Thursday, November 12, 2009

Open Government: from Accountability to Participation

Over the past few years, the public has increasingly demanded greater accountability and transparency from both public and private organizations, and this has had a major impact on communications professionals. It has changed not only what we write but also how we write it.

But people are requesting even greater openness, particularly from government. In the past, most citizens believed that they had done their civic duty by voting. After that, it was up to the politicians to make the decisions. That’s no longer the case. People are disillusioned with their politicians. They want more information and greater involvement.

A study on Leadership in Customer Service indicated that citizens “do not accept the idea that politicians and civil servants can effectively shape public services simply on the basis of their own assumptions of what is best for citizens. Instead, they want access to channels that will offer them the chance to engage with politicians and public managers, influencing public policy and shaping public services in ways that meet their personal needs and the needs of their communities.”

Technological Advances
Advances in computer technology and increased internet access have dramatically altered how people interact with government bodies. The City of Saskatoon’s new website includes interactive maps, the ability to pay bills online, information about road closures, and a searchable list of local business owners.

You can track your water consumption on the City of Nanaimo website and download an iPod audio tour that includes washroom locations and accessible routes from Whistler’s website

Whistler is also leading the way in providing greater financial transparency. Their 5-Year Financial Plan is available online and includes not only an overview of the budget-planning process but detailed financial information.

Open Government Databases
A number of North American cities are now moving beyond simply providing information. They are giving the public access to their databases and inviting volunteer programmers to “play” with the data.

As David Eaves indicates, this is a two-way deal: “On one side, the city agrees to share as much data as it possibly can, in open formats, as quickly as it can. On the other side, the community – and in particular citizen coders – must make that data come alive in applications, websites and analysis.”

The US government was one of the first to provide public access to its databases. In Canada, both Nanaimo and Vancouver have open data portals and several other cities are considering following their lead.

Information that was once private is now becoming accessible online:
FixMyStreet Canada provides an online reporting mechanism to inform your City of potholes, graffiti, or other problems in your neighbourhood.
• You can use the HowdTheyVote website to track your MPs voting history and attendance record.
EveryBlock offers a news feed for every city block in 15 US cities providing information about everything from crime, to traffic jams, to robberies, to upcoming events.
CarPool Mashup Matchmaker helps Washington, DC, residents find a carpool that matches their preferences.

Vancouver’s First Mashups
Volunteers have used the City of Vancouver’s databases to create a number of new programs to make information more readily available:
• One of the first apps to be created, during this past summer’s heat wave, was a map showing the locations of all the water fountains in the city. Volunteer coders set it up and invited the public to add to it.
VanTrash is a free garbage service reminder. You can download the schedule to your electronic calendar or set up email/tweet reminders.
• You can now search the Vancouver Public Library from the Amazon website. Amazon’s website is much easier to use than the library’s, and you may save money by reserving a book rather than buying it.

Is It Useful?
There is tremendous potential in the move towards public access to government databases. Open source software, such as Mozilla, Open Office, and Library Thing, were all created through the combined volunteer efforts of computer enthusiasts from around the world. Now they are turning their talents to developing programs to assist municipal, provincial, and federal governments in understanding and responding to public concerns.

There is a risk, however. At present, open government projects are primarily driven by computer geeks. This is a restricted group of people who are focussed on developing software applications but may not have spent sufficient time understanding the community and its problems and needs.

I hope that open government projects will expand the circle of involvement to include community activists, business leaders, academics, marketing and communications experts, and members of the public. And I hope that they will address some of the most urgent needs of our communities – environmental sustainability, transit, health.

Stay tuned for further developments.

For further information:
Government Ambassadors for Citizen Engagement, O’Reilly Radar
Bridging the Gap between Expectations and Reality, GTEC
Creating the Open Data Bargain in Cities,
Gov 2.0,

Note: This article was prepared for IABC Saskatoon’s November, 2009 newsletter.


Jane said...

Great article Penny. Quick tip - add a SHARE facility to the post so that your article can instantly and easily be shared by readers. Your words deserve to spread!

Penny said...

Thanks, Jane. There is a Share link at the top of the screen. I've added Sociable on the side, which provides a few more options such as Delicious. I was looking for a simple email gadget but have not yet found one.