Reports of the “Death of Open Government” have been greatly exaggerated

Last week, we saw yet another headline about the “death of open government.” Yesterday, the “demise of Data.gov” was incorrectly reported.

After a false report that made its way online in the absence of any fact checking, a call to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) or an email to the General Services Administration, I felt the need to shine a little sunlight where I think it’s needed.

First, I contacted Aneesh Chopra, the first federal CTO of the United States, who confirmed that the reports above were simply “untrue” and reported that out. According to Chopra, Data.gov will stay up and be an important part of the U.S. National Plan for Open Government. In the short run, tweeted Chopra, citizens should expect “agency support for data.gov communities. In the long run, Data.gov will become an open source open data platform. (More on that later.)

Second, consider this an “open letter” directed to Steven O’Keefe, founder of Meritalk, author of the latest article declaring that open government “is dead” because of reduced funding for OMB’s e-government fund in Congress.

Yes, people really care. Mr. Okeefe, if you aren’t against the concept of open government, why did you write an inflammatory headline about its “death,” particularly on the same week that a historic global Open Government Partnership launched?

I can think of at least 46 reasons open government is not dead. Last year, in your testimony before the United States Senate on government transparency, you said:

…We are very encouraged by the OMB and Recovery Board response to feedback from the Ogov study. President Obama’s open government initiative is analogous to President Kennedy’s commitment to go to the moon. It is a journey, and key stakeholders in government seem very receptive to building a better open government rocket
ship. The effort will doubtless yield many useful innovations along the way.

Mr. Chairman, it is our sincere hope that open government continues to build momentum in the Federal government. Much room exists for improvement. Our recommendations and observations are but a start toward establishing open government as a mainstream standard operating procedure in the Federal government.

A year later, that tune has changed. As I’ve said elsewhere to the editors of the site, I do not believe that this post was worthy of getting more exposure on on OpenSource.com. The flippancy of “pass the beer nuts” is simply not in-line with the gravity of the subject.

For one, it resulted in an error-filled post by Alberto Cottica that misreported that Data.gov was going to be taken down, a mistake that he failed to apologize for nor fully corrected until directly confronted.

For another, it’s just the next in a series of FUD-filled posts that seem designed to stir up controversy with the “is dead” trope that’s sadly endemic to lazy technology journalism as opposed to sober analysis of the issues. I’ll continue to read the Sunlight Foundation’s blog and will again try to unsubscribe from Meritalk’s “cup of IT,” an email newsletter that I somehow was forced to receive after speaking at the recent GOSCON summit.

There are indeed data quality issues on Data.gov, on the IT Dashboard and on USAspending.gov, as the Sunlight Foundation and other journalists have highlighted. The data problems are evident because of open government, not the opposite. A dashboard is only as good as the data put into it. There will be bad data in any large data set. By making data about the business or performance of government public, however, government officials can and do receive feedback upon the issues with it. And as the recently released GAO report on e-government emphasized, the open government platforms need better performance metrics aligned with their goals and improved data quality.

That said, there are larger considerations.

This moment occurs within a far broader historic context, however, than the posts referenced suggest. If you consider the larger sweep of the open government movement at the state, local and international level, any analysis of open government that declares it “alive” or dead based upon funding for the OMB’s eGov fund is limited by its premise, diminished by a myopic inside-the-Beltway perspective that does little to encourage the open source community to care and much more to cause the broader online audience and a global populace stressed by war, unemployment and corruption to be more cynical.

For those concerned about open government in the United States, talk to more journalists whose efforts at newspapers have been essential to holding local government accountable.

For those looking for a serious, well-reported assessment of federal open government policies, as seen through the prism of the media, read this CJR feature on government transparency. While the assessment of the Obama administration’s promises is not kind, the author does cede that there has been marginal improvement in the past three years.

For those who want an even deep analysis by an organization dedicated to open government, read OMB Watch’s assessment of progress of open goverment. Short version: again, improvement but a long road ahead.

Open government is not simply about open data nor OMB’s initiatives, although both are important at the federal level in the United States. Open government is a mindset, a cultural change, and an ongoing process that touches upon every citizen and government official, often indirectly. The conversations about it are supported by technology, its operations are enhanced by technology, and new possibilities are catalyzed by technology. That said, technology is a tool, not an end. Defunding some programs does not mean that “open government is dead” any more than it means representative democracy has expired.

Looking back, this isn’t the first time this issue has come up. Jenn Gustetic dug into similar issues last October when there was a smattering of posts wondering if open government was dead. Luke Fretwell, of Govfresh, responded to Vivek Wadhwa’s well meaning but poorly informaed post on open government earlier this year, after Wadhwa’s Washington Post blog ran a similar headline.

As Nick Judd pointed out in his reporting on open government at the time, there are other reasons to believe that open government data may become more than an executive order soon. Stay tuned on that count.

In the meantime, we can and should do better by our communities.

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.

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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