Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Open Government 101

Open Government is a term being bandied about quite a bit lately. Add in terms like transparency, Freedom of Information, Open Source Government, etc. and you have quite a bit of noise. Hopefully, this and future articles will help cut through the noise and get to the core of what open government is, where it's going, and why it's important.

For much of human history, most rulers thought like Bismarck "... that laws are like sausages - the less you know about how they are made the more respect you have for them." People were kept in the dark about how government worked, laws were made, and often even what the laws were. Eventually, ancient rulers figured out that a set of standard laws was useful in keeping the rabble in line so we see the emergence sets of laws like the Ten Commandments and Hammurabi's code. Government and religion were tightly interwoven at this time, so these laws were said to be divinely inspired (whether they were or not), and as such were beyond question. In reality, most people knew that laws and government had less to do with divine inspiration than power, greed, patronage, and control. Still, it was several millennia before it was safe to question how government functioned. You had the beginnings of the democratic process in ancient Greece, and republican representation in Rome, but the "divine right" of rulers wasn't really challenged until the renaissance. The sausage making process was carefully hidden from view.

By the time of our countries founding, there was a fledgling movement for more openness in government. Our founders felt that an informed electorate was necessary for a representative government to function properly. Many of them still felt the electorate should be limited to educated property owners, and that many parts of government just shouldn't be discussed in polite company. The smoke filled rooms, machine politics and patronage systems needed to be hidden from view to thrive and reach the level of power they eventually had. Scandals occurred frequently and various reforms were tried, but opening up government processes to outside scrutiny didn't really catch on until the dawn of the information age. We see the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, and a number of state laws at about the same time, that made it easier to obtain information and at least get a glimpse into the sausage factory. Add in the emergence of investigative reporting like that on Watergate and media sources like Cspan and you start to get access to the way government works. Government was getting more open. The idea of open government was in its infancy. It still needed two developments.

The whole idea of Open Government was changed forever with the birth of the internet. Not only can information be shared quickly and easily, the cost of doing so is remarkably low. Internet access is everywhere. Few businesses don't have it. Most libraries and schools do have it, and basic dial up service can be had for as low as $10 per month. You can get basic internet functions on a prepaid cell phone. There are many projects out there to make sure the poor and disadvantaged don't get left on the wrong side of an insurmountable digital divide. The potential for information exchange is tremendous and the amount of information available on the government and its day to day operation is huge. It's to the point that many are arguing that there is too much information and we need to limit the openness of government to prevent information overload, which brings us to an important development made possible by the internet: Open Source.

The term Open Source was originally coined to describe a particular way of developing and distributing software. In the earliest days of computers, software and the source code (plan) to create it was shared openly. Eventually some companies figured out that keeping their code secret and selling or licensing the resulting software might be a good way to make money and today companies like Microsoft that are making more money than automobile manufacturers. The idea of sharing software and related ideas didn't disappear, it changed and adapted. It was kept alive in universities and large computer users groups. Free projects such as Linux grew around the concept that free access to software and its source code could develop great software. They were right. The code was produced relatively quickly and remarkably bug free. This was ascribed to the " thousands of eyeballs" that could look at the code and find errors. It seems that " given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." Pretty soon, people started thinking that maybe this might apply to government.

Open government advocates are realizing that not only should government be open and transparent, but information flow should be in both directions.

We are still in the early stages of truly open government, but I have great expectations. In the future, I will be commenting on how open government is working locally. Personally, I like being able to watch sausage being made. It may be a bit disgusting but at the same time you end up with fewer cigarette butts and floor sweepings in you sausage. I find the same thing true with government and laws.

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