Blog post

Why We Must Get Rid of Open Government

By Andrea Di Maio | September 08, 2010 | 6 Comments

open government data

During the Government 2.0 Summit being held in Washington D.C., as reported by Federal News Radio, Ellen Miller – founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation – openly criticized the accomplishments of the US federal administration around open government. In particular she focused on the little achievements in terms of open data publication by several agencies and the little usefulness of data in, in spite of several redesigns. As a consequence, she announced that the Sunlight Foundation has launched ClearSpending, to scrutinize data in

Is anybody really surprised? Reality is that it doesn’t matter how much governments try to do to be more open and transparent, it won’t ever be enough. ClearSpending will be yet another watchdog, as we have seen in the past, when open data was not flooding the web and yet there were organizations keeping an eye on how well governments operate.

I have been an early skeptic on the Open Government Directive, not because it is not a good idea, but because one must appreciate the implementation challenges and how high (or low) a priority it can be in the context of the strategic objectives that each agency has to meet.

Arguably, data is much more easily available today than it was years ago, and the task for watchdogs will be easier than it was in the past. it is also good to keep government on its toes and strives for more transparency.

Over the last couple of years we have seen pretty much the same activists, proponents, consultants, bloggers, enthusiastic civil servants carry the load for demonstrating how good open government (and/or government 2.0) are. I am sure that the Government 2.0 Summit, in its second year, has grown in attendance and breadth of speakers. Yet, this is not enough

I would argue that we are still far from making open government part of the normal course of business. In order for this to happen, openness, transparency, collaboration, participation, engagement and so forth must become tools that help solve problems, reduce costs, deliver measurable value to citizens. We have to stop mentioning it as if it had a life of its own, but translate it into concepts that make sense to justice, health and human services, public safety, transportation, environment and all other domains of public policy and service.

Along the way, we also have to get rid of Government 2.0 or Open Government events, conferences, barcamps and the likes, and make sure sessions on these topics are part of every government-related event.

But, I suspect, there is still a long way to go to get there.

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  • Well said, Andrea.

    I’ve been thinking recently about how the Open Government Directive is all about what needs to be done, but not so much about what the end goal of these activities is. I even wrote a blog post that I cross-posted at GovLoop that has gotten some interesting comments on it:

    I also think that the point you make about how Gov2.0/OpenGov needs to become integral to all other government activities is particularly prescient. I have begun thinking of this in terms of cultural change, instead of technology development or adoption.

    Nonetheless, there is a LOT of work left to be done!

  • Dan Bevarly says:

    Andrea –

    You’ve done a good job putting a wrapper on the problem and the challenge. Still, the beat goes on. We need governments that want to open their doors. We need watch dogs like Sunlight to keep a light on those activities. We need dedicated stewards, a/k/a government employees, who are motivated and goal-oriented. And we need a receptive audience –a public that has shows interest, buy-in, and responsiveness. They must find value in the concept and potential of transparency and open-government. Do they? Are they even aware of what their Government has been up to or has planned to:

    – provide services online;

    – provide information or data about public policies or issues; or

    – provide easier (electronic) accessibility for citizens to participate in their government’s affairs?

    Government is a unique industry, rather an institution, where just the having the presence of enabling technology does not ensure usability, scalability or even interest. There is something else amiss here that goes beyond the technology.

  • Phil Lincoln says:

    Quite right Andrea,

    If integrated service delivery has taught us anything, it’s that a singular focus on one channel is less likely to realise the desired efficiencies or customer satisfaction. Open Government is an admirable concept, but pursuing it to its own end is not necessarily the best way to proceed.

    Many governments have already expressed their support for Open Government, now it’s a matter of finding ways to integrate it into our daily business. Yes, its going to challenge existing cultures and processes, but dealing with them on a case-by-case basis is more achievable for many than initiating big ticket projects likes USASpending, and in aggregate, perhaps more effective.

    I think there is still a place for “Open Government events, conferences, barcamps and the like” because as Dan eludes to, there are still a lot of people to mobilise and awareness raising to do. But the message should be one of how open government (lower case) has (not can) made government better, faster, cheaper and its customers more satisfied.

    Open Government is a significant shift for those with self-preservation in mind or who haven’t been as customer-focussed as we might like. Hence simple, practical applications help sell the potential, and shift the perception that “it’s the end of the world as we know it”. If the message is “OpenGov is about sites like”, then the business case is harder to make. I’d suggest we need more attention given to the smaller projects that demonstrate open government delivered to effect in an integrated way.

  • Lucas Cioffi says:

    Hello Andrea,

    Are you suggesting that we should cancel the Open Government Community Summit Series now? September’s is at the EPA and October’s will be at NASA.

    I see these workshops as bridging mechanisms to get us from here to there, and I’m guessing you agree from the last sentence of your article.

    I welcome you or someone on your team to join us and help figure out how we bridge the gap, because as a community, we cannot assume it will bridge itself.

    Will someone from Gartner attend and contribute their ideas?

  • Steven Clift says:

    Remember “GOL” or government online … then it became e-government …

    I don’t know that democracy will ever be an easily measured value, but I’ve spent some time pondering what I and other citizens might value from gov in terms of online support for democracy. I’d be interested in your reaction:

  • Discussions like this always make me wonder; do you think there were “analysts” sitting around the 13 colonies during the early 1770’s debating whether all of these small groups who were making noise and publishing leaflets about the importance of representative democracy were wasting their breath?

    Clearly, it was a topic of interest that warranted further discussion, but why spend time and energy on a topic of limited utility in the backrooms and taverns of the day? Yes, it should be discussed, but the debate should be made part of every government-related event where it will receive the attention of those decision-makers currently in office who will clearly recognize the value that a move to such an approach would carry forward to the everyday lives of the constituency…..