits of open government to citizens will be limited without more attention given to sensemaking from citizen-facing agencies.

    (Opinions expressed in the comment are my own.)

  • Michael says:

    I totally agree. Just wrote a blogpost on that with a different perspective, but with the same conclusion:http://ow.ly/KIBP

  • @Philipp @Claudia

    You both raise great points that need to be looked at when making the case for open government. My impression is that many initiatives – including the Open Government Directive – are taken according to a mixture of genuine enthusiasm and unwillingness to look too deep into the consequences. I tend to agree with those who say that if you try to shield yourself from any possible risk, you will never try, and I have been encouraging government organization to accept a certain degree of “release of control” to make gov 2.0 work. However this is no excuse to put one’s head into the sand and not to look at future scenarios, irrespective of how uncomfortable they might look like.

  • @Jed

    “Few friends but good” is my motto!
    I know you guys are doing a great job, but you still have to deal with the fundamental issue of how the official porta (USA.gov) relates to the rest of the ecosystem. The problem is that there are many Joe Smiths, and they change their tastes, needs, preferences over time. This is a hell of a segmentation problem.