The Opposite of Open Government

There has been some pretty good discussion lately going around the Interwebs about what Gov 2.0 and open government looks like. I can’t say that I agree with everything that has been thrown out there with a Gov 2.0 label on it, but I can say without equivocation that this is the opposite of OpenGov and Gov 2.0:

Water tests showing high levels of pollution at several industrial sites [in the State of Delaware] have been either not reported to the public or posted on obscure pages of the state’s website…

A series of articles that ran recently in the Delaware News Journal – the paper of record in the State of Delaware – detailed some shocking findings on water quality in the state. Turns out, State officials had evidence of this poor water quality for months, but did next to nothing to share it with the public:

The News Journal learned earlier this year that in September [2009] tests of water from a well twice as deep as those sampled in 2005 found four pollutants at levels up to 800 times higher than any previously reported. Concentrations of one toxic compound, benzene, were 5,200 times higher than levels considered safe by the federal government.

Neither the EPA nor DNREC [the Delaware Department of Natural Resource and Environmental Control] released the full report to the public at large, although the findings were posted six months ago by DNREC to a hard-to-find state Web page. No public hearing has been held to examine the new dangers.

When it comes to environmental data, and data on contaminated groundwater, open government is not about citizen convenience or improved government efficiency. It is about giving people the information they need so that they can make informed decisions about their own lives and the lives of their families and children. There is simply no excuse for this lack of initiative in sharing critical environmental information with the public.

This was an important series of articles that underscores in my mind the important role played in our democracy by a strong independent media. And yet, this particular story is one that should never have been written. To understand why, you need to look back in time.

First, you need to look back almost 2 years – to January 2009 – at the inauguration of the state’s current Governor, Jack Markell. In his inaugural address, Governor Markell stated proudly:

I pledge that my administration will be more transparent and accountable than any that have come before.

You need to look back almost a decade, to when Mr. Markell was serving as the state’s Treasurer. He helped to launch the state’s nascent e-government initiative and led the drive to put government information and services on the web.

You need to look back to the early to mid 1990’s, when Mr. Markell served as an executive in technology and communication companies like Comcast and Nextel.

So how is it that the administration of a Governor who has proven technology chops, a history with the e-government movement and who has publicly committed to making state government more transparent can fail so spectacularly at opening government data to citizens?

In the answer to this question lie the hard lessons for those who would work to make government more transparent and open.

Lesson 1: The idea of open government has political resonance and broad support. The actual work to make government open, less so.

Any doubts about the political appeal of open government has been dispelled by the sheer number of high-level elected officials talking about it, and professing to support it. The idea of opening up government data for use by the public is one that has an almost visceral appeal. Who could be against such an idea?

But government officials that embark on initiatives to open government data typically run smack into the entrenched bureaucracy. Change comes very, very slowly to government and it is probably the hardest reality to face for those that enter government for the first time with hopes of changing things. Certainly Delaware is not the only government in the country where there is an obvious imbalance between the rhetoric about open government and the reality. Delaware officials are no doubt running into challenges in making good on Governor Markell’s promise of a more transparent government.

And this is exactly why open government advocates need to hold elected officials to their words. It is simply not good enough talk about open government. Actions speak louder than words.

Governments are only as open as the amount of data they release to the public. The proof is in the data. Period.

Lesson 2: Governments are (and probably always will be) reluctant to release data that casts a negative light on their performance.

There is a definite theme running through this series of articles on Delaware’s water quality problems that suggests the state’s environmental agency (DNREC) could have done a better job. And this underscores another important lesson for open government advocates – governments have a built in disincentive to release data that might cast them in a negative light.

The best example of this is probably making crime data (particularity the location of crimes) available to the public, an idea which still faces resistance in some places. The potential for such data to highlight shortcomings in policing and public safety are pretty clear, and yet such data can also be highly valuable to citizens.

Who doesn’t want to know how many crimes have been committed in their neighborhood, or what kind of crimes they were? Who doesn’t want to know if their drinking water is contaminated with potentially harmful chemicals?

Lesson 3: Negative publicity can be an open government advocates’ best friend.

As a result of the newspaper series on Delaware water quality, Governor Markell ordered agencies to do a better job at releasing information on water quality to the public:

Gov. Jack Markell ordered state agencies to improve their efforts, spokesman Brian Selander said. “Delawareans should have easier access to test results concerning the quality of our groundwater,” Selander said.

It’s too bad that it took a series of newspaper articles to provide the impetus for this order, but I think the public (and open government advocates) will take what they can get.

This experience reminds me a bit of the negative press the MTA used to get for keeping their data closed, and even threatening to sue developers for using it. Since then, the MTA has done a complete turnaround on open data – not only is its data now open, but the MTA actively engages outside parties to use its data to improve transit service.

Negative publicity is an effective (albeit a rather blunt) tool that every open government advocate should keep in their toolkit.

I mean this post as no personal criticism of Governor Markell. Certainly he has the ability to lead his administration to meet the standard he laid out in his inaugural address. I and many others hope that Delaware state government can emulate the experience of the MTA, and go from 0 to 100 on the open government speedometer. And soon!

Until then, though, I think I’ll go with bottled water.

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