How to participate in the open-government movement

In his first term, President Obama started to make good on his pledge to improve government transparency. But a truly open government depends on citizens actively ensuring that all public agencies share information and respond to feedback.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

Four years from now, the government will still be partisan, public agencies will still operate out of public view, and citizens will still be excluded from participating in the decisions made by their representatives at all levels of government.

Open Government cover image
O'Reilly Media

But just maybe, when the 45th president takes the oath of office in January 2017, political factions will be more willing to compromise for the good of everyone, agencies at all levels of government will be more transparent, and our elected and appointed representatives will be more willing to listen to and act upon our opinions and ideas about the challenges and opportunities facing our nation and our neighborhoods.

The Internet changes things from the bottom up. In the last two decades, technology has revolutionized the publishing and entertainment industries and has had a profound effect on nearly every other industry. Government is the exception, but that is changing slowly. For the most part, the change is driven from groups of private citizens acting independently of any public agency.

As Don Tapscott states in the foreword to "Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice," citizens are demanding a "more responsive, resourceful, efficient, and accountable form of governance." Tapscott points out that the first wave of e-government simply automated existing processes and moved existing government services online.

Real change will occur with the second wave, which Tapscott points out is just beginning to emerge in governments around the world:

[G]overnment is becoming a stronger part of the social ecosystem that binds individuals, communities, and businesses--not by absorbing new responsibilities or building additional layers of bureaucracy, but through its willingness to open up formerly closed processes to broader input and innovation. In other words, government becomes a platform for the creation of public value and social innovation. It provides resources, sets rules, and mediates disputes, but it allows citizens, nonprofits, and the private sector to do most of the heavy lifting.

In honor of the late programmer and social activist Aaron Swartz, who contributed a chapter to the 2010 book, O'Reilly Media is offering the e-book version of "Open Government" as a free download. (Note: My only connection to O'Reilly Media founder and CEO Tim O'Reilly is a shared last name, but I'm sincerely thankful for all he has done on behalf of us technology users.) (And just FYI, my family likewise has nothing to do with auto parts, either. My grandfather was a farmer and auto worker, and my father was a soldier, policeman, and politician.)

How to get your message across to your elected officials
I started reading "Open Government" this weekend and have made it halfway through the book's 34 chapters. Swartz's contribution to the book is entitled "When Is Transparency Useful?" In it, Swartz explains that transparency requires more than simply publishing government databases on the Internet. It requires that technologists, journalists, and political activists work together:

Perhaps at some point putting things on the front page of the New York Times guaranteed that they would be fixed, but that day is long past. The pipeline of leak to investigation to revelation to report to reform has broken down. Technologists can't depend on journalists to use their stuff; journalists can't depend on political activists to fix the problems they uncover. Change doesn't come from thousands of people, all going their separate ways. Change requires bringing people together to work on a common goal. That's hard for technologists to do by themselves. But if they do take that as their goal, they can apply all their talent and ingenuity to the problem.

You don't need to be a programmer, engineer, or other form of techie to take advantage of the tools available for making your voice heard above the din. In the chapter entitled "Democracy, Under Everything," Sarah Schacht explains that signing an online petition or sending a form e-mail to an elected official may be counterproductive.

Don't believe the advocacy group deploring you to "Sign our petition!" or "Send this letter NOW!!!" While they might be pushing for a bill, they're also just trying to build their membership lists and demonstrate their group's influence. In the meantime, those mass mailings make your communications impersonal and ineffective.

Schacht, who founded the participatory-government site Knowledge As Power, recommends instead that you send a personal e-mail that's only a paragraph or two in length and that focuses on one specific issue. Properly addressing your message can be as important as the message itself. Schacht suggests adopting a "basic advocacy headline" for the e-mail subject:

Chamber Bill Number--Position--Zip Code--Zip Plus 4 Number

For example, "HB1234-PRO-98115-5542" translates to "I'm for House Bill 1234, and I live in this neighborhood of your district."

In addition to offering agencies of all sizes open-government consulting services, the nonprofit Knowledge As Power provides citizens with a free legislation-tracking service intended to help them "communicate effectively with their lawmakers." Other Knowledge As Power services are designed for students and community groups.

Tools help you get the government you deserve
The first step in realizing the government-as-platform model is release of APIs for developers to use to create applications based on government data. As part of President Obama's Open Government Initiative, Data.gov was created "to increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government." The site's Communities section includes businesses, cities, counties, states, developers, education, ethics, law, manufacturing, ocean, and safety.

Programmers can also participate in the evolution of government through Code for America, which refers to itself as a "Peace Corps for geeks." When I visited the site, the featured app was "Adopt-a-Hydrant," which started as a way for Boston residents to volunteer to shovel the snow away from fire hydrants after winter storms. The app has been adapted for "various uses" in three other cities: Chicago, Honolulu, and Buenos Aires.

An example of a non-government site that makes government data easier to use is GovTrack.us, which was founded in 2004 by Joshua Tauberer and is now operated by his company, Civic Impulse. GovTrack.us serves as a front end for the Library of Congress THOMAS information service. The site simplifies the process of finding information about Congress members (including their voting records), pending legislation, and congressional committees. Last May, the site added tracking tools for state legislatures.

GovTrack.us is one of the resources tapped by the nonprofit MAPLight.org, which co-founder and executive director Daniel Newman describes as "a groundbreaking public database that illuminates the connection between money and politics in unprecedented ways."

For example, the site's entry for the Stop Online Piracy Act indicates that interest groups supporting the bill contributed more than $118 million to House members, which is 8.6 times more than the bill's opponents contributed.

MAPLight.org lists special-interest contributions to House members by opponents and supporters of the bill.
The nonpartisan, nonprofit congressional watchdog site MAPLight.org lists the contributions House members received from supporters and opponents of such bills as the Stop Online Privacy Act. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

MAPLight.org also lists the contributions of interest groups by industry, and the top 10 interests and individual contributors to each legislator. You can search for specific contributors by company or organization name and by topic.

Other leading watchdog sites include OpenSecrets.org, the Sunlight Foundation, and FollowTheMoney.org.

No longer can it be said that everybody complains about the government, but nobody does anything about it. To paraphrase computer science icon Alan Kay, the best way to predict the future of government is to invent it.