Samantha Power: OGP is President Obama’s signature governance initiative

On January 10th, 2013, the OpenGov Hub officially launched in Washington, DC.

The OpenGov Hub has similarities to incubators and accelerators, in terms of physically housing different organizations in one location, but focuses on scaling open government and building community, as opposed to scaling a startup and building a business.

Samantha Power, special assistant to President Obama and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights in the White House, spoke about the Hub, the Open Government Partnership, which she was at the heart of starting — and the broader importance of why “open government” is important to everyday citizens: improving lives and delivering results.

A video I recorded at the event, embedded below, captured her talk. Afterwards, I’ve posted text of her remarks, lightly edited for clarity. The emphases are mine.

“I’m jealous. It just feels cool. It feels like you’d come up with lots of ideas if you worked here. My office doesn’t feel quite like this, but we did hatch, collaboratively, the Open Government Partnership. 

I’ll just say a few things, mainly just to applaud this and to say how exciting it is.

The White House is a couple blocks in one direction, the State Department is another couple blocks in another, and there are a gazillion departments and agencies around who would really benefit from the infusion of energy and insight that you all bring to bear every day to your work.

President Obama started his first term issuing this Open Government Memorandum and it really did set the tone for the administration, and it does signal what a priority this was to him.

We are now on the verge of starting a second term and everybody in the administration is working to think through how does this manifest itself in the second term, the last term. You don’t get a chance after this next four years to do it again. We’re all very aware of that and we’re going to benefit from the ideas that you have.

Just to give you an indicator of what OGP has come to mean to the President — and this was catalyzed in a speech that he gave before the UN General Assembly. Those speeches are a kind of ‘State of the Union’ for foreign policy, and he chose to use that speech in year two of his presidency to talk about the fact that the old divisions, the old way of thinking of North and South, East and West, have been overtaken by open and closed and scales of openness, degrees of openness.

He challenged the countries there, the leaders, the peoples, to come back with ideas for how we could achieve more transparency, fight corruption, harness new technologies for innovation, and empower citizens. And that gave rise to this brainstorm, which in turn gave rise to this OpenGovHub, with this new leadership. We’re very, very excited about this next phrase of OGP’s growth.

This, I think in many ways, is President Obama’s signature governance initiative, and it’s something he takes extremely seriously. In bilateral meetings with foreign heads of state he often brings this up, spontaneously, if we have failed, somehow, to get it into the talking points. It is something he’s talked to Prime Minister Cameron about in the U.K. The Indonesians of course are the co-chairs now, so it’s not longer his.

The trip to Burma, which just occurred, was a very moving trip. I got to be a part of that. It was amazing to see President Barack Hussein Obama at the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, maybe the next leader of that country, talking about open government, and the Open Government Partnership, and the Burmese coming out on that trip and committing to be part of the Open Government Partnership by 2015, and articulating each of the milestones for budget transparency, on disclosure for public officials, on civil liberties, freedom of information.

So [using] OGP, and this open government conversation, as a hook to make progress on issues that this stage of Burma’s long journey it’s critical that they make progress on. So I just wanted to convey how much this really matters to him personally.

Second, and you talking about this earlier today, the challenge of conversions still exists, with other governments, with officials, in my own government, and certainly with citizens and other groups around the world who don’t self-identify within the space. And so, I think, thinking through the ways in which platforms like this one that pull together success stories and ways in which citizens have concretely benefitted, this is what it’s all about.

It’s not about the abstraction about ‘fighting corruption’ or ‘promoting transparency’ or ‘harnessing innovation’ — it’s about ‘are the kids getting the textbooks they’re supposed to get’ or does transparency provide a window into whether resources are going where they’re supposed to go and, to the degree to which that window exists, are citizens aware and benefiting from the data and that information such that they can hold their governments accountable. And then, does the government care that citizens care that those discrepancies exist?

That’s ultimately what this is about, and, I think, the more that we have concrete examples of real children, of real hospitals, real polluted water and clean water, real cost savings, in administrative budget terms, the more success we’re going to have in bringing new people into this community — and I confess, I was not one. Jeremy Weinstein used to come and knock on my door, and say, ‘What is this, open government?’ and I didn’t understand it.

