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.

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  • Jake Brewer

    Keith, I love those values to lead by as well. I think they’re spot on.

    And Terry, I absolutely think we need to lay out our objectives effectively. We’ve started doing that at http://sunlightfoundation.com/campaign (particularly on the wiki, which you can link to from this page).

    Would love your help as we build this and take those crucial next steps.

  • Jake Brewer

    Can I just say that there are a lot of crazy commenters on blogs around the world – and we certainly get some of those on the Sunlight blog too – but 90% of the time, the thoughts and comments here are so valuable and helpful. Thank you all for taking the time to reply.

    To Everett’s point first:
    “… but more also must be done. Having the information available is not the same as getting it into the hands and minds of those who need to know it. Believing in open government will not make government open. And, of course, making information available will not enlighten those who will not make some effort to learn. We have a problem!”

    YES! Amen. Having core beliefs or underlying assumptions is just a starting point. We next need to get information into the hands of citizens and provide mechanisms for effective, responsible action.

  • keith

    You could refer to them as guiding principles. These would be the values you use as a framework for the decision making process.

    As Terry points out, clarifying the objectives and keeping them seperate is helpful.

  • Jake, you say, quite reasonably, that an open, transparent government is what we get when we have access to government data and “use it effectively.” However, using data “effectively” implies the existence of some underlying objectives we seek to achieve via use of this data. But, AFAIK, what those objectives are is not clearly stated. If we could reach agreement on the underlying objectives, I think it will help to further focus and energize this worthy effort.

    Here are some possible underlying objectives – to:
    * make valuable data, produced with taxypayer funds, more widely usable?
    * disclose and remedy government ineptness (waste)?
    * disclose and curb government corruption (fraud, abuse)?
    * disclose and curb the influence of special interests on government policy (cronyism)?
    * increase public participation and engagement with government?
    * increase the influence of the public’s (versus private) interest in government-related policies?
    * other?

    It would be very helpful, I think, if this list could be fleshed out as needed, and then prioritized.

    Your thoughts?

  • keith

    Thanks for the great article.

    I’d like to offer this brief list of four core values for discussion:

    Openness- The transparency of data and clarification of process. It is also the preferred atmosphere of discussion (even when the topic is learning from a mistake).

    Responsibility- We are all stakeholders in this community. Let’s act in its best interest

    Efficiency- Wisely investing limited resources to achieve greater outcomes.

    This was my prioritized list for some time and then there was a light bulb moment…

    Citizens- This is who government serves. They should be the focus. Let’s put them first.

    *when you put citizenship at the top of the list the acronym just happened to take care of itself.

  • Everette Carnes

    What you say needs doing, no doubt, but more also must be done. Having the information available is not the same as getting it into the hands and minds of those who need to know it. Believing in open government will not make government open. And, of course, making information available will not enlighten those who will not make some effort to learn. We have a problem!

  • Alex Coley

    I can’t wait for the 1970’s of opendata. It’ll be all gritty cop drama and funk music.

    But hopefully the wrongness will then give way to the 1980’s of entrepreneurial electro!

  • As i humbly tried to point out at myPublicServices09, if you want to get real about this stuff you’ve got to face up to the issue of power.

    See also myPublicServices closing plenary ‘power, participation & recuperation’.

  • The points read very well. But a number of these, particularly the ones around open data, leave a lot unsaid.

    The consequences on the market for services to government of radically changing the data ownership, accountability and, consequently, the revenue models are significant.

    If I contract a service provider to do a public service job, I WILL get a different product if every part of that environment is open to public scrutiny, re-presentation, and the likelihood of ‘shadow’ (or competing) services appearing. Whether those services be information services (smarter stats, neater maps, quicker results) or even real-world services.

    A random example: the real-time movement of people becomes visible; so new taxi firms spring up where you thought you were contracting for mass public transportation. And that leads to a need for a whole lot of public regulation you didn’t need before. Your attempt at simplification worked the other way.

    You create new challenges, and you destabilise existing practice, by making wholesale adjustments to the flow of information. I do not for a moment pronounce these to be good or bad; the consequences are complex and require proper analysis.

    But I do see, far too often, a willingness to neglect this hard legwork on consequences in favour of grand statements of systemic change.

  • Very nice blog Jake! I’ve been interested in open government and public records laws for some time, and I wish more could be done to educate journalists. I’ve known many over the years who had little to no knowledge about the law, which is really sad. I recently started a blog called “Public Records Geek,” and I hope you will check it out: http://publicrecordsgeek.wordpress.com/. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  • Jake Brewer

    Thanks, Brad.

    Another point that’s been brought up offline is that “beliefs” may not be the right way to describe them. I don’t disagree.

    We went through a bunch of a different possibilities from “tenants” to “axioms” to “assumptions” and nothing seemed to be quite right for this particular list. Any ideas always welcome…

    Also, did we miss anything with this list of 9?

  • Excellent post Jake. This is indeed an important transition period, and we need to start looking more specifically at an easily understandable frame for what we are trying to do.