Earlier today I was discussing about an e-government session that I should moderate at an international conference. The organizers were suggesting to arrange a panel about open government and use a confrontational style, with some panelists supporting open government and some challenging its value. Quite soon somebody on the call said “Would we ever find anyone who is willing to say that open government is not a great thing?”. There were a few seconds of silence, then everybody had to agree this would not happen, and here went the brilliant idea for a point-counterpoint.
This made me reflect about the last ten (and more) years of e-government. The Internet was there, web sites were there, but how comes that “transparency” and “openness” were never part of the agenda or – at least – never made the top concerns? Everything was about more effective and efficient service delivery, joined-up processes, seamless interaction. And yet, most of these challenges are still intact: “tell-us-once”, “single-version-of-the-truth”, integrated and consisted citizen registries, are still alive and kicking (and unachieved) in many e-government programs.
While e-government was moving toward minimizing interaction with citizens by leveraging information that government already has (such as prefilling tax forms, or proactively advising about certain administrative obligations and service options), here comes open government, which throws petabytes of raw, machine readable data at us, drowning us in information.
Government 2.0 suggests a major version change with respect to (e-)government 1.0. Was this needed because citizens were not happy with e-government 1.0? Or because there was an overwhelming demand by people to have something different? Well, I guess that with few notable exceptions, e-government 1.0 did not realize its vision. What is ironic, though, is that government 2.0 (and open government) imply a steep change of course.
While e-government 1.0 was about integration and rationalization and planning, open government is about throwing data out, asking people how to solve problems, engaging them in policy-making or service delivery, at most setting some (relatively porous) boundaries. What used to be the vision of a citizen-centric set of services becomes a blurred menu of options, with a considerable Do-It-Yourself component, or the intervention of unspecified intermediaries who will mash up data, integrate services and create value.
For those who have been following my research, I have always claimed that the joined-up, e-government 1.0 vision was flawed, and that citizens and intermediaries need to be part of how services are designed, assembled and consumed. So, yes, I am pretty much behind government 2.0, but – as usual – it is not all black and white. The way forward is a blend of openness and integration, transparency and prescription, collaboration and compliance. Government 2.0 can succeed if it is the evolution of e-government 1.0, and not just an alternative, if it gives e-government program managers options to successfully complete and complement what they were doing and not just a free ticket to turn their back on past failures.
This is absolutely key because those who are struggling with open government plans, open data initiatives and social media are the same folks who were struggling with interoperability frameworks and government portals and online services.
So I’d love to find somebody who would stand up in a panel and say at loud “Open government is not great, because what I care most about is to deliver the services I have to deliver at an affordable cost”. I’m sure there would be plenty of other panelists who would have examples of how open government make that possible, but then I would ask them “at what cost? what do you need to give up to make it happen?”. And, from there, hopefully a discussion would follow about “what comes first, good government or open government?” and about “how do we relate openness to efficiency and cost optimization?”.
Let’s not demonize good old e-government and let’s not overhype open government or government 2.0. Because what they have both in common is the willingness to help government become better.