Then, with a few examples, I said, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I’ve been trying to do under another rubric, you know, for a very long time.” This creates the possibility for another kind of conversation. 

Sometimes, democracy and human rights, issues like that, can get other governments on their heels. Open government creates the opportunity for conversations that sometimes doesn’t exist.

The last thing I’d say is, just to underscore a data point that’s been made, but in some sense, art imitates life, like this space imitates life. This space itself seems to be kind of predicated on the logic of open government — open idea sharing, information sharing, it’s great.

Our little OGP experiment, I think, is one that a lot of these groups are using. We benefited from what most of these groups and most of you have been doing, again, for a very long time, which is to recognize that we don’t know what we’re doing. We need to hear and learn from people who are out in the field. We have ideas and can be very abstract.

What the civil society partners have brought to the Open Government Partnership is just one example of what you’re bringing to people’s lives every day. You have to interface with people [to get] the ability to track whether policies are working. J

Just as the partnership itself has this originality to it, of being multi-stakeholder and having civil society and governments at the table, figuring out what we’re doing, so too our criteria, whether a country is or isn’t eligible, is the product of NGO data, or academic frameworks, there just has to be cross-pollination.

Again, OGP is just one version of this, but I think the more that our communities are talking to one another, and certainly, speaking from the government perspective now, just sucking in the work and the insights that you all bring to bear, the better off real people are going to be in the world, and the more likely those kids are going to be to get those textbooks.

Thanks for having me.”

Open Government Partnership hosts regional meeting in Chile

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) has released statistics on its first 16 months since its historic launch in New York City, collected together in the infographic embedded below. This week, Open government leaders are meeting in Chile to discuss the formal addition of Argentina to the partnership and the national plans that Latin American countries have pledged to implement. [LivestreamÁlvaro Ramirez Alujas, Founder of the Group of Investigation in Government, Administration and Public Policy (GIGAPP), assisted GOP with an analysis of these OPG action plans. Alujas found that:

  • 46% are linked to commitments on public integrity
  • 27% are related to the improvement of public services
  • 14% are linked to more effectively managing public resources and
  • 12% are related to increasing accountability and corporate responsibility.

Gobierno abierto

The infographic is also available en Español:

Accountability for accountability

As I noted in my assessment of 2012 trends for Radar, last year the Economist’s assessment was that open government grew globally in scope and clout.

As we head into 2013, it’s worth reiterating a point I made last summer in a post on oversight of the Open Government Partnership:

There will be inevitable diplomatic challenges for OGP, from South Africa’s proposed secrecy law to Russia’s membership. Given that context, all of the stakeholders in the Open Government Partnership — from the government co-chairs in Brazil and the United Kingdom to the leaders of participating countries to the members of civil society that have been given a seat at the table — will need to keep pressure on other stakeholders if significant progress is going to be made on all of these fronts.

If OGP is to be judged more than a PR opportunity for politicians and diplomats to make bold framing statements, government and civil society leaders will need to do more to hold countries accountable to the commitments required for participation: they must submit Action Plans after a bonafide public consultation. Moreover, they’ll need to define the metrics by which progress should be judged and be clear with citizens about the timelines for change.

African News Challenge funds data journalism and open government tech

The post-industrial future of journalism is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet. The same trends changing journalism and society have the potential to create significant social change throughout the African continent, as states moves from conditions of information scarcity to abundance.

That reality was clear on my recent trip to Africa, where I had the opportunity to interview Justin Arenstein at length during my visit to Zanzibar. Arenstein is building the capacity of African media to practice data-driven journalism, a task that has taken on new importance as the digital disruption that has permanently altered how we discover, read, share and participate in news.

One of the primary ways he’s been able to build that capacity is through African News Innovation Challenge (ANIC), a variety of the Knight News Challenge in the United States.

The 2011 Knight News Challenge winners illustrated data’s ascendance in media and government, with platforms for data journalism and civic connections dominating the field.

As I wrote last September, the projects that the Knight Foundation has chosen to fund over the last two years are notable examples of working on stuff that matters: they represent collective investments in digital civic infrastructure.

