9 Beliefs at the Heart of Open Government


It’s safe to say that the idea of open government – what it is, what it means, and how to bring it about – has become a national conversation among people in government, in the technology sector and in the media. Indeed, there is now a full blown movement to make government more open and transparent taking shape across the country.

We’ve moved beyond debate about whether or not government information should be released to the public to HOW to release government data: How often? In what format? What to do with it once it’s out?

That we’ve reached this point is an achievement not to be taken lightly. The long, often slow and frustrating years of groundwork that so many technologists, reporters and political thinkers have invested are actually paying off – in a big way. In just the last 6 months, we’ve gotten both the President of the United States to talk about our issues in his State of the Union address and Jon Stewart talking about them on the Daily Show.

Clearly, the ears of the American public are starting to perk up – emphasis on starting – and the open government movement is beginning to move beyond insiders.

This transition presents challenges, though: communications challenges. We’re now starting to engage with folks who don’t know or care what XML is or why “parsing” something is important. Odds are that “earmark disclosure” or “expenditure reports” doesn’t mean much to anyone else in your family or friends from back home. These folks DO care about things like how their money is spent or how to get their streets cleared in a massive snowstorm, however, and as most of us know, both of those things are made possible through well-published open data that includes things like earmarks and expenditures.

The conversation at this last weekend’s Gov 2.0 event in LA has already helped to kickstart the movement’s thinking about making the transition to describing what we do in a way that is broadly understandable. It’s something we’ve been thinking about here at Sunlight for quite a while, and it’s very exciting to see – particularly in this post “Crossing the Gov 2.0 Chasm” from Luke Fretwell at GovFresh, which references some great thinking from Christina Gagnier as well. We need to have this conversation as a movement.

In getting there, it’s critical that we have some common principles and assumptions about where we’re coming from and where we stand. And it’s time to start clearly defining what those things are.

When we say, we are “for an open, transparent government,” we want those words to have real meaning. Words matter tremendously, and we want there to be an underlying, shared understanding of the principles, experiences, challenges, and approach to government that “open government” implies.

A friend and mentor of mine, Ami Dar, puts it this way: “If you are a teacher from Peru and you meet another teacher from Peru, you only have to say two words—”teacher” and “Peru”—to transmit a lifetime’s worth of shared experiences. And if you want to start a group of Peruvian teachers (to do something together), you have the words to do it.”

That is what we should strive for when we say “open, transparent government” – an instantaneous understanding of a set of core principles, the same way Americans readily understand “conservative” or “liberal,” “climate change” or “bailout.”

I think it’s our duty to define these baseline assumptions or beliefs as this conversation expands, and I would like to offer up 9 points as a place to start.

1) An open, transparent government is something we create when public government data and information about government activity is made easily accessible to us – online and in real-time – and we use it effectively.

2) Government has a responsibility to be open and transparent, but it will not become so on its own.

3) We would rather use positive incentives (the “carrot”) than negative incentives (the “stick”) to make government transparent, but we will use whichever is most effective.

4) Changing the way government thinks and behaves is as important as changing government rules.

5) Technology isn’t part of the open government “pie.” It’s the pan.

6) Changing the way the public thinks about government – and how they engage with it – is as important as making government data and information accessible.

7) Effective and responsible engagement with government will make it work better for all Americans.

8) Achieving our vision of a transparent government will require the ongoing commitment of citizens in every district across the United States to make it possible.

9) We will sacrifice “perfect” in order to take action and make progress today.

For many of us, the nine points listed above are already assumed. That said, the public at large, and new activists in the open government movement, deserve to have these underlying beliefs written down and explicitly defined so we can easily communicate the essence of what we stand for: making public government data easily accessible online and in real time so we can hold government accountable.

It’s a pretty incredible thing to be in the middle of shaping this movement, both with the successes and lessons that we’ve already experienced as well as with what happens today, tomorrow and next week. But, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, lets start talking about how we can most effectively explain to people who we are and what we do by looking at the heart of the matter.