The case for open-source government
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.