The first winners of the African News Innovation Challenge, which concluded this winter, look set to extend that investment throughout the continent of Africa.

“Africa’s media face some serious challenges, and each of our winners tries to solve a real-world problem that journalists are grappling with. This includes the public’s growing concern about the manipulation and accuracy of online content, plus concerns around the security of communications and of whistleblowers or journalistic sources,” wrote Arenstein on the News Challenge blog.

While the twenty 2012 winners include investigative journalism tools and whistleblower security, there’s also a focus on citizen engagement, digitization and making public data actionable. To put it another way, the “news innovation” that’s being funded on both continents isn’t just gathering and disseminating information: it’s now generating data and putting it to work in the service of the needs of residents or the benefit of society.

“The other major theme evident in many of the 500 entries to ANIC is the realisation that the media needs better ways to engage with audiences,” wrote Arenstein. “Many of our winners try tackle this, with projects ranging from mobile apps to mobilise citizens against corruption, to improved infographics to better explain complex issues, to completely new platforms for beaming content into buses and taxis, or even using drone aircraft to get cameras to isolated communities.”

In the first half of our interview, published last year at Radar, Arenstein talked about Hacks/Hackers, and expanding the capacity of data journalism. In the second half, below, we talk about his work at African Media Initiative (AMI), the role of open source in civic media, and how an unconference model for convening people is relevant to innovation.

What have you accomplished at the AMI to date?

Justin Arenstein: The AMI has been going on for just over three years. It’s a fairly young organization, and I’ve been embedded now for about 18 months. The major deliverables and the major successes so far have been:

  1. A $1 million African News Innovation Challenge, which was modeled fairly closely on the Knight Challenge, but a different state of intended outputs.
  2. A network of Hacks/Hackers chapters across the continent.
  3. A number of technology support or technology development initiatives. Little pilot projects, invariably newsroom-based.

The idea is that we test ideas that are allowed to fail. We fund them in newsrooms and they’re driven by newsrooms. We match them up with technologists. We try and lower the barrier for companies to start experimenting and try and minimize risk as much as possible for them. We’ve launched a couple of slightly larger funds for helping to scale some of these ideas. We’ve just started work on a social venture or a VC fund as well.

You mentioned different outputs in the News Challenge. What does that mean?

Justin Arenstein: Africa hasn’t had the five-year kind of evolutionary growth that the Knight News Challenge has had in the U.S. What the News Challenge has done in the U.S. is effectively grown an ecosystem where newsrooms started to grapple with and accepted the reality that they have to innovate. They have to experiment. Digital is core to the way that they’re not only pushing news out but to the way that they produce it and the way that they process it.

We haven’t had any of that evolution yet in Africa. When you think about digital news in African media, they think you’re speaking about social media or a website. We’re almost right back at where the News Challenge started originally. At the moment, what we’re trying to do is raise sensitivity to the fact that there are far more efficient ways of gathering, ingesting, processing and then publishing digital content — and building tools that are specifically suited for the African environment.

There are bandwidth issues. There are issues around literacy, language use and also, in some cases, very different traditions of producing news. The output of what would be considered news in Africa might not be considered news product in some Western markets. We’re trying to develop products to deal with those gaps in the ecosystem.

What were the most promising News Challenge entrants that actually relate to those outputs?

Justin Arenstein: Some of the projects that we thought were particularly strong or apt amongst the African News Challenge finalists included more efficient or more integrated ways to manage workflow. If you look at many of the workflow software suites in the north, they’re, by African standards, completely unaffordable. As a result, there hasn’t been any systemic way that media down here produced news, which means that there’s virtually no way that they are storing and managing content for repackaging and for multi-platform publishing.

We’re looking at ways of not reinventing a CMS [content management system], but actually managing and streamlining workflow from ingesting reporting all the way to publishing.

Some of the biggest blogs in the world are running on WordPress for a CMS. Why not use that where needed?

Justin Arenstein: I think I may have I misspoken by saying “content management systems.” I’m referring to managing, gathering and storing old news, the production and the writing of new content, a three or four phase editing process, and then publishing across multiple platforms. Ingesting creative design, layout, and making packages into podcasting or radio formats, and then publishing into things like Drupal or WordPress.

