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O’Reilly, Open Government and the Ingenuity of Enthusiasm

By Andrea Di Maio | August 27, 2010 | 0 Comments

open government data

I just read an interview that Tim O’Really gave to The Hill about government 2.0. In this interview, he reinforces his faith into “government as a platform”, praises the Federal CIO Vivek Kundra for his open government activities and – most importantly – stresses that open government and open data is not only about transparency, but about the ability to create feedback loops that allow government to understand and improve its performances.

Although I disagree with Tim about the concept of government as a platform, I like his attempt of pushing the whole debate toward the use of open data, rather than talking about the abstract value of transparency. Being able to engage external stakeholders in monitoring performances and advising about how to improve them is a very valuable use of open data.

O’Reilly said Walmart and other companies like it have managed to create a central nervous system using technology that constantly tracks how they are performing. He contrasted that with government, which is heavily reliant on a top-down approach but lacks feedback from end users.

He also mentions procurement as one of the main obstacles.

The contracting process is really badly broken,” O’Reilly said. “You can’t do rapid, iterative development very easily in the current [request for proposal], prime contractor etc. environment. We have to get change there.

I do wholeheartedly agree with Tim. Feedback from users is critical and is what is helping corporations like Walmart and others become more successful. Also, the pace of change could be faster, should the procurement process be leaner and less cumbersome.

On the other hand I would argue that there is a reason why we have checks and balances in government. Can we afford the performance of the education or health care system to be judged by the crowd? Are we actually ready for it? I guess there must be a reason why the judicial system has judges and attorneys and juries and decisions about criminal cases are not left to the crowd.

Especially in these early days, we are all learning where open government works and where it doesn’t. The crowd that can provide the feedback Tim is looking for is still too imbalanced and mostly composed of people (activists, lobbyists, interest groups) who have a clear purpose to influence government behavior and spending to the benefit of certain categories. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, but it is not tolerable to make this mainstream until when a sufficient number of people will be able and willing to engage.

Which leads me to the point about procurement. Sure, public procurement is boring, is often a broken process, hardly contribute to value creation. And, yet, there is a reason why it is so, why we have tenders, an evaluation process and several other steps that used to contribute to transparency and now are seen by many as an obstacle to transparency itself.

Could human services systems, payroll systems, tax management systems being built by a bunch of enthusiastic developers? How could we prove that they are acting neutrally, in the best interest of the people rather than pursuing individual agendas? Who would be accountable for those systems and the services they support? What would we say when something goes wrong and who would we blame?

It is quite clear that performance management and procurement, as well as many other government processes, need to be revised, reformed or radically changed. But this won’t happen unless we recognize that government and its employees need to remain in charge, need to stay as the custodians of neutrality and transparency, and we, the people, developers or users, can just help them do a better job but not replace them in any way.

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