Friday, August 6, 2010

Is Open Government absolute?

A new normal has emerged in public policy thinking over the last 18 months: the idea that the reality of Open Government is a “good thing” and that Open Data is an important step in turning the policy of open government an operational reality. The latest event was the Declaration of Open Government last month by the Australian government. So are there boundaries to Open Government? If the mantra is "open by default", what are legitimate reasons for not following the default?

Cultural change involved in implementing Open Government is huge. Despite the fact that we have had the Official Information Act in place in New Zealand for almost 30 years, there are still questions over whether government officials are comfortable operating in accordance with the legislation. The widespread availability of Internet technology removes significant operational barriers from releasing official information, and has exposed more deep-seated systemic resistance. Legislation is a blunt instrument to effect behavioural change.

Last week, the NZ government, led by the Department of Conservation, convened a group of invited participants to brainstorm what data sets should be prioritised across government for release under an open data program. A good idea, I thought, but others did not.

“.. I am concerned about the process here. It's quite legitimate for private individuals to run invite-only events (Foo, for example), and for private companies to do so (Microsoft Open Govt), but IMHO it's a different ballgame when government is involved, especially (ironically) when the topic is open govt or open govt data. ....  We need to scale past this invite-only, pussy-footing to larger, public, open processes as fast as possible."

The full discussion is here

This got me to thinking about the fundamentals of Open Government. Technology has made it possible for every interaction of a government official or politician to be published online. Should every step in the development of ideas take place "on the record" or is there a place for deliberative privacy?

Beth Noveck, Deputy CIO and spearhead of the Obama campaign for open and transparent government, spoke about this when questioned (at 1:20:00) on whether legislating for transparency of meetings simply moved discussions from 'meetings' to the lunch table.  (There was a secondary question about whether secrecy is used as an excuse for not making data open; in this post, I am focused on information that is not subject to privacy or national security constraints).

If everything is totally open, people either grandstand for the cameras or are reluctant to join a conversation for fear of appearing stupid. Deals are not made in front of TV cameras, and locking politicians into early public positions can have unforseen consequences.
The White House publishes a list of visitors, and meetings of senior government officials are a matter of public record "so we know there are no secret energy meetings going on, but they are in fact happening out in the open". The problem of institutional reform is hard, and the current approach is to start with lobbying – “ensuring that when we talk with lobbyists we are much more open than when we are going to lunch with our colleagues”.

Beth’s view is also that there are practical constraints on full transparency - "if we had to record every conversation, we would spend so much time being open, there would not be enough time to get the job done". However, this may be a temporary constraint - it is not hard to imagine a future where everything is able to be recorded without any active effort required of participants.

Just because everything can be made part of the public record, does not mean it should be. In the new world of Open Government, we need to understand the legitimacy of government having discussions in private or by invitation only. The questions are:
  • the criteria for choosing who is involved in early stage discussion 
  • the disclosure requirements about the existence and content of early stage discussions
  • at what point should those discussions be opened up to a wider community. 
I personally support deliberative privacy with transparency of participation - publication of who is part of the early stage discussions. The results should be disclosed early enough that positions are not fully formed (and we find ourselves in faux consultation), while allowing enough time to develop ideas so that the subsequent dialogue is effective. In many ways, public officials are caught either way: when ideas are first floated they are criticised for being short on detail, and if they present detailed proposals they are criticised for not consulting widely enough.

Back to the government event last week. I stand by my view that the event was a good idea. People outside government do not always understand the pressures and cultural expectations that constrain what you can do within government. For this event, the organisers made efforts to cast the net wide for community involvement, and published the outcome of the discussions within two working days. As far as I am aware, no-one was excluded from the event, and it is hard to see what more the organisers could have done to operate openly.

As Public Strategist has observed :
The government is an elephant -  It tries to dance, but finds it hard, and the smaller animals around it can get hurt.  The solution may be for the elephant to stand stock still, to do nothing for fear of treading on something more nimble, but more easily hurt. Or it may be to learn to tread more carefully, to place its feet carefully, but to keep moving nevertheless. Or it may be to charge ahead regardless and let others survive as best they can.

When faced with Open Government, the natural response of the elephant is the first option, so we should support and encourage government officials to choose the second option. Encourage them to interact with people and understand how to operate within a community, and join in a rolling conversation in different forums without constraints on who should be involved in individual events. The more conversations there are about Open Government, the more we will make progress. Anyone who champions the cause should be praised and encouraged.