There have been attempts to take existing CMS systems like Drupal and turn it into a broader, more ambitious workflow management tool. We haven’t seen very many successful ones. A lot of the kinds of media that we work with are effectively offline media, so these have been very lightweight applications.

The one thing that we have focused on is trying to “future-proof” it, to some extent, by building a lot of meta tagging and data management tools into these new products. That’s because we’re also trying to position a lot of the media partners we’re working with to be able to think about their businesses as data or content-driven businesses, as opposed to producing newspapers or manufacturing businesses. This seems to be working well in some early pilots we’ve been doing in Kenya.

What were your takeaways from the Tech Camp? Was a hybrid unconference a good model for the News Challenge?

Justin Arenstein: A big goal that we think we’ve achieved was to try and build a community of use. We put people together. We deliberately took them to an exotic location, far away from a town or location, where they’re effectively held hostage in a hotel. We built in as much free time as possible, with many opportunities to socialize, so that they start creating bonds. Right from the beginning, we did a “speed dating” kind of thing. There’s been very few presentations — in fact, there was only one PowerPoint in five days. The rest of the time, it’s actually the participants teaching each other.

We brought in some additional technology experts or facilitators, but they were handpicked largely from previous challenges to share the experience of going through a similar process and to point people to existing resources that they might not be aware of. That seems to have worked very well.

On the sidelines of the Tech Camp, we’ve seen additional collaborations happen for which people are not asking for funding. It just makes logical sense. We’ve already seen some of the initial fruits of that: three of the applicants actually partnered and merged their applications. We’ve seen a workflow editorial CMS project partner up with an ad booking and production management system, to create a more holistic suite. They’re still building as two separate teams, but they’re now sharing standards and they’re building them as modular products that could be sold as a broader product suite.

The Knight News Challenge has stimulated the creation of many open source tools. Is any of that code being re-used?

Justin Arenstein: We’ve tried to tap into quite a few of them. Some of the more recent tools are transferable. I think there was grand realization that people weren’t able to deliver on their promises — and where they did deliver on tools, there wasn’t documentation. The code was quite messy. They weren’t really robust. Often, applications were written for specific local markets or data requirements that didn’t transfer. You actually effectively had to rebuild them. We have been able to re-purpose DocumentCloud and some other tools.

I think we’ve learned from that process. What we’re trying to do with our News Challenge is to workshop finalists quite aggressively before they put in their final proposals.

Firstly, make sure that they’re being realistic, that they’re not unnecessarily building components, or wasting money and energy on building components for their project that are not unique, not revolutionary or innovative. They should try and almost “plug and play” with what already exists in the ecosystem, and then concentrate on building the new extensions, the real kind of innovations. We’re trying to improve on the Knight model.

Secondly, once the grantees actually get money, it comes in a tranche format so they agree to an implementation plan. They get cash, in fairly small grants by Knight standards. The maximum is $100,000. In addition, they get engineering or programming support from external developers that are on our payroll, working out of our labs. We’ve got a civic lab running out of Kenya and partners, such as Google.

Thirdly, they get business mentorship support from some leading commercial business consultants. These aren’t nonprofit types. These are people who are already advising some of the largest media companies in the world.

The idea is that, through that process, we’re hopefully going to arrive at a more realistic set of projects that have either sustainable revenue models and scaling plans, from the beginning, or built-in mechanisms for assessments, reporting back and learning, if they’re designed purely as experiments.

We’re not certain if it’s going to work. It’s an experiment. On the basis of the Tech Camp that we’ve gone through, it seems to have worked very well. We’ve seen people abandon what were, we thought, overly ambitious technology plans and rather matched up or partnered with existing technologists. They will still achieve their goals but do so in a more streamlined, agile manner by re-purposing existing tech.

Editors’s Note: This interview is part of an ongoing series at the O’Reilly Radar on the people, tools and techniques driving data journalism.

