Open government, what is it really? | Opensource.com

Open government, what is it really?

Posted 23 Nov 2011 by 

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Open government, what is it really?
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Below are my notes from the talk I gave at OSDC (Open Source Developers Conference) 2011 on open government, where I tried to go into some of the practicalities of open government implementation and projects. I had a great response from the packed room, so thanks everyone for attending (and for encouraging me to blog)

The changing relationship between citizens and government

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Most citizens have a very limited relationship to government. We tend to see government as an amorphous body that removes our garbage, provides our hospital and local school, and makes us pay taxes. Politicians tend to get a pretty bad rap, and are assumed to be simultaneously stupid and extremely strategic.

But "government" in Australia is a large and complex entity run by a democratic Parliament, this makes it a tool of the people, an entity accountable to its citizens.

The proliferation of and now mainstream usage of the Internet, brings citizens closer to governments than ever. It also makes governments more accountable and transparent (whether intentionally or not). So the government is now more a tool of the citizen, and as such we need, as citizens, to engage with governments.

As citizens we are more empowered than ever. We can research, make public comment, self-organise into clusters of interest and advocacy, cross check facts, hold people to their word, develop new ways to do things and much more. The line has blurred between governments and citizens. Indeed, we are starting to even properly accept the idea that people who work in government are, themselves, citizens.

Citizens have much to contribute to government policy, implementation and vision, and governments are just starting to understand and engage with that opportunity.

Gov 2.0 is about using the new technologies at our disposal, primarily the Internet, to co-design the next era of democracy in collaboration with citizens. It is about a more transparent, accountable, engaged, participatory and responsive government approach to serving the needs of citizens.

Open Government and Gov 2.0 are often used interchangeably, but "open government" has been used for many years, usually to relate to things like Freedom of Information (FoI) laws and transparency in legislative processes, whereas Gov 2.0 is more specifically looking at how we can use modern technologies and communications to make government more open, engaged with, relevant to and ultimately co-created with citizens.

"There's a clear vision from the top, not only in the US and the UK, but in many other countries, that now is the time for government to reinvent itself, to take the old idea of government "for the people, by the people, and of the people" to a new level." — Tim O'Reilly

In Australia we have a strong, highly skilled and completely awesome Gov 2.0 community. These are people who work in, for or with government to implement Gov 2.0. This community has people who are into software/web development, user experience, accessibility, open data, mobile development, public engagement and much more.

It is a community driven by the ideals of open government, and a really inspiring and exciting community to be involved in. I highly recommend to any of you interested in following or getting involved in Gov 2.0 to check out the following:

  • The Gov 2.0 Google Group mailing list - https://groups.google.com/group/gov20canberra?hl=en
  • GovCamp's – a great opportunity for Gov 2.0 practitioners to get together, share knowledge, and find ways to collaborate. They are starting to run all around Australia after I ran the first one in October. The next one is this weekend in Sydney (BarCampNSW)
  • Follow the #gov2au hashtag on Twitter, and some notable Twitter users in this space are @CraigThomler, @trib, @chieftech, @davidjeade, @gov2qld, @sherro58 & @lisa_cornish from AGIMO, @FCTweedie & @OAICgov from OAIC, and many more including me @piawaugh. I've got a far more complete Gov 2.0 list on Twitter that I'm continually adding to that may be useful at http://twitter.com/#!/list/piawaugh/gov-2-0
  • There is a Gov 2.0 Ning group and OzLoop Ning. Craig Thomler also runs a good blog worth subscribing to. Craig and Kate Carruthers put together a website on Gov 2.0 and the Centre for Policy Development did a great collection of essays by people in the community on Gov 2.0 in 2009 which is available online.

What is Gov 2.0

Most elements of what we call Gov 2.0 can be boiled down to three concepts:

  1. Open data
  2. Citizen centric services
  3. Public engagement

Open data

Open data is about taking the vast majority of government datasets and information which doesn't have privacy or security issues, and putting it all online in the most useful way possible. In a practical sense, for data to be most useful (both to the public but equally important for other parts of governments to be able to leverage the data), it needs to have permissive copyright (such as Creative Commons BY), be machine readable, time stamped, subscribable, available in an openly documented format (open standard), have useful metadata and wherever possible have good geospatial information available.

This last point about geospatial information is vital for making data interactive and personalised to a citizen's needs, as it helps aggregate and map information relevant to where a citizen is.

Achieving open data is a difficult process. There are three key steps to take, each with its own challenges:

  1. Just get it online. This stage is where an organisation just tries to get online whatever they can. It often means the licensing is not entirely clear or permissive, the data format is whatever the organisation uses (which may or may not be useful to others), the data may be slightly out of date and it often isn't clear who the contact for the data set is making followup hard. This stage is however, extremely important to encourage as it is where every organisation must begin and build upon. It is also important because to achieve quality open data, major changes often need to be made to systems, workflows, technologies and organisational culture. Access to imperfect data in the short term is far better than waiting for perfection.
  2. High quality data. This is the stage where issues around quality publishing of data have been teased out, and an organisation can start to publish quality data. It is hopefully the point at which the systems, culture, workflows and technologies used within the organisation all facilitates open data publishing, whilst also facilitating appropriate settings for secure data (such as sensitive privacy or security information). This stage takes a lot of work to achieve, but also means a far lower cost of publishing data, which helps amongst other things, keep the cost of FoI compliance down.
  3. Collaborative data. This final stage of open data is where an organisation can figure out ways to integrate and verify input from the public to data sets to improve them, to capture historical and cultural context and to keep information up to date. This is also a challenging step but where government departments and agencies can engage the public collaboratively, we will see better data sets and greater innovation.

