The case for open-source government

By Chrystia Freeland
August 18, 2011

Maybe we are all thinking too much like Bolsheviks and not enough like Googlers. For Lenin and the Russian revolutionaries, the big question was “Kto kogo?” — essentially, “Who has the upper hand?”

Kto kogo remains the paradigm at the center of the fiscal battles roiling the Western world: young vs. old; rich taxpayers vs. poor welfare beneficiaries; public sector workers vs. private sector ones; wealthy Northern Europe vs. bankrupt Southern Europe; small government conservatives vs. big government liberals.

But a few people — writers, activists, even politicians — are examining the current woes of the Western state through a very different prism. You could call it the Government 2.0 approach, and its fundamental thesis is that the biggest question is not how much to spend and how much to tax, it is how to adapt the state to the information age.

One of the first thinkers to articulate this view was the best-selling author Don Tapscott. Tapscott, who has been arguing for decades that the knowledge economy requires a new style of government, thinks the time for his idea may have finally come.

“If you look at the current crisis, we have the irresistible force for reducing the cost of government meeting up with the immovable rock of public expectation that government should be better, not worse,” Tapscott told me. “Tinkering with this will not work. When you are talking about cutting trillions of dollars, that’s not trimming fat, that is tearing out organs, and we don’t need to do that, and we don’t want to do that.”

“We need to fundamentally rethink how we orchestrate and create government value,” he said. “And now we have a burning platform, which could help us do it.”

Tapscott’s latest book, Macrowikinomics, co-written with Anthony D. Williams, suggests some ways to do that. One of his favorites is releasing government data. That information, he said, can then “become a platform on which private companies, civil society, other government organizations and, crucially, individuals, can self-organize to create value.”

As an example, Tapscott cited a recent conversation with the chief executive of Melbourne. He suggested to her that one way to apply his open-government approach would be to make public all of the city’s information on bicycle accidents and where they happen.

“I said to her, ‘If you release all that data, within 24 hours someone will do a mash-up and you will be saving lives within weeks, and it won’t cost you a penny,”’ Mr. Tapscott said.

Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, a two-year-old not-for-profit group that gives technologists the chance to work in local government around the United States, shares Tapscott’s view. She believes the rising generation of digitally native twentysomethings is creating both a demand for and the tools for transforming how government works.

“There is a certain generation who have grown up being able to mash up, to tinker with, every system they’ve ever encountered,” she said, speaking on the phone from her Bay Area office. “So they are meeting their relationship with government in a new way, with a new assumption: We can fix it. It really signals a new relationship between government and the technology community, but it is also about the government being useful to you in your daily life and engaging you in your daily life.”

Code for America’s fellows — 362 people applied for 20 places last year — bring “user-centered design and agile technology methods” to city governments accustomed to more top-down and more bureaucratic ways of approaching civic jobs.

Like Tapscott, Pahlka believes the key to Government 2.0 is creating data platforms that people can build on — as well as use. It is a redefinition of the relationship between citizen and government that mirrors the way many technology companies have changed the relationship between business and consumer: Just as much of Facebook’s or FourSquare’s value comes from content that users generate, proponents of Government 2.0 want us to participate in creating the government services we use.

“I think there is a big disjuncture between what we are served up as consumers and what we are served up as citizens,” Pahlka said. “As a society, we haven’t spent as much time building the citizen Internet.”

Pahlka’s focus is on citizens and finding ways to help government serve us better. For political leaders, Government 2.0 offers a further benefit: citizens who are more deeply engaged in how government works are more willing to pay for it.

That has been the experience of Naheed Nenshi, mayor of the western Canadian city of Calgary, traditionally the most politically conservative metropolis in the country. Nenshi has been called the Canadian Obama — he was a political outsider elected on a wave of grass-roots Internet activism — and he has brought that enthusiasm for social media into City Hall.

One example is the city’s budget, which Nenshi built from the bottom up, asking Calgarians what they wanted to spend their money on before coming up with his plan.

“I still have a job, I’m not creating a budget by plebiscite,” Nenshi told me. “But I need to have the best possible data, and that includes the best possible data on the preferences of Calgarians.” He added, “Most people in Calgary said: ‘Maintain my taxes, or increase them, but keep my services.”’

Nenshi said his enthusiasm for crowd-sourcing and for data-driven decision-making had frustrated some of his city’s journalists, who preferred simpler black-and-white narratives of one political ideology clashing with another.

Which brings us back to the debate between the Bolsheviks and the Googlers. The technorati can take things too far: Even in the age of crowd-sourcing and monster databases, vested interests still exist, and so do ideological differences. But if we could figure out how to make government as effective as Google, those differences and those disputes would matter a lot less.