TechCrunch’s “CrunchGov” grades Congress on tech, pilots legislative crowdsourcing platform

In general, connecting more citizens with their legislators and create more resources for Congress to understand where their constituents and tech community stands on proposed legislation is a good thing. Last year’s Congressional hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act made it pretty darn clear that many technologists felt that it was no longer ok to not know how the Internet works. Conversely, however, if the tech world cares about what happens in DC, it’s no longer ok to not know how Congress works.

In that context, the launch of a policy platform by one of the biggest tech blogs on the planet could definitely be a positive development. TechCrunch contributor Greg Ferenstein writes that the effort is aimed at “helping policymakers become better listeners, and technologists to be more effective citizens.”

The problem with the initial set of tools is that they’re an incomplete picture of what’s online, at best. CrunchGov won’t satisfy the needs of tech journalists, staffers or analysts, who need deeper dives into expert opinion, policy briefings and data. (Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy and Technology, OpenSecrets.org, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation already offer those resources.)

Will “grading” Members of the House of Representatives on TechCrunch’s new Congressional leaderboard lead to them being better listeners? Color me, well, unconvinced. Will an “F” from TechCrunch result in Reps. Smith, Grassley, or Blackburn changing the bills they introduce, support or vote for or against?

Hard to know. True, it’s the sort of symbol that a political opponent could use in an election — but if Reddit’s community couldn’t defeat SOPA’s chief sponsor in a primary, will a bad grade do it? Ferenstein says the leaderboard provides a “a quantified opinion” of the alignment of Reps with the consensus of the tech industry.

Update: as reported by Adrian Jeffries at The Verge, this quantified opinion is based upon TechCrunch editorial and “data and guidance from four tech lobbies.”

Engine Advocacy, which represents startups; TechNet, which represents CEOs in areas from finance and ecommerce to biotech and clean tech; the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents major Silicon Valley employers; and the powerhouse conglomerate The Internet Association, which represents Amazon, Google, and Facebook, among others.

Ferenstein told Hamish McKenzie at PandoDaily that “We’re saying this is generally the view of many people who read our site.” If that’s the case, it would be useful to transparently see the data that shows how TechCrunch readers feel about proposed or passed bills — much in the same way that POPVOX or OpenCongress allow users to express support or opposition to legislation. At the moment, readers are stuck taking their word for it.

McKenzie also highlighted some problems with the rankings and the proposition of rankings themselves:

On three major issues – net neutrality, privacy, and cyber security – TechCrunch’s surveys found no consensus, which somewhat undermines the leaderboard rankings. After all, those rankings appear to be based mainly on three data points: a Congressperson’s position on SOPA, and his or her votes on the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. It might be true that CrunchGov takes a data-driven approach to its rankings, but when three data points out a possible set of six are omitted, it’s fair to question just how useful the measure is.

As much as anything else, that speaks to the complicated definition of “those in the technology industry.” The industry is so broad and varied, from solo developers creating social games in their basements to hardware executives wanting to drive profits on their devices, that trying to establish consensus on political issues across a broad section of a relatively amorphous community is probably an impossible task. It also overemphasizes tech issues among the myriad of policy concerns that people working in the industry hold, some of which might seem tangential but are actually inextricably tied to the industry. What of climate change? What of taxes? What of puppies?

Also, applying grades to legislators puts TechCrunch in the same camp as the NRA, Americans For Tax Reform, and the Sierra Club in terms of assessing representatives based on narrow, and politically loaded, interests. It’s a headline-oriented approach that provides low-information people with a low-information look at a process and system that is actually very complicated.

More effective citizenship through the Internet?

I’m not unconvinced these limited bill summaries or leaderboard will help “technologists” become “more effective citizens,” though I plan to keep an open mind: this new policy platform is in beta, from the copy to the design to the number of bills in the legislative database or the data around them.

Helping readers to be “more effective” citizens is a bigger challenge than educating them just about how legislators are graded on tech-related bills. The scope of that  knowing who your Representative, Senators or where they stand on issues, what bills are up for a vote or introduced, how they voted, The new Congress.gov will connect you to many of the above needs, at the federal level. It might mean following the money, communicating your support or opposition to your elected officials, registering to vote, and participating the democratic processes of state and local government, from schools to . Oh, and voting: tens of millions of American citizens will head to the polls in under two weeks.

