Blog post

Selfishness Is The Key Success Factor for Open Government

By Andrea Di Maio | February 12, 2010 | 0 Comments

open government data

Over the last couple of days I had three conversations with US vendors (in the document management, data analysis and visualization, and mapping domains) around what is happening with open government. Although for different reasons, in all those calls we came to mention how value can be generated from opening data and how to overcome the risk that agencies take the Open Government Directive simply as something they have to comply with. Interestingly, vendors had widely different opinions about this.

At the same time, I read comments, tweets and private messages on my previous post, where I postulated that Government 2.0 may be already heading toward the trough of disillusionment. Also these expressed a range of views from deep pessimism to utopia.

It is quite clear that there are two camps around the current open government initiatives.

The first camp includes those who are more optimistic and claim that what appears on the open pages of various agencies and – more importantly – what’s going on behind the scene in preparation for their open government plans, shows a clear commitment by most if not all of them.

The second camp is somewhat more cynical and sees much of the activity in various agencies as being driven by the desire (or – better – need) to comply with the directive at the lowest possible cost. Part of the argument for this camp is that there is no clear evidence that there will be budget to support this (see article on NextGov discussing both views), so money would come from individual agencies’ budgets.

Although I have colleagues and friends close to the US administration who swear that there is much more than pure compliance in what most agencies are doing, I am closer to the latter than to the former camp.

However I believe there is a formidable chance to turn things around by promoting agencies’ selfishness. The open government principles are meant for others – the American citizens – to have better access to information about what their government does and to be engaged at critical phases of policy making, government service delivery and operations. The implicit assumption is that those who build applications and mash up open data will be individuals, groups, third parties who aim at leveraging that data for the benefit of democracy or even at making money.

On the other hand, very little is said about how agencies themselves could use this data. One would assume that open data already flow freely across agencies, but in reality they do not, unless a specific program requires them to..So agencies can certainly benefit – pretty much like citizens and third parties – from accessing a wealth of data from other agencies, and use them to further their own mission. Similarly, when prioritizing data sets to be made available through, agencies may reflect about which data would make most sense to make available to the public in order to have a positive impact on the agency mission.

This all boils down to how the value of open data will be measured. The more agencies focus on value for them rather than the more abstract value for citizen, and the more they see themselves as users of other agencies’ open data rather than just providers of their own, the easier il will be to make open government endeavors stick and related plans succeed.

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