16 comments

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In America, it is becoming overbearingly obvious that an entire political/economic overhaul is really our only truly viable option. Now that the ‘establishment’ engine is smoking and has almost literally been brought to a grid-locked halt, the more enlightened souls in the country are shrugging their collective shoulders. What other engine, or means of p/e transportation, would be better suited at the simple task of getting our country down the road?

This society has been entrenched with the doctrine of disposability. Hence, our massive landfills scattered with cars that rarely make it past warranty, two-year cell phones, tossable milk jugs, detergent boxes, togo cups…the list goes on for ever, as we are all well aware.

The question is: why do we find it so hard to toss out a system when it has been embedded into the social fabric of our society to do exactly that with almost everything else?

If it does not work, is empty, and/or is outdated–Toss it. Replace it. Move on.

Posted by ericanthonyg | Report as abusive

Wonderful column… there is opportunity for transparency at every level of government!

http://freerisk.org/wiki/index.php/Trans parency

Posted by Cate_Long | Report as abusive

So much of the cost of government is not the cost of government but the cost of people who need government payments to stay alive. That includes everything from defense contractors, farmers, welfare recipients of all types, and numerous recipients of tax breaks and subsidies at all levels of government. Tax breaks also come from municipal governments to spur local employment or development projects.

I’s so easy to say – the country must move on, but for many – not just those at the bottom, it would really mean moving out – out of life all together or from any concern what happens to the present system..

There are also be many expensive and very dangerous hold-overs from what many would like to see as the former regime. The landfills for one, as mentioned by “ericanthonyg’. Also nuclear waste depositories, numerous toxic waste sites, many of which are cleaned and others that still need to be cleaned or are yet occurring, the costs of public school system and the costs of numerous people who won’t get well suddenly, however the government may evolve and all the sorts of new casualties that would occur in time of fiscal or political “reinvention”. Some government agency would have to be very concerned with the center of disease control because because ‘death never takes a holiday” (actually it’s a major export) and it isn’t something bloggers or hackers are likely to help with.

They also fail the mention all the scams, con men, thieves and swindlers that are a constant threat whenever systems are in crisis. Open source government has the big drawback of not being in any way official. How does one distinguish the real improvement from the con game? What is the role of elected officials and who has fiduciary responsibility? How does anyone know if an improvement makes for fewer “bicycle accidents”. Perhaps they simply went unreported? I just received a call a few minutes ago from a fraud grants program claiming they were the US treasury debt. offering grants for school enrollment. The phone went blank when I asked them to lease verify that they worked for the Treasury Debt. or the US government.

De Tocqueville explained that the French Monarchy was never more adaptive and desperate for renewal than during the decades prior to the revolution. They either lost old supporters by accommodating change or made insufficient changes that only revealed its inadequacies. And every attempt to cut the costs of government only angered those who were sent packing. The district that stormed the Bastille was the home of the luxury furniture trade who weren’t being paid by the Garde Meuble.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Ms Freeland: You didn’t see fit to post my last comment and that gave me a chance to correct it. Please forget that one.

So much of the cost of government is not the cost of government but the cost of people who need government payments to stay alive. That includes everything from defense contractors, aircraft manufacturers, farmers, welfare recipients of all types, and numerous recipients of tax breaks and subsidies at all levels of government. Tax breaks also come from municipal governments to spur local employment or development projects.

It’s so easy to say – the country must move on, but for many – not just those at the bottom, it would really mean moving out – out of life all together or from any concern about what happens to the present system. And that would include some very well placed people.

There would also be many expensive and very dangerous holdovers from what many would like to see as the former regime. The landfills for one, as mentioned by “ericanthonyg’. Also nuclear waste depositories, numerous toxic waste sites, many of which are cleaned and others that still need to be cleaned or are yet occurring, the costs of a public school system and the costs of numerous people who won’t get well suddenly, however the government may evolve and all the sorts of new casualties that would occur in time of fiscal or political “reinvention”. Some government agency would have to be very concerned with the center of disease control because ‘death never takes a holiday” (actually it’s a major export) and it isn’t something bloggers or hackers are likely to help with.

They also fail the mention all the scams, con men, thieves and swindlers that are a constant threat whenever systems are in crisis. Open source government has the big drawback of not being in any way official. How does one distinguish the real improvement from the con game? What is the role of elected officials and who has fiduciary responsibility? How does anyone know if an improvement makes for fewer “bicycle accidents”. Perhaps they would simply go unreported or elected officials would be so overwhelmed with “improvements’ they simply shut them off? They would most certainly do that if improvements shut them out of the funding streams.

