Open Government Data and The Great Expectation Gap

Originally posted on “”, 20th October 2009

The level of activity around the world in opening up government data is nothing short of astounding. Governments at every level have engaged citizens, businesses and developers in combinations of public discussions and hackfests to look at how the data that they hold can be used in new and exciting ways.
As I talk to friends in government, participate in various events around open data and watch the work that developers are doing in this area I can’t help but think that there is a massive gap between the expectations that government leaders have for open data, the tools that developers are building and the objectives of the general public.

On one side of the conversation you have government ministers and departmental heads. My conversations with this group often come back to ways that data can be used to make government more efficient. Ministers have looked at the success of crowd sourcing in other sectors and are keen to find ways to apply those ideas to the machinery of government.

In many cases ministers are looking for assistance from the community to analyse the cost of building a kilometre of road, maintaining a hospital bed or operating a prison cell, then helping find ways to reduce those costs and increase governmental efficiency.

As an example, in a recent speech to The Institute of Public Administration in New Zealand, Bill English the countries Deputy Prime Minister said;

A second concept for the future is “inside out government”.

Government holds a wealth of information. Some of it – quite rightly – is sensitive and access should be strictly controlled – tax records for example.

But in other areas, I see no reason why we can’t turn government inside out, so to speak, and make the same data and information available to those outside of government.

Government can tap wider resources in the community to analyse and use government data to help solve problems and produce insights. A ministerial committee is exploring this concept.

Inside out government also requires government to be open to good ideas from business.

We want to see ideas generated in the private sector and NGO sector genuinely considered and appraised – not simply ruled out on the basis that these sectors might not understand all aspects of government.

As I have said in previous articles, governments have a business to run and business leaders will look for ways to improve the way that it works using the assets and tools that they have available.

On the other side of the equation we have the tools and applications that are being built with the data that governments are already starting to publish, the theme of many of these applications appears to be somewhat different.

Early applications and much of the conversation that is being driven outside of government tends to focus on government transparency and public control of departmental activity, delivering applications that will help the public understand ministerial expenses, ensure that bills are read in detail before votes are cast and alerting citizens as a piece of legislation that potentially affects them passes through parliament.

The reality is that there is significant benefit underpinning both of these agendas, more efficient government is certainly a good thing, as is a more transparent and accountable government. The work that needs to be done to accommodate both agendas is probably pretty similar, and some of the foundations that we’re seeing from initiatives like NZGOAL will go a long way towards delivering what both sides need.

To those who have worked around government for some time the risks should start to become evident. While the goals of the two agendas may be similar, the language and the end expectations differ dramatically.

In the example above where Minister English talked about inside out government there was a great deal of cheering for the prospect of the New Zealand government publishng more open data but I saw very little mention of how community led projects would help him meet his objectives.

Both sides need to start to listen very carefully to the other, if they don’t then I worry that we’re on a trajectory that will eventually lead to two very unhappy and dissatisfied groups of people.

I’ve used examples from New Zealand in this article, but I don’t see the debate being dramatically different in the many other countries that I’m also following.

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