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Harnessing the Civic Surplus for Open Government

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When it comes to open government in the United States, the federal government has earned the lion's share of attention in the national media. That shouldn't be surprising. The focus that President Obama put on the issue by issuing a memo on the Open Government Initiative and subsequent Directive meant that the actions of the agencies and the White House were an integral element of the excitement around "Gov 2.0" last year. That's also why the scrutiny this open government in beta received during the recent Gov 2.0 Summit highlighted the challenges of implementing the directive. While federal CTO Aneesh Chopra may hail 2010 as the year of participatory platforms, 2011 may well be the year when government transparency takes on an entirely new face as a new Congress comes to Washington.

What's often been missing from the conversation is the momentum toward open government at the state and local level. While some of that action has been catalyzed by some of the federal initiatives, much of that innovation has been driven by tight budgets and the availability of inexpensive, lightweight tools for communication, collaboration and crowdsourcing.

New York, Boston, San Francisco, Portland and the District of Columbia have been hailed by the tech press for their use of open data, urban mechanics, adoption of Open311 or application ecosystems around transit data.

The epicenter for local government, however, just might be a little city in Texas, where a small town hopes for a "Gov 2.0 makeover." Sitting just outside of Austin, named Manor, and its young chief information officer, Dustin Haisler, who's managed to put his city into the national conversation around open government. Haisler sat down for an interview about the different technology initiatives he's deployed at Manor earlier this year at the Gov 2.0 Expo, which include an ideation platform, GQ codes, a Meraki wireless mesh network, published open government data online, deploying an open source blogging platform and extensive use of social media:

"Empowering citizens to do great things for their community is an amazing tool," said Haisler this week. "We wanted to do whatever we could to be transparent in a meaningful way." Haisler has now made a contribution to enabling better local government through technology through the launch of Beta Cities, which provides resources and context for city managers who'd like to follow the trail Manor has blazed. Like his efforts at Manor, Haisler described BetaCities as an iterative community, which will evolve as more lessons are shared. "Gmail was in beta for years," he said. "We're going to be in beta forever."

The White House comes to Manor

The spotlight on Haisler and his boss, city manager Bob Wise, has never shone quite as bright until this week, when the deputy White House chief technology officer for open government, Beth Noveck, keynoted Manor's Gov 2.0 conference on Monday morning. Forward to minute 36 in the embedded video below for her remarks:

"Open innovation isn't a 'nice to do,'" said Noveck. "It's a must do in order to strengthen our democracy." After recognizing the role of Govfresh founder Luke Fretwell and Dustin Haisler in convening the event, Noveck highlighted some open government success stories that are no doubt familiar to Radar reader, including the work of Health and Human Services CTO Todd Park's work unlocking community health data to generate development, or David Hale's work at the National Institutes of Health, where he has socialized open health data to enable government to provide a better platform.

That is the "crux of the open government initiative," said Noveck.

"Identify people who can use tech for engagement and use tech platforms for innovation. With open innovation, we have the opportunity to create all kinds of solutions to the problems we face. Ultimately, government needs to find the best ways to use tech to leverage people's intelligence and enthusiasm ... If we don't have government institutions that can recognize good ideas and deploy innovation, we won't be able to meet grand existential challenges. Without being honest about what we do, we can't get help."

As she put it, "21st Century institutions aren't about bigger government, it's about smarter government," and suggested that to accomplish the goals of the federal open government initiative, agencies should emulate what Manor is doing. "When we ask Americans to get involved every four years by voting, we're missing the boat," she said.

Citing Clay Shirky, whose name has attained totemic status at government 2.0 events, Noveck applied his notion of a "cognitive surplus" to the government realm, positing that a "civic surplus" of missed opportunities to reduce waste and for people to get involved in their democracy exists for citizens to embrace.

At the federal level, historic levels of frustration with government and the hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington may make tapping that civic surplus for open government even more difficult in the months ahead, despite new initiatives like Challenge.gov. In the state and local governments, however, open government may be poised for sustainability. "Something is afoot," she said, citing the rapid growth of CityCamp, the open government work of OpenPlans and the recent launch of Civic Commons. In the video below, CityCamp founder Kevin Curry reflects on Noveck's speech and talks more about what CityCamp is, including how people can be involved with the events.

The idea of a "government in beta" and open commons resonates with Noveck, as evidenced by her post on Manor.Govfresh at White House open government blog.

One thing that is neat about these approaches is that they are largely scalable. For example, the CIOs of the seven largest cities in America (informally known as the "Gang of 7") have been convening every two weeks to exchange best practices for municipal innovation. And now a World E-Governments Organization of Local and City Governments has started as well. Cities from Amsterdam to Vladivostok are also gathering to identify strategies for innovating in the way that they work.

One exciting advance in this area that I will be talking about today in Texas is a new online professional community-of-practice site for those who want to learn about Municipal Makeovers, get involved, and learn how to implement these or other tools in their towns. Known as BetaCities, it is an online community for local government employees and strategic partners, whose mission is to establish action-based starting points for local government agencies wanting to be cities of continuous self-improvement.

"We don't tend to measure in government what works," said Noveck.

"As we begin to embrace these kinds of innovation, it's important to measure what's been done before and, as we go along and try new things, it's important to think about what's working. That's why we're in beta. The kind of open government movement that's underway is expanding on the traditional way that government works."

In the video below, Govfresh founder Luke Fretwell talks more about Noveck's visit:

After her talk, Noveck fielded searching questions on open government from the audience in Manor about the fine points of implementation. With respect to interoperability, an issue that has dogged code and information sharing between states in the past, Noveck pointed to the same Gang of 7 she blogged about at WhiteHouse.gov. "The way to get more inspired is to be more collaborative about how we work," she said.

Noveck was frank about the challenges of government transparency as well, particularly around data quality. People are going online to look for information about policy, e-services or communities in unprecedented numbers but are still encountering poorly designed websites, incomplete data or baffling technical errors. Noveck said the federal government can help to drive transparency at the local level through the grant-making process, by requiring reporting at Recovery.gov.

In practice, open data hasn't met the standards set by public watchdogs or auditors at the Government Accountability office, which found the IT dashboard is plagued by outdated data. In response to these concerns, Noveck said that "being transparent is extraordinarily important and extraordinarily hard," observing that many government entities may be working from hard copy, data without meta data or data stranded on old servers or mainframes that nearly no one knows about. Whether open data principles are adopted at the local or federal level, Noveck suggested that the citizens will see value by innovative uses of data combined with transparency.

Innovative uses of public data, by and large, requires the development of communities before an applications show up in the iTunes Store or Github. That's why the FCC launched a developer community when it stood up new APIs this summer. That makes nonprofits, startups and media organizations in the private sector key partners in open government. From the standpoint of funding and sustainability of such organizations, entities like the Knight Commission that support civic entrepreneurship are key constituencies in engendering more digital literacy in the nation.

Noveck cited the work of the Omidyar Network when asked whether a "civic innovation" fund would make sense. My interview with Stacey Donohue at the Gov 2.0 Summit, embedded below, provides some context for the kinds of projects the Omidyar Network has funded to date or is considering in the future.

For more context, read my interview withWhite House deputy CTO Noveck on next steps for open government from earlier in the year or listen to the embedded podcast. And for perspective on "Gov 2.0 vs the Beast of Bureaucracy," MIT professor Andrew McAfee's blog is a must-read.

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