I just received a call a few minutes ago from a fraud grants program claiming they were the US Treasury Debt. They claimed to offer grants for school enrollment. The phone went blank when I asked them to please verify that they worked for the Treasury Debt. or the US government. I know who those people are: they are a con game and they are managing to make phone calls in spite of the federal no-call list I enrolled in years ago. They are another form of “hacking”.

De Tocqueville explained that the French Monarchy was never more adaptive and desperate for renewal than during the decades prior to the revolution. It either lost old supporters by accommodating change or made insufficient changes that only revealed its inadequacies. And every attempt to cut the costs of government only angered those who were sent packing. The Marais district that stormed the Bastille was the home of the luxury furniture trade who weren’t being paid by the Garde Meuble.

Government funding is far more important than so called government efficiency and it doesn’t matter if the recipients are red or blue.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

The way Americans elect is too strict and too coddled. The two party system, is like the two bumper system on a bowling lane. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Americans_E lect

Posted by atf64 | Report as abusive

Pronounce it like “kto kavo”, beautiful language.
What i understood the main idea of gov 2.0 is bigger,more transparent access of people to local, state, federal government data. Because people that know, feel more inclusive and are more willing to fund government and advice government what decisions to take.
I’m optimist so i think that 10% of citizens would understand economic files, 90% others would ask taking precious time. Information is stored in order to serve, not to publish, there are sensitive data included, so ADDITIONAL people are needed to reprocess it, MORE MONEY. Have You consulted gov 2.0 idea with any top/middle technocrat ? As to Lenin he was happy about the existence of polesnyj idiot institution in the West.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

In my opinion better solution is strict regulation of lobbying, especially at state, federal level.
Official lobbying spending in US is about 5 billion USD/y.
Plus two party system, plus the winner takes it all voting.
And in recent financial crisis US lost a few trillion mainly because of inadequate regulation and nobody goes to jail because of … lobbying.

No private campaign financing. Only federal money. Every senator/congressman receives money that is dependant on the size of district, don’t spend, have to return.
Every elected official can be approached by a given number of lobbists. Every lobbist gives money and states official claim. The claim is analyzed by Federal Agency (that can’t be lobbied!) as to the usefulness for the broader society (lobbist pays for it). If the claim is harmful for society what is left after analysis deduction is returned. Not so utopian as it seems.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

This issue is the most important and needs urgent attention of all concerned. The questions raised elsewhere are similar but with little difference. In todays world awareness and information has brought a dramatic change which various Governments have failed to address, and the reason is very rightly pointed out, Governments have not changed their approach and thought process. People have moved on, politicians are slow specially because of their vested interests in the system. Till their survival is questioned, they will not change, forget bringing innovation in Governance. There is no competition till new election. Give Google 4-5 years of assurance in growth and it will stop innovating.

Posted by Kraj | Report as abusive

Very well put. Information is a major key to our success. The biggest problem is a dysfunctional congress who resists any change that might derail their Gravy Train.

The way our government works today, it would take years before any change might be made. We need a mechanism which can change the system now. I would like to call on americans to consider a national referendum called Making Congress Work. In brief, it involves congress accessing citizen wants and needs thorough whatever means necessary. Internet, paper polls, door-to-door. I don’t really care how they do it.

To make this a success, all other distractions must cease. As it stands now, their votes are determined by who has the highest bribe to offer. Let’s not try to sugar coat it. The only solution is to make ALL lobbying of congressmen and their staff illegal. Then they will hear us. Congressmen who fail to respond to their states voters automatically become ineligible for retirement. Simple and to the point.

Just remember that the American people have to enact this legislation separate from our congress. It is our right and duty.

Thank You

Posted by GreginWNC | Report as abusive

I enjoyed the article and agree with the article’s premise. Expanding democracy and improving government productivity through technology is long overdue.

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive

I really enjoy your quest for TRUTH. I would encourage you to explore our US Treasury Dept. having over $3.8 Trillion Dollars in the Iraqi Dinar Currency from the Pres. Bush era, along with about 1.7 Million Americans. If Pres.Obama would expedite Iraq’s revaluation of their currency back up to the $3.22 Pre-War Rate, then that $3.22 x $3.8 Trillion will become $11.91 Trillion, which hopefully everyone’s praying, they will pay-off the debt.

I also have a FOIA U.S Treasury submission, confirming the Iraqi Dinar on their balance sheet. Plus, with the revaluation of the Iraqi Dinar that us 1.7 Million Americans have, that will additionally stimulate the economy with our taxes, purchases of goods and services.

Don’t let this get by you and it NEEDS serious INVESTIGATING. You can youtube these articles and get informed: Dinar 101 By BH Group, also CBNC Dinar.

