THE BLOG
03/27/2014 11:54 am ET Updated May 27, 2014

Open Government: Building Trust and Civic Engagement

By Gavin Newsom and Zachary Bookman

Daily life has become inseparable from new technologies. Our phones and tablets let us shop from the couch, track how many miles we run, and keep in touch with friends across town and around the world - benefits barely possible a decade ago.

With respect to our communities, Uber and Lyft now shuttle us around town, reducing street traffic and parking problems. Adopt-a-Hydrant apps coordinate efforts to dig out hydrants after snowstorms, saving firefighters time when battling blazes. Change.org, helps millions petition for and effect social and political change.

Yet as a sector, government typically embraces technology well-behind the consumer curve. This leads to disheartening stories, like veterans waiting months or years for disability claims due to outdated technology or the troubled rollout of the Healthcare.gov website. This is changing.

Cities and states are now the driving force in a national movement to harness technology to share a wealth of government information and data. Many forward thinking local governments now provide effective tools to the public to make sense of all this data.

This is the Open Government movement.

For too long, government information has been locked away in agencies, departments, and archaic IT systems. Senior administrators often have to request the data they need to do their jobs from system operators. Elected officials, in turn, often have to request data from these administrators. The public remains in the dark, and when data is released, it appears in the form of inaccessible or incomprehensible facts and figures.

Governments keep massive volumes of data, from 500 page budget documents to population statistics to neighborhood crime rates. Although raw data is a necessary component of Open Government, for it to empower citizens and officials the data must be transformed into meaningful and actionable insights. Governments must both publish information in "machine readable" format and give people the tools to understand and act on it.

New platforms can transform data from legacy systems into meaningful visualizations. Instant, web-based access to this information not only saves time and money, but also helps government make faster and better decisions. This allows them to serve their communities and builds trust with citizens.

Leading governments like Palo Alto have begun employing technology to leverage these benefits. Even the City of Bell, California, which made headlines in 2010 when senior administrators siphoned millions of dollars from the general fund, is now leveraging cloud technology to turn a new page in its history. The city has presented its financial information in an easily accessible, interactive platform at Bell.OpenGov.com. Citizens and officials alike can see vivid, user generated charts and graphs that show where money goes, what services are offered to residents, and how much those services cost.

In 2009, San Francisco became an early adopter of the open data movement when an executive order made open and machine-readable the default for our consolidated government. That simple order spurred an entirely new industry and the City of San Francisco has been adopting apps like the San Francisco Heat Vulnerability Index and Neighborhood Score ever since. The former identifies areas vulnerable to heat waves with the hope of better preparedness, while the latter provides an overall health and sustainability score, block-by-block for every neighborhood in the city. These new apps use local, state, federal, and private data sets to allow residents to see how their neighborhoods rank.

The California State Lands Commission, responsible for the stewardship of the state's lands, waterways, and natural resources, is getting in on the Open Government movement too. The Commission now publishes five years of expense and revenue data at CAStateLands.opengov.com (which just launched today!). California residents can now see how the state generates nearly half a billion dollars in revenue from oil and gas contracts, mineral royalties, and leasing programs. The State can now communicate how it manages those resources, so that citizens understand how their government works for them.

The Open Government movement provides a framework for improved public administration and a path for more trust and engagement. Governments have been challenged to do better, and now they can.

Gavin Newsom is Lieutenant Governor of California and the author of Citizenville. Zachary Bookman is co-founder and CEO of OpenGov.com.