Open Government: A Means to and End

With all of the activity and excitement taking place around the country focused on new Government 2.0 (“Gov 2.0”) and open government initiatives, its easy for those involved to get lost in the technology. Those of us that love technology and work with it for a living can get lost pretty quickly in the minutia of implementing an new solution.

A perfect example of this in my mind is the recently released iPhone App developed by the City of Boston for submitting municipal complaints. When asked why the city chose to develop an iPhone application, a senior advisor to the Mayor said:

“We chose the iPhone mostly because of its sex appeal – because it’s new and it’s hot.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPhone and I think its exciting that state and local governments are developing applications for it, to make it easier for citizens to interact with their governments. I salute the City of Boston’s initiative in developing an application that makes it easier to submit municipal service requests. But most of the people that live in Boston don’t own iPhones. Most of the cell phone owners in Boston don’t have an iPhone either – so why choose the iPhone as a platform for a publicly funded application?

The city might have been better off developing an application that worked on more mobile devices. This could have been a web-based application that worked in the micro browsers that come with older cell phones as well as the more powerful browser software that ships with iPhones, G1 phones and other advanced mobile devices. They might have even developed a voice/DTMF interface for people (like my Mom) that use their cell phones the old fashion way. If they had, a lot more people might have been able to use the new service.

The point is that the goal of Gov 2.0 initiatives should not be the deployment of the “hottest” applications on the platforms with the most “sex appeal.” Gov 2.0 initiatives, and all of the exciting new technologies they bring to the table, are good for one thing – helping governments do their jobs more efficiently. That’s it.

As more governments embrace Gov 2.0, it will be important for public officials to remain focused on the goals of their governments, their agencies and their offices – this will require an intimate understanding of the mission of government and a well developed set of metrics to help determine if Gov 2.0 technologies are helping governments more efficiently achieve their goals.

With this in mind, it was extremely gratifying to see Beth Noveck (of Wiki Government fame, who leads President Barack Obama’s open-government initiative) say the following:

Q: How will you measure the impact of these [open government] innovations?

A: Developing recommendations on transparency and open government has to include a process for developing metrics. We can talk about the number of data feeds we’ve released, or the number of people who’ve participated in rule making [but] we really have to look at transparency and participation to a specific end. So if our goal is improving the quality of American education or increasing accessibility and affordability of health care, we really have to look at those as the metrics and ask ourselves, “How does driving innovation into the way the public sector works help us to ultimately do the job better of making those hard policy decisions?”

Here’s hoping that those involved in Gov 2.0 and open government initiatives around the country take the time needed at the inception of their projects to as the questions: “What exactly are we trying to achieve here?” and “How will we measure our performance so that we know we’re making progress toward our goal?”

Or, when in doubt, ask – what would Beth Noveck do?

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Andrew Soper

I agree. On the other hand,I do feel that initiallythere has to be balance between innovation and equity in access to these applications. Normally I would be up in arms about the reasoning behind Boston’s decision to release the app only on the iPhone, but in a way it makes sense (FYI I use “dumb” phone). Releasing the app on only one platform can serve as a less expensive way to experiment with something new. If I were trying to think of ways to improve communication between the government and the citizenery, it is much easier if I were to propose it put an app on the iPhone due to its percieved popularity than any other device. Also, obtaining feedback is as easy as opening iTunes. Ion have worked on a IT Policy Wiki for New York State. Its the first of its kind (at least that I am aware of). We started with only 3 draft policies using an open source site. The startup cost was minimal and it is allowing us to learn how to make more appealing to a larger audience. Sometimes public employees have to use trends to convince elected officials that these ideas are worth persuing. The burden is on us (public employees) to make sure there are performance metrics to back them up after they are launched.


I like that – WWBND…I agree with your post and her that there has to be a valuable goal and not just tech for tech sakes. At the same time, I think we are still in the experimentation stage and we need to take steps forward in moving out as we won’t know all the advantages up-front. It’s a true balance…

Mark Headd

Agreed. And I in no way meant to criticize the efforts of the folks in Boston. Early, low-risk victories are key to demonstrating the power of open data and open government.

Just wanted to throw something out there for people to think about – as Gov 2.0 matures, there will need to be performance measures in place to ensure that it is delivering on the promise of making government smarter, more open and more efficient.