Also you can listen to the Dinar Conference calls nightly from 8pm to 12am, EST. 760-569-7676 Pin 637255# and to listen to the latest recorded intel call, dial 760-569-7699 Pin 194924#. It will reveal so much to you, that you’ve ONLY heard about, until now, so you can the facts.

Also, you can go to the Dinar website, THECALLSQUAD.COM and download the declassified US State Dept report called, FREEDOM FROM INTEL, which is thee Iraqi plan Pres. Bush wrote in 2002 on going into Iraqi for oil as well as the rebuilding process and we are at the final stages of implementation of that report. So we all know, the revaluation is EMINENT for Iraq.

Plus, one can buy $100 Iraqi Dinar for $100 US Dollar and when it revalues, it now equals $300,000 US Dollars exchange rate. Its Foreign Currency. Donald Trump acquired $30 Million as well as others.

God Bless you and if you need any additional information, please don’t hesitate to contact me anytime @ kj_investments@yahoo.om.

The Minister

Posted by The.Minister | Report as abusive

go for a direct democracy. where to spend money is a key feature of direct democracy – not whether the street lamps are to be turned off at ten or at twelve.

start small and scale it. start with a city, then another, then a county, a state and then a nation.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

This article reminds me of an interview earlier today with Fareed Zakaria who suggests that America should change its CEO from president to prime minister.

He makes a good case for doing so, allowing America to more nimbly deal with problems. However, the checks and balances that hobble America’s ability to respond quickly and decisively to problems also to some degree counter the efforts of some ambitious people to wield power that they should not rightfully wield.

When making changes to our government, we must be careful to leave no unsecured back doors to power in order to ensure that no one enters via a quasi Trojan Horse.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

Many of the comments don’t seem to have any understanding of budget processes. Budgets are approved on a yearly basis. Not minute by minute. There are such things as Department heads and allocations based on projected needs.

They also don’t seem to appreciate that all input is not going to be waited equally if there is ever such a thing as “open source” government. The comments want the perfect bobble head elected official with no projected plans and no carry over costs who has to bow to very whim or comment. The basic priorities of governments do not change that rapidly.

BTW – It is possible now to access online the entire US military budget for Fiscal 2010 and the 2011. I found it by accident looking for something else. It is possible to read the Congressional record. One could spend as much time reading the documents as any congressional staffers. The military budgets have already been approved but it seems possible to leave line-by-line comments. But unless one is well acquainted with some very obscure issues listed, the comments from the man in the street are not likely to be very relevant. Isn’t it likely that any feedback is matched to acceptable email addresses?

Are people commenting really considering that open source government would become the twitter equivalent of everyman a senator or rep? It wouldn’t be a government worth spiting on. Otherwise, what really is the difference between so called open source government and visiting the blog or You tube site of one’s congressmen of senator? Does it offer anything more?

If the choice is between an imaginary government that is instantly reactive to some all seeing citizenry that is somehow purer than Caesers’s wife and behaves like a perpetual unerring eye of a beneficent God, or a government that is sold to the highest bidder, the government sold to the highest bidder has many historical precedents. You can be sure it will be the one that rules and the electronic feedback option will be available for the gullible and socially concerned as a public relations palliative.

The mayor of Calgary may only be staging a very deceptive campaign designed to make it look like he has grassroots issues in mind and most certainly his budget was not based entirely on voter participation. Can any of the voters ever really point to the blades they planted?
Obama hasn’t been all the different on substantive issues than his predecessor. The Iraqi Government determined the withdrawal date as part of their constitution.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

In my opinion, after working in the government for eight years, the issue is and always will be Efficiency. Every department that I worked in was run like a kindergarten. Always a popularity contest, always a social hierarchy and never up-to-date training. Decision making was always slow, and material appropriations always corrupt. It cost more for a ream of copy paper than a whole case of paper down at Office Depot. Someone in another department once told me that out of every dollar of welfare about 50 cents was spent on handing out that dollar. I believe it. The plan should be not spending less, but spending smarter; not working harder, but working smarter. Think that will ever happen?

Posted by nieldevi | Report as abusive

The first thing that came to mind while reading this, was that someone’s trying to make an argument for the Efficient Markets Hypothesis.

At the crux of the EMH, is the belief that less regulation and more data will allow markets to self-correct easily and rapidly…that the price of any asset is its true mark of risk. Likewise, it seems that the argument proffered is that the more data government releases, the more private individuals and groups will process the data and make society as a whole more efficient.

I have serious doubts of the outcome, and it’s quite simple: data is easily rearranged for political bias.

Once in the hands of most people, the data will be rearranged, sliced and diced to provide false conclusions that fit one’s own political agenda. We know this will occur, by simply observing the political bias in all things, whether global warming, federal budgets, capital punishment or something as simple as fluoridation of water.

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive