Beth Noveck testifies in Canadian Parliament on why open government matters

Today, Beth Noveck testified before the Canadian Parliament. She posted her testimony before the information privacy and ethics committee on her personal blog, including a statement on why open government matters:

Open government goes far beyond transparency. Opening up how institutions work to enable greater collaboration – open innovation – affords the opportunity to use network technology to discover creative solutions to challenges that a handful of people in Ottawa or Washington might not necessarily devise. By itself, government doesn’t have all the answers.

In the network age, twenty-first-century institutions are not bigger or smaller ones: they are smarter hybrids that leverage somewhat anarchic technologies within tightly controlled bureaucracies to connect the organization to a network of people in order to devise new approaches that would never come from within the bureaucracy itself. By using technology to build connections between institutions and networks, we can open up new, manageable and useful ways for government and citizens to solve problems together. Everyone is an expert in something and so many would be willing to participate if given the opportunity to bring our talents, skills, expertise and enthusiasm to bring to bear for the public good.

Noveck offered 10 principles for open government::

1. Go Open – Government should work in the open. Its contracts, grants, legislation, regulation and policies should be transparent. Openness gives people the information they need to know how their democracy works and to participate.

2. Open Gov Includes Open Access – Work created by and at the behest of the taxpayer whether through grants or contracts should be freely available. After the public has paid once, it shouldn’t have to pay again.

3. Make Open Gov Productive Not Adversarial – Given the time-consuming nature of responding to information requests today, Government should invest its human and financial capital in providing the data that people really want and will use. Officials should articulate what they hope people will do with the data provided (ie. design a new Federal Register) and also be open to the unexpected contributions that improve the workings of the organization and help the public.

4. Be Collaborative – It isn’t enough just to be transparent; officials need to take the next step of actively soliciting engagement from those with the incentives and expertise to help. Legislation and regulatory rulemaking should be open to public as early as possible in the process to afford people an opportunity – not simply to comment — but to submit constructive alternative proposals. Legislation should also mandate that agencies undertake public engagement during implementation.

5. Love Data – Design policies informed by real-time data. With data, we can measure performance, figure out what’s working, and change what’s not. Publishing the data generated in connection with new policies as well as “crowdsourcing” data gathered by those outside government enables innovation in policymaking. As an added bonus, open data also has the potential to create economic opportunity.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency in the United States has a ~$5 billion dollar annual budget. Through the open release of data, NOAA is catalyzing at least 100 times that value in the private sector market of weather and climate services when including market and non-market valuations. [15] The ~$1 billion it spends on the National Weather Service helps enable weather.com, which has since been sold for $3.5 billion. Hidden within the troves of public data is information that can translate into the next GPS or genomics industry.

6. Be Nimble – Where possible, invite innovations that can be implemented in 90 days or less. Forcing organizations to act more quickly discourages bureaucracy and encourages creative brainstorming and innovation. The need for speed encourages a willingness to reach out to others, including across the public sector.

7. Do More, Spend Less – Design solutions that do more with less. Instead of cutting a service to save money, ask if there is another way such as a prize or challenge to address people’s problems that both serves their needs and cuts costs. In this era of scientific and technological advances, we have amazing new ways of addressing problems if we can only recognize and implement them. Innovation may ultimately bring the win-win of more cost-effectiveness and greater engagement.

8. Invest in Platforms – So long as Freedom of Information, declassification and records management processes are entirely manual and data is created in analog instead of digital formats, open government will be very hard. Further, without tools to engage the public in brainstorming, drafting, policy reviews, and the other activities of government, collaboration will elude us. Focus on going forward practices of creating raw data and real engagement.

9. Invest in People – Changing the culture of government will not happen through statements of policy alone. It is important to ensure that policy empowers people to seek democratic alternatives and pursue open innovation. Consider appointing Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Democracy Officers, Chief Technology Officers.

10. Design for Democracy – Always ask if the legislation enables active and constructive engagement that uses people’s abilities and enthusiasm for the collective good. It is not enough to simply “throw” Facebook or Twitter at a problem. A process must be designed to complement the tool that ensures meaningful and manageable participation for both officials and the public.

Open government is not only an American endeavor, although aspects of the philosophy espoused by Thomas Jefferson can be found in the architectures of participation being built today. There are reasons to be by turns cynical, hopeful, concerned or inspired by the transitions taking place around the world, from Brazil to the Middle East to Europe to China. Noveck testified to that reality today:

“Transparency, participation, collaboration” is, by no means, an exclusively American mantra. Ten countries have launched national data portals to make public information transparent and accessible in raw formats. The British Parliament is debating amending its Freedom of Information Act to provide that, when so requested, the government must “provide the information to the applicant in an electronic form which is capable of re-use.”[10] Poland and Brazil are also working on open access legislation. Ten Downing Street like the White House has invited the citizenry and civil servants to brainstorm ideas for how to cut spending. They both publish government contracting data.[11a][11b] Australia launched a national Government 2.0 taskforce to explore opportunities for citizen engagement. The United Nations and the World Bank are jumping on the open-data and collaboration bandwagon. India and the United States have an open government partnership. Local governments from Amsterdam to Vladivostok are implementing tools bring citizens into governance processes to help with everything from policing to public works in manageable and relevant ways

These recommendations will be useful to other government officials or countries considering open government programs.
They should be also weighed against the analysis that John Foley recently posted at Information Week Government, where he published 10 steps to open government. Foley acknowledged the success of the open government efforts of the current administration, including the accomplishments that Noveck described in her testimony, and offered a critical list of the ways that those entrusted with carrying policy forward will need to grow and improve in implementation.

Of these, perhaps the most important is awareness: without public participation, many of the initiatives and platforms that Noveck helped to start are not likely gain the critical mass, scrutiny or traction that they require to succeed.

With that aim of raising more awareness about what open government means in practice, here’s Noveck’s talk on “10 ways to change the world” from last year’s Gov 2.0 Summit is embedded below:

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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