How technology should be used to spur open government

The Washington Coalition for Open Government organized a conference this weekend to commemorate the 40th anniversary of our state’s landmark Initiative 276 and the Open Public Meetings Act (and to discuss the past, present and future of open government).

I was one of the speakers at the conference and spoke about using technology to promote open government. Here’s an overview of what I discussed in my chat.

Why Open Government: Open government and increased transparency can lead to greater civic engagement, greater government accountability and better governance.  This can help government make better decisions and increase government effectiveness and efficiency. All of this creates social and economic value.

Technology to promote open government: Technology has lead to a new information age and vast amounts of information are now available to the common man. While we do have a digital divide, it is also true that the Internet has provided an unprecedented level of information and opportunities to hundreds of millions of people across rich and poor countries. Technology can also be a great aid to promoting open government, but it is only effective if the technology efforts are planned and implemented well.

Ram Arumugam

From our experience in developing popular civic apps with public data, here are some of the prerequisites that I see as necessary for technology to be effectively used to promote open government.

1. Clear articulation of goals: At the outset, it is important to clearly articulate goals of the open government technology effort and the reasoning behind these goals. The goal-setting process should also attempt to specify metrics that will be used to measure the effectiveness of these efforts.

2. Effective prioritization: The government should focus on exposing data that is useful to citizens and not just on what is convenient for the government (or convenient for a vendor implementing the technology-solution for the government). A large quantity of easily searchable data is good, but the quality of data (measured by usefulness) is even more important.

3. Mandate legal disclosure requirements:  Voluntary disclosure by government is good, but ad-hoc efforts by government aren’t sufficient to establish a strong open government foundation.  Governments should be required by law to provide relevant information to the public. This should be accomplished through the legislative process or through the initiative process (in states like Washington, California etc.) or other means.

If governments provide data through web-servers, they should also be required to provide service-level-agreements (SLAs) regarding the stability of these web servers. This is an area where the federal government Office of Management and Budget has done a very poor job.

4. Sustained government support: Governments need to plan on sustained long-term support for open government technology initiatives. Some local governments tend to hold lottery-like app contests, but these short-term gimmicks often result in a clutter of unsustainable disposable apps.  A couple of years ago, the CTO of Washington DC discontinued their “Apps for democracy” because he concluded that the contests didn’t provide long-term value.

Sustained government support includes allocating resources to answer data-related questions and respond to bug (i.e. problem) reports from developers. From what I’ve seen, the Department of Energy, the Federal Reserve and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics have all done a great job in this regard and that helped us immensely in developing our civic apps.

5. No restrictions: There should be little or no restrictions on how the data will be used. Public data is compiled with public money and the end-goal should be to promote open government. Therefore public data should be free for anyone to use for any purpose. Ideally, data usage shouldn’t be encumbered by any government requirements or restrictions. This will empower third-party developers and lead to greater innovations. The more restrictions/requirements around data usage, the lesser innovations we are likely to see.

Limitations of technology: As a cautionary note, I’d like to add that technology can help promote open government, but it is not the panacea for today’s government’s failures.

Bloomberg Businessweek has an interesting report on how India’s Right-To-Information Act has had a powerful impact and yet caused a lethal backlash. A recent news report in The Seattle Times describes how the Bainbridge Island police department hired an officer in spite of his criminal history, but told him to quit after the history became public.

The report also mentions that the police guild had tried to block the public from seeing records related to an officer’s alleged misconduct. The state Supreme Court had to step in and stop them from doing this. This is a good example of how government agencies might try to block the disclosure of inconvenient truths.

Any government can throw together a website, throw some random data on it and proclaim their open credentials, but it takes much more than technology to really establish open government.

It requires a sustained citizen/government effort and an alert, independent media to ensure that inconvenient, but important, useful information is disclosed by the government and ensure that there is no retaliation against open government activists.

Ram Arumugam is a programmer-journalist and the founder of Cascade Software Corporation, a civic software company that creates mobile apps with public data.