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Open Government by Laurel Ruma, Daniel Lathrop

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What is open government? In the most basic sense, it’s the notion that the people have the right to access the documents and proceedings of government. The idea that the public has a right to scrutinize and participate in government dates at least to the Enlightenment, and is enshrined in both the U.S. Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Its principles are recognized in virtually every democratic country on the planet.

But the very meaning of the term continues to evolve. The concept of open government has been influenced—for the better—by the open source software movement, and taken on a greater focus for allowing participation in the procedures of government. Just as open source software allows users to change and contribute to the source code of their software, open government now means government where citizens not only have access to information, documents, and proceedings, but can also become participants in a meaningful way. Open government also means improved communication and operations within the various branches and levels of government. More sharing internally can lead to greater efficiency and accountability.

The subtitle of this book is “Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration in Practice.” The terms were borrowed from President Barack Obama’s memorandum on transparency and open government, issued his first day in office. In it, he committed the U.S. government to “establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” (See the Appendix A.)

Obama’s memo was a signal moment in the history of open government, issued by a president who gained office in part by opening his campaign to allow his supporters to shape its message, actions, and strategy using online tools. The movement to make this happen, which goes back to the earliest days of the World Wide Web, is now generally called “Government 2.0” (Gov 2.0 to its friends).

Just as the Web has fundamentally altered retail, real estate, media, and even manufacturing, Gov 2.0 advocates seek to redefine the relationship between citizens and government officials. It’s not about replacing representative democracy with some kind of online poll, but instead engaging the citizen as a full participant rather than an observer of their government.

Take San Francisco, where the city has created an API (application programming interface) to distribute information from its 311 system about city services to developers in a way that they can integrate and distribute that information into new software and web applications (see http://apps.sfgov.org/Open311API/). Everyone will be able to get information about citizen requests and issue new requests (such as reporting potholes) directly to city departments via their own web software. The concept breaks down the line between citizens and government—letting someone other than a government official determine how to route citizen requests.

As if this radical transformation were not enough, the Gov 2.0 movement seeks to make a similar transformation within government itself: empowering employees inside governments to go beyond the traditional boundaries and limitations of bureaucracy to act across organizational lines and move from top-down to bottom-up structures of management and decision making.

In this book we have found leading visionaries, thinkers, and practitioners from inside and outside of government who share their views on what this new balance looks like, how to achieve it, and the reforms that are needed along the way.

How This Book Is Organized

Chapter 1, A Peace Corps for Programmers

Matthew Burton proposes a new project to recruit top technologists into government temporarily and harness their knowledge to transform the way government information technology operates. Burton, himself a federal contractor and Web 2.0 technologist, opens this provocative piece by urging the government to fire him.

Chapter 2, Government As a Platform

Tim O’Reilly examines how the philosophy of the open Web applies to transforming the relationships between citizens and government. O’Reilly uses open software platforms as a model for reinventing government.

Chapter 3, By the People

Carl Malamud addresses the third wave of government transformation—the Internet wave—that is now upon us.

Chapter 4, The Single Point of Failure

Beth Simone Noveck tackles the issue of closed decision making and open deliberation in this excerpt from her 2009 book, Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful (Brookings Institution Press).

Chapter 5, Engineering Good Government

Howard Dierking explores applying software design patterns to government. Dierking covers blobs, antipatterns, and the shrinking space between government and citizens.

Chapter 6, Enabling Innovation for Civic Engagement

David G. Robinson, Harlan Yu, and Edward W. Felten argue for releasing data in bulk to empower citizens to better connect with their government.

Chapter 7, Online Deliberation and Civic Intelligence

Douglas Schuler proposes a new model for online discussion and decision making, modeled on the famous Robert’s Rules of Order. Schuler goes on to ask whether we will be smart enough, soon enough, to use online—as well as offline—deliberation to help tackle the massive problems that we’ve created for ourselves.

Chapter 8, Open Government and Open Society

Archon Fung and David Weil argue that transparency must be applied across all of society, not just government.

Chapter 9, “You Can Be the Eyes and Ears”: Barack Obama and the Wisdom of Crowds

Micah L. Sifry looks at the open government promises of the Obama administration and places it in the context of broader notions that underlie the philosophy of open source technology and Web 2.0.

Chapter 10, Two-Way Street: Government with the People

Mark Drapeau examines how and why those who favor open government need to provide outside pressure if those inside government who desire change are to able to make it happen.

Chapter 11, Citizens’ View of Open Government

Brian Reich sketches out what reforms must achieve for regular citizens in order to be effective. Reich reminds Government 2.0 evangelists that, at the end of the day, their reforms must produce definitive benefits to be successful.

Chapter 12, After the Collapse: Open Government and the Future of Civil Service

David Eaves take a look at open government and the civil service and argues for experimentation and accepting the inevitable technological shift that is upon government.

Chapter 13, Democracy, Under Everything

Sarah Schacht asks what citizens need to do to be full participants in government. Schacht gives prescriptions for both policy makers and regular citizens to solve political gridlock.

