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Bringing Local Government into the 21st Century

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"Working in Government is like running a marathon. Blindfolded. Wearing Sandbags"

That's a quote from Katie Stanton, who is now in the Office of Innovation at the State Department after transitioning from Google (with a little stop as White House citizen participation director in between). It speaks remarkably well to the feeling many smart, talented folks seem to feel as they make the transition from the private or nonprofit sector to serving their country from within the government - especially at a federal level.

There have been many gatherings and un-conferences in and around DC in the last year, from as small as Transparency Breakfasts and happy hours to Transparency Camps and Gov 2.0. And after all these conversations it's clear that one of the most important things groups like the Sunlight Foundation and the public can do is figure out ways to talk openly about government culture (the blindfolded marathon) and support the people bringing government operations to life - or, in other words: those who will ultimately have to do the work of making government open and transparent. (And, yes, absolutely demand access to government data, when those inside government are less than ...forthcoming.) We need to do more of that, and do a better job of it in Washington.

But government extends far beyond Washington, and we need to do it everywhere else too.

Citizens are served, generally, by at least three levels of government (federal, state and city), and so far the conversation about transparency and citizen engagement has revolved primarily around what happens "at the top." It's especially exciting, then, to see one of the results of last year's Transparency Camps in DC and San Francisco which spawned "City Camp" hosted here in Chicago this weekend.

In thinking about the "marathon" we're all trying to run, it's particularly encouraging to see the large number of city web managers, city CIOs, business leaders like CEOs for Cities, non-profits and advocacy groups, tech start ups like GovLoop, hyper local bloggers like The Terminal out of Birmingham, and even a mayor or two in attendance. The people in this room - and those participating online via Twitter and live stream - are the ones seeking (and finding, in some cases) solutions to the part of government that touches citizens closest to home.

These people looking at cities at CityCamp are the ones making transparency, participation, and collaboration something that you can experience in your town and not just read in a memo from the White House.

We just started and I'm already stoked to see how folks like Kevin Curry are mashing up Virginia Beach crime data on Google docs and making it useful. At just over 430,000 people, Virginia Beach is - believe it or not - the 42nd largest municipality in the country (bigger than Oakland or Miami, and just TWO citizens short of Cleveland), and Kevin is taking data, fixing it up, making it useful, and getting it into the hands of citizens in a meaningful way. You can see their API here. This is just one of dozens of examples from around the room.

Much more to come. As Tim O'Reilly - sitting about 4 chairs down from me - instructs in the embedded image. Follow and participate on Twitter with the hashtag #citycamp, or on the blog and on the CityCamp wiki.

I'm particularly eager to talk more about how the "rubber" of transparency meets the "road" of implementation - where real government staff and citizens building the requisite tools, actually make open data something incredibly useful.

Ideally when we all leave here, we'll be a little closer to taking off the blindfold and shedding those sandbags. Stay tuned.

**UPDATE**

This is an interesting list put together by NIPP about the reasons local governments often give for NOT releasing their data or information to the public.

1) "I don't want to put more burden on my already overworked staff"
2) "I'm afraid of being burned by bad publicity."
3) "I'm worried about the mishandling or improper release of my data."
4) "The source data is a mess."
5) "We make money by selling this data" (why give it away?)

I'd add a sixth one as well:

"Open data? Transparency? That's not my job."

Oddly enough for concepts as publicly popular as transparency, collaboration, and participation, words like "afraid," "burden," and "worried," tend to dominate the conversation when you talk about them with government staff.

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