To be fair, CrunchGov does do some of these things, linking out to existing open government ecosystem online. Clicking “more info” shows positions Representatives have taken on the tech issues CrunchGov editors have determined that the industry has a “consensus” around, including votes, and links to their profiles in OpenCongress and Influence Explorer. Bill summaries link to maplight.org.

When it comes to the initial set of issues in the legislative database, there’s an overly heavy editorial thumb on the till of what’s deemed important to the tech community.

For one, “cybersecurity” is a poor choice for a Silicon Valley blog. It’s a Washington word, used often in the context of national defense and wars, accompanied by fears of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Network security, mobile device security or Web application security are all more specific issues, and ones that startups and huge enterprises all have to deal with in their operations. The security experts I trust see Capitol Hill rhetoric taking aim at the wrong cybersecurity threats.

CrunchGov has only one bill selection for the issue — the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) (H.R. 3523). The summary explains that CISPA proposes more information sharing, has a pie chart showing that “tech-friendly legislators” are split 50/50 on it, shows endorsements and opposition, links to 3 articles about the bill, including TechCrunch’s own coverage.

What’s left unclear? For one, that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) – an “A-lister” who TechCrunch writes “has received numerous awards and accolades from the industry,” supported CISPA. Or that organizations and advocates concerned about its implications for privacy and civil rights strongly opposed it. If you’re a technologist, legislator or citizen, honestly, you’re better off reading ProPublica’s explainer or the Center for Democracy and Technology’s CISPA resource page.

There’s also framing choices that meant a number of bills aren’t listed — and that the Senate is left out entirely. Why? According to Ferenstein, “the “do-nothing” congress made it impossible to rank the Senate, because they didn’t pass enough bills related to technology policy.”

It’s true that the Senate hasn’t passed many bills — but the 51 laws that did go through the Senate in the 112th Congress include more tech policy issues than that statement might lead you to believe, from e-verify to online leak prevention. It’s also moved laws that every citizens should know about, like the extension of the PATRIOT Act, given that provisions affect the tech industry. (Yes, digital due process matters in the age of the cloud: your email isn’t as private as you might think it is.)

Putting a legislative crowdsourcing platform to re-use

Congressional leaderboard and limited legislative dashboard aside, CrunchGov is trying to crowdsource legislation using a local installation of MADISON, the software Congressman Issa’s office developed and rolled out last December during the first Congressional hackathon. MADISON was subsequently open sourced, which made the code available to TechCrunch.

It’s in this context that CrunchGov’s aspirations for technology to “democratize democracy itself” may be the most tested. The first test case will be a bill from Congressman Issa to reform government IT procurement. For this experiment to matter, the blog’s readership will need to participate, do so meaningfully, and see that their edits are given weight by bill authors in Washington. Rep. Issa’s office, which has distinguished itself in its use of the Internet to engage the public, may well do so. If proposals from the initial pilot aren’t put into bills, that may be the end of reader interest.

Will other Congressmen and staffers do the same, should their bills be posted? It’s hard to say. As with so many efforts to engage citizens online, this effort is in beta.

This post has been updated, including links to coverage from Pando Daily and the Verge.

San Francisco experiments with citizensourcing better ideas

As significant as the revisions to San Francisco’s open data policy may prove to be, city officials and civic startups alike emphasize that it’s people are fundamental to sustained improvements in governance and city life.

“Open data would not exist without our community,” said Jay Nath, the city’s first chief innovation officer, this Monday at the Hatchery.

San Francisco’s approach to open innovation in the public sector — what businesses might describe as crowdsourcing, you might think of as citizensourcing for cities — involves a digital mix of hackathons, public engagement and a renewed focus on the city’s dynamic tech community, including the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, or SF.citi.

Cities have been asking their residents how government could work better for some time, of course — and residents have been telling city governments how they could work better for much longer than that. New technologies, however, have created new horizons for participatory platforms to engage citizens, including mobile apps and social media.

Open data and civic coders also represent a “new class of civic engagement focused on solving issues, not just sharing problems,” argues Nath. “We have dozens and dozens of apps in San Francisco. I think it’s such a rich community. We haven’t awarded prizes. It’s really about sustainability and creating community. We’ve six or seven events and more than 10,000 hours of civic engagement.”