Chapter 14, Emergent Democracy

Charles Armstrong outlines a new kind of digital democracy in which decisions bubble up from citizens rather than coming down from e-leaders. Armstrong hypothesizes that this new kind of democracy is already coming to businesses and other nongovernmental players, where it will inevitably take hold before being adopted by nation-states.

Chapter 15, Case Study: Tweet Congress

Wynn Netherland and Chris McCroskey map the success of Tweet Congress in getting members of Congress to use Twitter and the role of activism-by-web-application in the new ecosystem.

Chapter 16, Entrepreneurial Insurgency: Republicans Connect With the American People

Nick Schaper describes the social media strategy the Republican minority in the U.S. House uses to outfox the Democrats who control the chamber. In doing so, this top Republican strategist teaches lessons on how social media can be used by anyone to mobilize citizens.

Chapter 17, Disrupting Washington’s Golden Rule

Ellen S. Miller explains why radical transparency in government will act as a counterweight to the influence of monied interests in shaping government policy.

Chapter 18, Case Study: GovTrack.us

Joshua Tauberer looks at the phenomenal success of his website, which provides public access to data about bills and votes in the U.S. Congress.

Chapter 19, Case Study: FollowTheMoney.org

Edwin Bender examines the past, present, and future of online tracking of money to politicians and political parties. Bender gives unsurpassed insight into the good, bad, and ugly of transparency in campaign contributions.

Chapter 20, Case Study: MAPLight.org

Daniel Newman looks at how a website has been able to use open web technology and hard work to shed a new kind of light on the relationship among money, power, and legislation.

Chapter 21, Going 2.0: Why OpenSecrets.org Opted for Full Frontal Data Sharing

Sheila Krumholz tells the story of why the not-for-profit Center for Responsive Politics released its data about government corruption to the public and embraced the Gov 2.0 movement.

Chapter 22, All Your Data Are Belong to Us: Liberating Government Data

Jerry Brito calls on hackers—in the sense of brilliant programmers rather than computer criminals—to liberate government data for the masses. If the government won’t make data available and useful, it is up to technologists to do it for them.

Chapter 23, Case Study: Many Eyes

Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg look at the ways Many Eyes, an online suite of visualization tools from IBM, has been and can be used to examine government. Among other insights, these brilliant scientists propose the radical approach to treat all text as data.

Chapter 24, My Data Can’t Tell You That

Bill Allison looks at the problems with government data collection. Allison, an investigative reporter and open government advocate at the Sunlight Foundation, proposes making those data more useful for citizens.

Chapter 25, When Is Transparency Useful?

Aaron Swartz proposes a new paradigm for watchdogging the government. Swartz provides a cogent argument that transparency alone is not enough.

Chapter 26, Transparency Inside Out

Tim Koelkebeck looks at the need for the federal government, which he describes as a country within a country, to become internally transparent before it can be anything but opaque to regular citizens.

Chapter 27, Bringing the Web 2.0 Revolution to Government

Gary D. Bass and Sean Moulton identify the top obstacles to increased open government that the Obama administration faces and propose solutions. Bass and Moulton give an inside-the-Beltway view on how to make reform take hold.

Chapter 28, Toads on the Road to Open Government Data

Bill Schrier looks at what he has learned as CIO of Seattle, Washington, about the practicalities of implementing open government reforms and the problems reformers face.

Chapter 29, Open Government: The Privacy Imperative

Jeff Jonas and Jim Harper shine a light on the serious issues of privacy and the brave new world we live in.

Chapter 30, Freedom of Information Acts: Promises and Realities

Brant Houston looks at the history and problems of the Freedom of Information Act and similar state laws. Houston goes on to provide a prescription for updating those laws.

Chapter 31, GovMediaPeople

Dan Gillmor tackles the thorny issue of the relationship among the government, the press, and the citizenry in the open government universe brought around by the Web.

Chapter 32, Open Source Software for Open Government Agencies

Carlo Daffara and Jesus M. Gonzalez-Barahona argue that government must adopt open source software in order to achieve true open government, and that doing so has many social, societal, and economic benefits.

Chapter 33, Why Open Digital Standards Matter in Government

Marco Fioretti argues for government adopting open standards in its technology that eschew the lock-in from vendor-specific technologies.

Chapter 34, Case Study: Utah.gov

David Fletcher takes a tour through the most transparent state in the United States and explores the history as well as the future of Utah. As Utah’s CIO, Fletcher is in the thick of making government open.

Appendix A

The full text of President Obama’s memo.

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The road to open government is a long one, and over the years many people have contributed to and continue to define its evolution. As John Heywood said, “Many hands make light work.”

Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma would like to thank all of the authors for contributing to a fascinating book. The time required to write and revise a chapter is not trivial, and very much appreciated. There were also many other people who worked on this book, including Yasmin Fodil, Sarah Granger, and Kevin Novak, who reviewed and commented on the manuscript. Andy Oram provided invaluable feedback and support. At O’Reilly, Audrey Doyle, Sarah Schneider, Nellie McKesson, Rob Romano, and Julie Steele guided the book through production.

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