The US government chose the third option, and they did this because of the unequivocal leadership from the top - the very first thing President Obama did, on his first day in office, was to sign the executive memorandum on transparency and open government. With that level of leadership, the elephant can charge ahead.  Without that leadership, the best we can expect from our public servants is that they learn to move forward, and keep moving. Our job is to encourage those that are moving and harangue those that are not.

So praise to the State Services Commission who today announced the formal adoption by Cabinet of the NZ Government Open Access and Licensing framework (NZGOAL).  This provides guidance for State Services agencies to follow when releasing copyright works and non-copyright material for re-use by third parties, standardises the licensing of government copyright works for re-use using Creative Commons licences, and recommends the use of ‘no-known rights’ statements for non-copyright material.

To continue the conversation: OpenLabourNZ is running a public one-day event at the end of August. I am looking forward to the presence of Andrew Rasiej, who will be joining the event by video link. I look forward to further discussion of these issues, which are at the heart of Open Government.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Active with the activists

45 minutes outside Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, nearly 100 attendees, from NGOs, community media, academics, activists, social workers and government officials, are at the second MekongICT camp.  People have come from Thailand, Laos, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Korea, Vietnam, India and Sri Lanka; from outside the region there are community-based ICT proponents from the US, Canada, and New Zealand.

My key note covered Government 2.0 and Civil Information Society – why it is important, examples of government 2.0 around the world, and how to move forward.  Coming from a high trust, transparent democracy in New Zealand, I was filled with admiration for activists working in these Mekong countries who have none of the tools that we take for granted - such as Freedom of Information legislation or consultative democracy.

One question that I was asked – “what incentives can be put in place for countries like ours, where government is closed and we cannot get information?” – gave me food for thought.  Apart from anger that people with power, in positions of authority and leadership, do not accept their responsibilities to serve the people who they lead, I could only come up with one answer - find an individual government official who wants to make a difference. If  "Law is the Operating System of Democracy", how do you lead your life without a reliable operating system?

The ideas emerging so far include protecting your information when operating as an NGO, and activism through citizen journalism.There are teams building community radio stations with parts that you used to be able to buy from Dick Smiths and Radio Shack before they put them all away in the drawers at the back and sold you glossy end products. Another group are creating a wifi mesh network to connect communities peer to peer communities.  Along the hall, I am at a workshop designing SMS systems for supporting farmers - "for people in the world that need it most, the only way to access the power of ICT is through SMS.

I keep thinking "Agitprop" without even knowing if that is a word with currency in the 21st century - it meant a lot in 1970. Wikipedia tells me that it is term from Bolshevist Russia, that had negative connotations in the west. It seems to fit well with what is happening here - communities helping each other to help themselves.  Billy Bragg would be proud of them:

Jumble sales are organised and pamphlets have been posted
Even after closing time there's still parties to be hosted
You can be active with the activists
Or sleep in with the sleepers
While you're waiting for the great leap forward

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Eat your own dogfood

The New Zealand Labour Party have launched a new way of developing policy – out in the open, involving anyone who chooses to participate. They are starting by developing a policy on open and transparent government. Some might criticise this as a self-referential policy wonk, others would call it eating your own dogfood.

I have a preference for drinking your own champagne.

In Australia, Kate Lundy started her use of ICT and social media tools while in opposition, and last year launched the successful Public Sphere initiative, which built momentum behind the creation of the Gov2.0 TaskForce. In the US, social media tools were used by the Obama campaign to tap into what the public wanted, proving an effective tool for listening to a wide set of stakeholders. However, for yesterday's general election in the UK, social media seemed to be used more as a source of data on public sentiment than as a campaign tool.

It is probably not surprising that many such initiatives start from opposition parties. Being in government creates a lot of work, driven by daily operational imperatives, so there is less time to consider the fundamentals of the democratic process. In addition, the ruling government contains the people upon whom lobbyists spend most of their money and attention, creating a community that is protective of their insider position.

The risks of fake participation can be reduced by ICT technologies. The techniques used to give the illusion of participation have been identified as
  • Don’t publicize the meeting to potential opponents.
  • Schedule the meeting at an inconvenient time or place.
  • Stack citizen representatives on public bodies.
  • Signal the futility of participating to those most likely to participate.
  • Intimidate potential opponents by forcing them to reveal their identities
With these risks in mind, it is ecouraging that the Labour Party initiative was re-tweeted by the National Business Review, the publication of choice for business leaders. And comments on the policy are coming from across the political spectrum.