There are examples of each of these stages, but it is important to remember that they are stages, not static. Some good examples of open data initiatives in Australia include:

It is also important to consider the broad ramifications of open data. One can think of many positive case studies for open data. Examples of transparency or innovation or a strong public record. But there can be unforeseen negative consequences. For example, I heard of a case where the mapping of the ocean above Australia was made public, and within a very short period of time a particular species of fish was driven almost to extinction by fishers who used the data to plan their fishing season.

This is not a reason to not pursue open data, but rather a reminder to always consider things critically and thoughtfully.

Data visualisation

Nowadays I can't overemphasise the importance of data visualisation. As a technical person I was quite cynical in the value of data visualisation. It seemed a waste of time when you can just read the data. But using data visualisation tools effectively can create two core benefits:

  • Informed public narrative – most people are really busy. Busy with their jobs, their personal lives, their hobbies. So expecting them to take time to really understand complex issues is not only unrealistic, it is unreasonable. Presenting information visually is a great way to lower the barrier to understanding and then engaging in an informed public debate. People will understand in seconds the information from a well constructed visualisation, but to glean the same information from papers and spreadsheets takes a lot longer.
  • Policy development & load testing – interactive data visualisation tools such as SpatialKey, Tableau or one of the many great FOSS (free and open source software) tools available create a new way to engage with and glean new knowledge from data. By being able to pull together many different data sets into a single space, one can then explore, test and experiment with policy ideas to determine the effectiveness of a policy to meet its goals.

Citizen centric services

Citizen centric services is about putting the user experience first to create a personalised and unique experience for citizens. It is better for citizens as it makes their experience better and more seamless, and it is better for government who can more effectively serve the needs of citizens. Citizen centric services requires good data and metadata, especially good geospatial data as location information is an extremely effective way to personalise government services, information and projects for citizens.

Constant feedback loops that engage the input and ideas from citizens are extremely important to establish effective citizen centric services, and to ensure the iterative improvements over time to keep services relevant and responsive to the changing needs of the population.

Some examples of citizen centric services include:

Public engagement

Effective, constructive, and collaborative public engagement greatly improves the capacity of government to build the knowledge and experience of citizens into policy and projects. Public engagement strategies work best when they are underpinned by strong community development, a clear and collaboratively developed goal, a genuine interest in the inputs of others, and a process that is as low a barrier to entry to engage in as possible.

Basically we are moving towards an era of democratic and governmental co-design.

There are some great examples of public engagement out there, including our Public Sphere consultations, the Queensland Police use of Facebook throughout the natural disasters a year ago (which showed how social media is great for timely updates, but also for managing misinformation quickly and crowdsourcing to help most effectively deploy resources in disaster management), the Census 2011 social media strategy, the growing number of public consultations on government policy and strategy such as from the Gov 2.0 Taskforce and much more. The need for public engagement has also been pushed in several recent policy agendas. The GovHack events last year were also great as they showed how effective engagement with the general public can result in highly innovative and rapidly developed new applications and knowledge when open data is made available and when usage of that data is encouraged.

FOSS and government

FOSS has provided a natural fit for a lot of open government initiatives, due to the widespread use of open standards, the ability to rapidly deploy, the large developer and support communities around mature FOSS projects such as Drupal and WordPress, the competitive and thus reliably sustainable nature of commercial support around mature FOSS projects, and, most relevantly, the cross over of values and practices between open government and FOSS.

In January 2011 AGIMO released the Australian Government Open Source Software Policy which has three principles:

  1. Principle 1: Australian Government ICT procurement processes must actively and fairly consider all types of available software.
  2. Principle 2: Suppliers must consider all types of available software when dealing with Australian Government agencies.
  3. Principle 3: Australian Government agencies will actively participate in open source software communities and contribute back where appropriate.

The third principle in particular represents a fundamental shift in how government sees and engages with FOSS, technology and the community. It is very exciting! It clearly demonstrates the value of collaboration so prevalent in the open government agenda.

In July 2011, after six months consultation, AGIMO also released the Australian Government Open Source Software Guide V2, a really useful document for departments and agencies to help them comply to the policy directive where they must consider open source in their procurement processes.

Both the Open Source Policy and the Guide are available along with other information at http://www.finance.gov.au/e-government/infrastructure/open-source-software.html

Open government policies

The open government or Gov 2.0 agenda is nicely encapsulated in the two major policy documents, Ahead of the Game and the Gov 2.0 Taskforce Report. These two reports form the blueprint of Gov 2.0 for the Australian public service.

It is also worth looking at the Office of the Information Commissioner paper Principles of Open Public Sector Information and other resources at http://www.oaic.gov.au/, the Attorney General's Principles of IP (which explicitly encourages Creative Commons), and the various useful web policies provided by AGIMO including the Gov 2.0 Primer.

Conclusion

Open government and Gov 2.0 both represent an ideal.

They represent a goal for us to be continually aiming for but they are not achieved with a single switch of policy. Achieving true open government is necessarily a constant and evolving challenge, and given I am here speaking at an Open Source Developer's conference, we all understand the difference between an ideal, and striving for the ideal whilst operating within reality.

Government won't get it exactly right all the time every time, but we are in an extremely exciting time for open culture, and with a government position in Australia that firmly supports openness through policy, in legislation and in implementation of projects, we need to continue to encourage and support progress.

Originally posted at what are we doing today, brain?

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Pia Waugh started work as an Adviser to Senator Kate Lundy in April 2009. During her time in this role Pia has co-developed the internationally awarded “Public Sphere” consultation methodology with Senator Lundy, she has become an active member of the Gov 2.0 community, she ran the first GovCamp event in Canberra, and has worked hard to create and support demonstrators of open government throughout Australia.

Prior to 2009 she was a consultant

What is open government (promo)

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