Open Gov Is a Dialogue, Not a Monologue

Republished from O’Reilly Radar. Blog post by John Geraci of
Original post can be found here

At last week’s Personal Democracy Forum I had a conversation with someone working for a city (I won’t say which city), who was tasked with opening up that city’s data. We were talking about the Apps for Democracy contests held recently in Washington D.C., and he explained his feeling about them:

“There were some interesting apps in there, but overall they didn’t meet with the mayor’s agenda for the city.”

Being the non-confrontational person I generally am when in conversation with total strangers, I said “Oh yeah?” and the discussion continued without incident. Inwardly though I was thinking, did he really just say that? My god, this guy is missing the point ENTIRELY.

A city that opens up its data but expects that people building on that data should follow the mayor’s agenda is going to fail miserably in its attempt at creating an open system.

Open government is about government as platform. And being a platform means letting people do whatever they like with your tools, letting them build in ways that meet their own agendas, not yours. It’s about coming to see your users’ agendas as your own agenda. If your users win, you win.

On the other hand, if you force your own agenda on your users, then they don’t build anything, and everyone loses.

Open gov is a dialogue between governments and constituents, not a monologue. Everyone gets to decide what gets talked about and what gets built, not just the people with the data.

Everyone who works in the web understands this, of course. I know many of the people who are working on opening up government from the inside get this as well. But this conversation, with a senior-level employee at a government agency, made me wonder how many in government don’t understand what open gov means, and what the real value and opportunity is to them. How many think of opening up APIs and such as a way to extend their own reach and increase their office’s power?

This is one problem with grafting new ideas about platforms and APIs onto an age-old system rooted in a culture of contracts and RFPs. Can this graft produce a living, thriving hybrid of the two? Or will one necessarily become the subordinate of the other? If the latter is the case, which notion wins out? Open platform or fixed agenda?

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We’ve had fixed agenda for so long we need to move to open platform. However, I don’t think it’s one or the other but will morph as we evolve. For example, I believe that the dialogues with citizens like White House Open for Questions will evolve as we learn…May move from just a completely open dialogue or closed dialogue to somewhere in the middle.

Andrew Wilson

Another thing to consider is that conversations can be manipulated. Some pretty good examples of groups knowing how to game the system to get their point across (to the exclusion of others) when conversations are open up. One of the real challenges, IMHO, is to be able to open up conversations and maintain a fair and level playing field. Not sure this has been totally worked out yet.

Al Fullbright

This 2.0 thing might help the meek from being drowned out. I have severe asthma that is aggravated by excitement. I cant win any argument face to face because the other person can drown me out, argue me out or simply get me so excited I cant talk. However, I can formulate my arguments for any subject and write them out. There they lie exposed for what they are and can be commented on. I get to see the important responses to my thoughts and makes me more careful to make my thoughts logical and concise.