Blog post

How To Get Open Government Out Of Life Support

By Andrea Di Maio | August 05, 2011 | 0 Comments

open government data

Beneath the continuing enthusiasm around open government, including the announcement of yet another country (Singapore) and city (Edmonton) building their open data store, and the renewed commitment to open government in the new US CIO’s first interviews, I found two data points that still call for caution.

The first one is the public consultation that the hyperactive UK minister in charge for open government has launched, asking pretty fundamental questions, such as

• How we might enhance a ‘right to data’, establishing stronger rights for individuals, businesses and other actors to obtain data from public service providers;
• How to set transparency standards that enforce this right to data;
• How public service providers might be held to account for delivering open data;
• How we might ensure collection and publication of the most useful data;
• How we might make the internal workings of government and the public sector more open; and
• How far there is a role for government to stimulate enterprise and market making in the use of open data.

Now, one might say that this is fully in the spirit of openness and just an additional step in the UK strategy around data.gov.uk, which included hiring top guns like Tim Berners-Lee or Mike Brachen, former digital development director at the Guardian, to boost the open government agenda. However a couple of questions are quite intriguing

  • How we might ensure collection and publication of the most useful data;
  • How far there is a role for government to stimulate enterprise and market making in the use of open data.

These questions imply an urge to drive investment in open data by business impact and not just in the spirit of increased transparency and participation. In particular the second question is about what (else) government should and could do besides publishing data. The big elephant in the room – but also a big opportunity – is how government itself is going to use (and not just publish) open data and blend it with social data created by external stakeholders (see previous blog post on this topic).

The second data point is a conversation with a sizeable US federal government organization about the future of their open government plan and initiatives. The client sent me a number of questions in preparation for our conversations, and they were all pointing in the same direction: how does our agency get value from open government and how can we sustain our efforts in this space with so many other competing priorities.

I guess that the changes in leadership for open government and the budget discussions have not helped. But, as I have said many times (see here and here), the only way to make open government sustainable in the current economic and financial climate is to make it relevant for each and every agency.

Indeed, open data must be a fuel to help businesses create new consumer services and applications. But it must also be a tool for agencies to become more effective and efficient. Open government and social media responsibilities need to move out of the public affairs and official communication sphere, and get to the heart of the business, with CIOs (where they really look after Information rather than technology), CFOs (who can keep a relentless focus on sustainability) or CEOs (linking this to agency priorities) taking the lead.

The UK consultation, and anything that Chris Vein or Steve VanRoekel will be able to do in the US, must support a fundamental shift of open government from being an end in itself, to being a means to address the many challenges that all governments will be facing going forward.

If governments succeed in doing this, open government will flourish. If they do not, it may well move from life support to oblivion.

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