San Francisco’s dedicated citizensourcing platform is called “ImproveSF.” The initiative had its genesis as an internal effort to allow employees to make government better, said Walton. The ideas that come out of both, he said, are typically about budget savings.

The explosion of social media in the past few years has created new challenges for San Francisco to take public comments digitally on Facebook or Twitter that officials haven’t fully surmounted yet.

“We don’t try to answer and have end-to-end dialog,” said Jon Walton, San Francisco’s CIO, in an interview earlier this year. Part of that choice is driven by the city’s staffing constraints.

“What’s important is that we store, archive and make comments available to policy makers so that they can see what the public input is,” he said.

Many priorities are generated by citizen ideas submitted digitally, emphasized Walton, which then can be put on a ballot that residents then vote on and become policy by public mandate.

“How do you get a more robust conversation going on with the public?” asked Walton. “In local government, what we’re trying to do is form better decisions on where we spend time and money. That means learning about other ideas and facilitating conversations.”

He pointed to the deployment of free public Wi-Fi this year as an example of how online public comments can help shape city decisions. “We had limited funds for the project,” he said. “Just $80,000. What can you do with that?”

Walton said that one of the first things they thought about doing was putting up a website to ask the public to suggest where the hotspots should be.

The city is taking that feedback into account as it plans future wifi deployments:


View Larger Map

green dot Completed sites

blue dot Sites in progress

Walton said they’re working with the mayor’s office to make the next generation of ImproveSF more public-facing.

“How do we take the same idea and expose it to the public?” he asked. “Any new ‘town hall’ should really involve the public in asking what the business of government should be? Where should sacrifices and investments be made? There’s so much energy around the annual ballot process. People haven’t really talked about expanding that. The thing that we’re focusing on is to make decision-making more interactive.”

At least some of San Francisco’s focus has gone into mobile development.

“If you look at the new social media app, we’re answering the question of ‘how do we make public meetings available to people on handhelds and tablets’?” said Walton.

“The next generation will focus on how do they not just watch a meeting but see it live, text in questions and have a dialog with policy makers about priorities, live, instead of coming in in person.”

Rakesh Rajani: An Open Government Takes Humility

On the first anniversary of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), Rakesh Rajani, the head of Twaweza in Tanzania offered an eloquent perspective (PDF) regarding its progress and potential.

He was straightforward in his assessment: he said that there’s “at best a one in five chance” that the partnership will achieve its full potential. Rajani also offered a fundamental metric for assessing the success of OGP: “not how many countries sign on to the open government declaration, but how many commitments are delivered in countries, and how many citizens experience concrete improvements in their lives.”

In that vein, he highlighted two projects in Africa that haven’t delivered upon their promise:

Even where governments and civil society are willing, realizing the full promise of OGP commitments is not easy; executing meaningful programs is very difficult. In Kenya the Open Data portal makes an impressive level of data public for the first time, but few use it. In Tanzania, the project to enable citizens to report broken water points through their mobile phones, a project that was featured in the OGP launch film and that my organization supported, has largely failed, because people simply did not believe reporting data would make a difference. Overall, if we are honest, of the 300 or so commitments made in the OGP plans so far, the glass is more empty than full. These are still early days, but the window to learn lessons and get our act together is closing fast.

That said, Rajani remains fundamentally optimistic about the world’s movement towards open government:

“I believe that the idea of open government is as fundamental as some of our greatest achievements of the last century, such as that of the equality of men and women and equality of the races; indeed underlying them all is the deep human impulse for freedom and dignity. That is why, despite my concern about the prospects of the OGP, I am optimistic. Open government is so fundamental to being human that the arc of human history, driven by the everyday actions millions of people across the world, will inevitably bend towards openness. The challenge before us, and awesome privilege, is whether we muster the humility and good sense to be part of that movement.”

I interviewed Rajani earlier this year. If you’re interested in how civil society plays a central role in holding governments accountable, do watch:

Watch live streaming video from ogp2012 at livestream.com