Earlier this week I attended the Open Government R&D summit put on at the National Archives. It’s been the first collaboration I’ve been to like this in a long time, and to me it felt a bit like a family reunion. Old friends like former deputy CTO Beth Noveck and Susan Crawford were there, alongside relatively new folks in town like the FTC’s Ed Felten and new Deputy CTO for Innovation Chris Vein. It’s clear to me that we’re approaching a useful milestone in OpenGov land— winding down on the initial rah-rah of the Open Government Directive and moving toward solving problems.
For me, I’ve been to dozens of these events, and they’re getting a little formulaic for me. They always start with Aneesh Chopra, the nation’s CTO, who extolls the values of open data, then introduces someone he refers to as brother. This person is usually Todd Park (CTO-HHS). Todd Park, an exciting (and extremely smart and talented) person then hops up and down (literally) and talks about how awesome health data is and how he held an open health initiative that resulted in a lot of people outside the government doing a lot of things.
At this point, these conferences go one of two ways: they’re either opened up to panels with contractors doing demonstrations of novel applications built on top of government data, or they’re opened up to panels of bureaucrats(OSTP, NASA), academics(Princeton, Harvard) and/or think-tankers (Brookings, CAP) of other sorts talking about what’s going to happen in the future. Sometimes, some local CIOs are thrown in for flair for a look at what people are doing locally.
Then Alex Howard blogs about it and everybody goes to happy hour.
I think we’ve gotten ourselves into dangerous territory in OpenGov land. These days, when I go to these meetings it feels a lot more like Sunday morning than Monday afternoon. The faces are all the same, the roles are all too familiar and the stories told are the same old ones we’ve been telling for two years. It’s time to end the self congratulatory hug of the Open Government directive and solve some hard problems. Problems like building communities of not just contractors but individual developers around government agencies and their data, or like managing financial crisis that is FOIA, or like fixing procurement so that government has the same access to technology at the same price that everybody else does.
More importantly, the faces at these events are those of the comfortable open government elites. These events need to solicit public feedback from communities and organizations and we need to start telling the stories of Citizen X asked for Y to happen, we thought about it, produced it and the outcome was Z. This isn’t to say that these events aren’t helpful. It’s good to get the open government crowd together in the same room every once and awhile. But knowing the talents and brilliant minds in the room, and the energy that’s been put behind the Open Government Directive, I know we’re not tackling the problems that we could.
I say this not to rabble-rouse but rather to push us forward. We’re at an exciting junction in the land of open government. This stuff being formulaic just means we are nearing the end of the beginning. We’ve finished the first 5k of the Open Government marathon.
In terms of ExpertLabs, we’re here to help solve those problems. We know that inside the government, often people are trying to shoestring openness through tight budgets, restrictive legislation, and limited time. ThinkUp is built to help out by being a free service that government can use to solicit, sort and retain public input online and could go a long way towards bringing new ideas to the table, not just for the Open Gov community, but for agencies that are just trying to figure out how to better serve their constituents. And I’m willing to bring my experience to the table too— for the first problem— building communities of developers around agencies and their data, I’m also willing to help. Just drop us a note.