In 2007, New Zealand provided world leadership in the use of e-participation, through the Police Act wiki, the Bioethics Council and guidance from the State Services Commission. More recently, New Zealand has been overtaken by developments in London, Canberra and Washington. It is encouraging that the Labour Party has started this initiative and already there are discussions about some fundamental policy points. Should the Official Information Act cover commercial in confidence information, given that government is using public money? During the negotiation phase it is clearly appropriate, but once the contract has been signed, there is no good reason for withholding the details. Opening the operations of our elected MPs up to the same level of scrutiny as other parts of public life is another aspect of Open Government.

We have a way to go. Since early 2009, the Federal US government have led in the implementation of open government and open data. The Australian government have already accepted the recommendations of the Gov 2.0 task force and are proceeding to implementation And despite the absence of social media in the election campaign, the British government have introduced some real innovation in citizen participation.

New Zealand leads the world in good government, which has open and democratic policy-making at its core. We need to broaden and strengthen the dialogue, and accelerate the pace, to retain that position

Friday, March 12, 2010

The global Gov2.0 community and the speed of information

My first global conference this morning - featured speakers were:

There were more than 300 attendees (all virtual) from Australia, Mexico, USA, Canada, Spain, Brazil, Israel, UK, India, Singapore Taiwan, Netherlands, Lebanon, Georgia, Romania and Kuwait - possibly other countries as well.

The content of the presentations was great (should be online at the conference site shortly), and the chat stream was a useful and interesting adjunct to the event. My comments will be at the FutureGov blog shortly.

At the end of the three hours I was excited and had a bundle of new ideas; but I was also left with a sense of disconnection or disembodiedness - a bit like jet lag. which is what this post is about.

My thoughts went to an article written by Ian Illich in 1973 - Energy and Equity. The article was about the way mankind moves around the planet, and the energy deficit created by industrialisation.

"Man, unaided by any tool, gets around quite efficiently. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer in ten minutes by expending 0.75 calories. Man on his feet is thermodynamically more efficient than any motorized vehicle and most animals. Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well."

The article argues that other forms of transport are use less energy and create more inequity:
"More energy fed into the transportation system means that more people move faster over a greater range in the course of every day. Everybody’s daily radius expands at the expense of being able to drop in on an acquaintance or walk through the park on the way to work. Extremes of privilege are created at the cost of universal enslavement."

As one reviewer noted, "The result, worldwide, would be a postindustrial economy of 'modern subsistence'-from which Illich regrets the Chinese are deviating though he appears to have hopes for the Cambodians. Therein, of course, lies the difficulty: notwithstanding Illich's disclaimers, an authoritarian pall hangs over his proposals--along with a religious asceticism/quietism." Which is not a great outcome.

Nevertheless, at the time the essay was published I thought there was an important truth buried in the essay - about the impact on individuals of modern mass transport.  I developed the idea of a psychic deficit caused by high speed travel, that meant the body needed time, after a high speed journey to readjust to the destination state. Rather like the deep sea diver needs to pause periodically for decompression to avoid the bends, so the body needs to readjust after air-travel to "allow the electrons to catch up".

So I found myself thinking at the end of a three hour global conference, do we need to give time for ideas to settle, when they are zapping round the world like electrons in the Hadron Collider, and give our brains time to absorb the ideas. Of course we need time to absorb ideas and integrate them into our personal mental models - that is what sleep and dreams are for; but do we need more time if the ideas have travelled longer distances, or pinged around in cyberspace, than if they shared at same location - in a face to face conversation?

Maybe I am too old to be a digital native?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Public Domain is the rule, copyright protection is the exception

Speaking at the open government mini-conference within last week, I found myself saying out loud "copyright will be gone in fifty years, and the current ACTA discussions are the final desparate actions of a dying regime". While it is a view that I have held for some time, the articulation in public carries with it a responsibility to provide some rationale for my opinion - so here goes.

There will be a single Information Economy in the 21st century - the very premise of this blog. In this new economy the supply chain for content will be destroyed and recreated, and attempts to prevent this happening will be seen from the future as minor interruptions on the inevitable journey (rather like the attempts by port companies and dockside labour to stop the shipping container, which revolutionised the distribution industry).

