Transparency in Government

This year's Transparency Camp came with a lot of key takeaways but one of the themes that resonated with me the most is the need to engage users in the public sector using open source, open data and transparency. Here are a few  ways to encourage engagement:

1) Open Government is alive and well

It's been almost 4 years now since the release of the Open Government Directive and TCamp13 certainly proved that the pace of opening government has picked up significantly since 2009. This is true certainly in the Federal government, but State & Local governments have become a hive of open government activity.

One example of this was a Saturday session hosted by Steve Spiker, Derek Eder, Eddie Tejeda, and Juan-Pablo Velez. They outlined several examples of civic engagement at work. For example, OpenBudgetOakland.org provides interactive tree maps to help make Oakland's proposed and adopted budgets more accessible, interactive, & understandable. Also, @jpvelez gave an overview of OpenCityApps – a collection of citizen-developed apps to create value from open data. Interested in an interactive analysis of crime in Chicago's 50 wards? Check out: CrimeInChicago.org.

Going a bit further afield, the Puerto Rico CIO's office attended the conference and noted that they recently signed an "executive order establishing a 90-day period during which all government agencies must submit a plan" to open their data. This list goes on and on, but the point is that - if you're interested in engaging with government in a concrete way - now is the time and you're in good company.

2) Open Government and "traditional" Government should talk more:

One of the more interesting sessions I attended covered the intersection of open government and performance measurement (organized by Torin Monet, of CSC). Government agencies spend a lot of money on performance measurement - the goal being to create a "line of sight" across an organization's inputs, outputs, and outcomes. This “line of sight” is data-driven and tells a story about whether an agency or activity is achieving its stated goals. Done right, this can be a very effective management tool, but I see this as a more “traditional” mechanism for improving government versus the relatively recent transparency movement (programs such as FOIA represent a big exception to this generality).

I believe that open government community can add a lot to the performance measurement conversation – and vice versa! But these two communities don’t “talk” a lot. We should help build bridges here. And if you look back at the Open Government Dialogue from June 2009, you’ll see that the White House included performance measurement in its list of ideas for the public to consider.

To be sure, there are cultural challenges here, and – as always – people can be fearful of engaging with people outside their circles of comfort. A more concrete challenge, though, is making sure that enterprise systems and data are designed with openness in mind. The Digital Government Strategy milestones and the recently released Open Data Policy are helping to point the ship in the right direction.

Over the years, government has created myriad performance management systems and content. For example, the Federal Enterprise Architecture (FEA) Performance Reference Model (PRM) is the standard model for this for civilian agencies and it provides a blueprint for measuring success of an agency's investments.

Recently, we’ve seen increased development of performance dashboards using open data. For example, in 2007 the City of Baltimore launched CitiStat, which has improved the efficiency of delivering services to citizens (e.g., by tracking response times for services like pothole abatement, trash collection, and snow removal as well as the prevalence of problems such as illegal dumping, vacant buildings, and sewage overflow). More recently, StateStat was launched and uses open data to monitor and ensure progress on 16 strategic policy goals. Other cities and states are following suit.

3) Plain English is Crucial

Lucy Fedia

, a project Coordinator for The Open Knowledge Foundation ran a fun session called "Translating Tech" that drove home the age-old lesson that plain English is crucial to building a big tent. Our job was to translate a bunch of tech terms into brief, plain English blurbs so that the everyday person could understand. Sound easy? What if you can only choose from the most commonly used 1000 words - care of the "Up-Goer Five" text editor!?  Not so easy. But a fun challenge.

So, here are examples of terms translated into plain English - using the most common 1000 words:

XML:

Stuff that computers push and pull to each other to change state and make things happen.  Without it, people would have to walk that stuff from computer to computer and talk a lot.

IP:

Computer phone number.

Open Data:

People want to share their stuff for other people so that computer people can do cool things with that stuff. They can get cool things made for free and the computer people will have new and great ideas that the owner would not have thought of.

API:

An agreed upon way for computers to talk to each other. They help your computer talk to the city's computers so that you can know where your bus is.

Hackathon:

A place where nice computer people agree to meet, then find and fix problems. This can help you build something, or it can be just for fun. 

Open Source:

Sometimes, when computer people write weird things for computers, they want other people to help make those things better. So, they make their stuff open and free and before you know it, all sorts of cool and free stuff has been made.

 

Without the ability to use words like “data” and “software”, crafting these definitions requires some cleverness. The point is that - as always - explaining things in clear terms that your grandmother can understand is a very important part of being open, building consensus, and helping people.

So, that’s it for now. We're looking forward to next year’s camp!

Meanwhile, you can stay looped in at @phase2 and @TCampDC.

 

Greg Wilson