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Cities Pursuing Open Government Must Focus on How To Make It Stick

By Andrea Di Maio | October 10, 2011 | 0 Comments

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Since  when Washington DC launched its first AppsForDemocracy contest, under the leadership of its then CTO Vivek Kundra, several cities worldwide have embraced and piloted the concepts of open government and open data. New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto, Amsterdam, Paris, London are just a few of those that have been undertaking open data and other open government initiatives.

While it is a fact that there are still few truly successful apps coming from the many open data contests run so far, it is interesting to observe how some cities are evolving their thinking toward more sustainable open government endeavors.

One way to so is to pursue partnership between cities. This is exactly what Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa have done by establishing an Open Data Framework. This makes a lot of sense as it entices vendors to invest in applications, knowing that they can leverage similar and compatible data across multiple cities, hence making the market for their applications bigger.

Another way is to use open data both for external and for internal purposes, to support performance management and transformation. This is what both New York and Chicago are doing.

However the challenge remains of how to blend open government principles into the organizational culture, so that they stick whichever the leadership. In fact, it is not surprising that New York and Chicago are doing what they are doing under the current leadership. But what happens when leadership changes? Or in cases where leaders take a more lukewarm attitude and the open agenda must be pushed by other executives, who often have to fight with all sort of procedural and cultural resistance?

One way is to balance the citizen-centric view with an understanding of what open government can do for government employees. I bet that many people look at the potential implications of open data to unveil critical areas, lead to criticism and tilt the power balance from administrators to citizens or – more realistically – external interest groups. While we, as citizens, may welcome this, we also need to appreciate the defensive attitude of civil servants, those who are on the city’s payroll and are not elected political leaders, who are often driven my less noble but perfectly understandable motives, such as self-preservation. We need to understand that while we call this transparency, they may look at it as being constantly audited.

Open government proponents need to make an effort to take a more employee-centric approach. Indeed, we all know that open data will lead to better performance measurement and dashboarding, but what else can it do for employees who staff contact centers, for police officers, for people dealing with garbage collection, for teachers, nurses, library and museum staff, and so forth?

This is what I am missing when I read great stories about open government and open data. While there is a lot of talking about what’s in it for citizens, I’d love to see somebody planning from the outset according to the question: what’s in it for our staff? This is, I believe, what will make open government stick.

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