Colonisation of language is a clear sign that a regime is threatened - desparate times require that words gain new meanings. Piracy (on the high seas) is dangerous, violent, organised crime - using the same word for downloading a document, movie or song word is like using the same word for murder and for not wearing a seat belt. If you want an activity that deserves the label "piracy", what about banking?

Glyn Moody gave a great keynote speech at - it should be on the core curriculum for every student of economics 101. He pointed me to the Public Domain Manifesto, from which the title of this blog is taken. I am not able to do his ideas justice here - wait for the video to be published; one of his points was that anti-sharing does not scale - it is either win-lose (for the market), or lose-lose (for the tragedy of the commons). And he highlighted the work of Elinor Ostrom, who received the Nobel Prize for economics for her work on ownership of common property.

It is a universal truth that more good comes from sharing ideas and data than from protecting them, although our whole economic system is based on the opposite - we have taken the concepts of ownership rights over physical property, and applied them to intellectual property, with disastrous results.

By 2030, all content will be available:

In Any Language
Anywhere in the World
At Any Time
At Zero Cost

So, there will be no money to be made from the content itself.

But what about us?

(or more importantly, the people that make money from our work,
and the work of others like us)

I don't know the answer. There are developing ideas - the best I have come across so far are:

"When copies are free, you need to sell things that can not be copied"
"How do authors and publishers get paid in a "Free" World"
"It was never about owning content. It was always about listening to music."
"Content is a service business"
"The new media have disappeared. They are just media now"

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What next for government transformation?

December is the month that public servants, at the end of the year, publish the results of their work, and take some time off to spend with their families, knowing that the evidence of their achievements during the year is open for review by the public. Three governments – USA, UK and Australia - released major documents in December, and they give some signposts for the trends that we can expect to see in 2010 and beyond.

On December 22, Australia published Engage – getting on with Government 2.0, the report from a TaskForce set up by the Prime Minister to make recommendations on improving the accessibility, transparency, innovation, and collaboration of government. The report contains an excellent statement of the benefits and challenges of using ICT, particularly social media/web 2.0 tools. The report makes strong recommendations for government action, proposing both policy and operational changes to secure the identified benefits. The Task Force places a high priority on the value of freeing up public sector information (PSI), listing how PSI can be managed as a national resource to deliver increased accountability, economic growth and social benefits). It is particularly encouraging that the Task Force practiced what it preached – with extensive use of the taskforce blog, and community participation during the development of the report. (Disclosure – I was a member of the international reference group).

Earlier in the month, on December 8th, the UK government published Putting the Frontline First: smarter government, which also contains a strong emphasis on the value of opening up government data. The report has a broader aim than the Australian task force, considering how to improve the quality of public services through the use of ICT, devolving more responsibility to the frontline for regional and local services, and streamlining central government. Of particular relevance to readers of FutureGov will be the sections on “Accelerate the move to digitalised public services” (placing the emphasis on increased usage of online services, and a new “Tell Us Once” service), “Radically open up data” (creating a single access point for valuable public datasets, making them free for reuse), and “Harness the power of comparative data“ (using data on frontline performance to drive better performance, by giving citizens and professionals the tools to act as catalysts for change).

Also on December 8, the US government issued the Open Government Directive, which establish a clear action plan for individual government agencies to implement the commitment made by President Obama in his Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, issued on his first day in office January 21, 2009. In a remarkable year, the Federal US government has demonstrated strong leadership in the use of Open Government to strengthen transparency, participation, and collaboration. Over the coming weeks, I will write about a number of common themes from these three landmark publications; here I discuss just one – Open Government.

All three governments recognise the value of opening up government data (covered in my final post as New Zealand’s Government CIO in April 2009). It is not an exaggeration to nominate Open Government Data as the most important idea of 2009; at the start of the year Open Data was an emerging concept, and each of these end-of-year publications shows how deeply the idea is now embedded in core government policy and operations. More links on this major shift in government policy thinking can be found in this article I wrote last year.

All three reports highlight the importance of engagement between government and citizens to strengthen trust in government, develop better policy, reduce operating costs and release resources for front-line service delivery.

Ensuring that government information is freely available is a foundation concept that has been enacted in legislation in a large number of countries, and a number of governments have also established independent agencies to monitor and oversee the operation of the legislation.

Government agencies are not able to respond to the demands for information – from individuals, the media, businesses and not-for-profit organisations. This is because government is currently operating as a “retailer” of information – using data that has been collected to prepare official reports; government needs to move to being a wholesaler of information, allowing the community to create the reports using government supplied data.

(also posted at