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How to get your city to pass an open government policy

Raleigh, NC—City Council adopts open source policy

On Tuesday, February 7, the Raleigh City Council passed an Open Source Government Resolution, unanimously, promoting the use of open source software and open data. The resolution includes language that puts open source software on the same playing field as proprietary software in the procurement process. It also establishes an open data catalog to house data available from the city.

Raleigh isn’t the first city to pass an open government policy. But it may be the first to provide a blueprint that can help other cities pass their own open initiatives more quickly.

The biggest barrier is making sure elected officials know what open source is. And I’m not talking about how software gets made using the open source development model, or the open source business or license structure. I’m talking about the fundamentals of open source: transparency, collaboration, meritocracy, and rapid prototyping. Sometimes public policy can be lacking even the basics–like sharing.

When the resolution was passed by the Raleigh City Council’s Technology and Communications Committee last month, open government advocates were excited, but wanted to learn more. They wanted to know about the process that advanced the resolution and how other cities can replicate it.

We asked Councilor Bonner Gaylord, chair of the Technology and Communications Committee, about the process. We wanted to know what made it successful here–and what challenges they faced. In the spirit of open source, Gaylord was happy to share the story. And we hope his tale will help you advocate for open source in your municipality.

Why did Raleigh pursue an open government policy?

Raleigh is pursuing open source as an extension of the core ideal governmental structure of complete transparency and openness. Democratic republics, at their best, have always had open source paradigms at the core of their design. The org chart of a democratic republic is: Citizens, who are at the top, hire elected officials.

Elected officials then hire staff to run everything. In this organizational structure, the citizens are the boss and the boss should be able to see everything that happens within the organization. Outside of obvious (yet sometimes not so obvious) areas, the government should be doing everything it can to be open and transparent, providing the citizens (their bosses) with as much information as possible.

Why should other cities do this?

Other cities should do this for many reasons such as:

  • Proving to its citizen-bosses that it is doing its job and working hard in response to their needs.
  • Opening up data and processes because, you never know, those citizen-bosses may be able to do something cool with it or make great suggestions.
  • Opening up gives citizens a sense of ownership and welcome. They are more likely to be engaged and satisfied if they feel ownership and pride in that ownership.

How does a city start?

Just throw it out there…It doesn’t matter if you are an elected official, citizen, or government staff. Put a resolution on the table and see where it goes from there.

Is buy-in from the IT department required?

This really needs buy-in from the IT department in order to proceed. If they aren’t on-board, then there is little likelihood of substantial progress. There are too many scary ways to frame open source [for people who aren’t familiar with the way it works]. Armed with technical knowledge and a desire to scuttle the initiative, any IT department can quickly quash an open source initiative.

How did you explain what open source is to elected officials?

Put it into simple terms. A great analogy that was the ‘A-ha!’ moment for one local official was that of the cookie recipe. Everyone has seen grandma’s cookie recipe that has been passed down over the years.

Well, would you rather have a cookie, or that cookie recipe? Obviously you’d rather have the recipe so you could make your own cookies, but further, you could tweak it, make it better, add walnuts…whatever!

That’s what openness is all about.

Resolution and roadmap

You’d probably like to see the actual resolution that Gaylord has been talking about–and there are numerous samples on the web.

If you’re thinking about proposing a resolution in your own city, pick one–like this one from Raleigh–as a starting point, then tweak it based on your local knowledge and needs. It helps to have a roadmap–or at least a few milestones mapping out the next steps. Know where you want to go next. It’s great to get a resolution passed, but if you don’t know where you are going, then it’s pointless.

Need some examples for your roadmap? I’ve included the next steps that City of Raleigh CIO Gail Roper presented to the council.

Open Source Government Resolution

(Source: http://www.raleighnc.gov/content/BoardsCommissions/Documents/TechnologyCommunications/2012/TC-Minutes-20120124.doc)

RESOLUTION NO. (2011) ____


WHEREAS, the City of Raleigh is committed to using technology to foster open, transparent, and accessible government; and

WHEREAS, by sharing data freely, the City of Raleigh seeks to develop opportunities for economic development, commerce, increased investment and civic engagement; and

WHEREAS, the adoption of open standards improves transparency, access to public information, and improved coordination and efficiencies among organizations across the pubic, non-profit and private sectors; and

WHEREAS, open source standards harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency to create high-quality, secure and easily integrated software at an accelerated pace and lower cost; and

WHEREAS, the City of Raleigh seeks to encourage the ideal software community to develop software applications and tools to collect, organize and share public data in new and innovative ways that benefit both citizens and government;


Section 1. That the City of Raleigh Information Technology department will establish an open systems procurement policy that will include specifications in future Requests for Proposals (RFP) to encourage technology solutions with an open source licensing model which store and expose public data using industry-standard and open protocols.

Section 2. The City of Raleigh will establish an open data website at www.raleighnc.gov/open that will serve as an open data catalog of the data available from the City of Raleigh in open formats.

Roadmap of next steps

(Source: http://www.raleighnc.gov/content/BoardsCommissions/Documents/TechnologyCommunications/2012/TC-Minutes-20120124.doc)

  1. Open Data Next Steps: Staff Response
    • Continue to gain executive sponsorship
    • Define resource requirements
    • Establish governance model
  2. Open Data Preparation
    • Establishment of the catalog
    • Policy creation for open data (how we determine what data can/will be published, prioritization, formats, internal process, business ownership, etc.)
    • Catalog product selection
    • Project implementation
    • Engagement with Raleigh’s open data community
  3. Open source
    • Create the internal procurement policy for evaluation and selection criteria for open source software
    • Create inventory of potential open source software and protocols
    • Create framework for Raleigh to participate as producer of open source software (licensing model, code repositories, etc.)
  4. Community Participation – Taking it to the streets
    • Citizen-led communities
    • Connection between youth-development programs and open government community
    • Connection entrepreneurial community and open government community
    • Importance of broadband access for any of this to be useful

original appearance on opensource.com/government and licensed Creative Commons BY-SA

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