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Beth Noveck on Open Government

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At last week’s Web 2.0 Expo Tim O’Reilly interviewed Beth Noveck (Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government) on how the Open Government initiative was progressing throughout Federal, State and Local Government. Noveck explained how President Obama’s vision of a more transparent, participatory and collaborative government is manifesting itself through new Web 2.0 platforms and services.

Her role as Director of the White House Open Government Initiative means she’s actively involved in promoting openness and citizen engagement throughout Government. She’s also focused on creating a Government as a Platform ecosystem, in which applications can be developed by outside parties through the use of raw data feeds and APIs . In the conversation she expands on the progress so far and references many of the interesting initiatives exemplifying the tenets of Open Government.

The vision

The conversation begins with Noveck outlining how committed the President is to bring innovation to Government and using technology to do so. He acknowledges that technology has an important role to play in making Government more transparent, accountable and efficient. Signaling his intent to reforming Government, the first thing he did after his inauguration was to sign the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. He has also appointed a Chief Information Officer in Vivek Kundra and a Chief Technology Officer in Aneesh Chopra, to ensure Government utilities innovative technologies in the pursuit of the tenets of Open Government.

The Successes

Questioned on what is going well Noveck highlighted the exciting cultural shift in how Government participates and collaborates with the public. The most important success is that people in Government are taking about openness, transparency and citizen engagement. These terms have entered the lexicon of Government and are slowing becoming embedded into conversations around public policy and how to solve the major issues facing the country.

It’s important for people to be able to contribute to policy making from the outset, rather than providing them with the ability to comment on policy when it’s about to be voted on. She notes the structure of the Open Government initiative where citizens were asked for their ideas from the start. The public was then invited to discuss these ideas and subsequently to participate in formulating the recommendations for the Open Government directive.

Noveck noted the challenges around Open Government concern empowering people to take risks and ensuring the collaboration/participatory tools are readily available to allow them implement their ideas effectively. Legislative concerns around the use of new technology are being addressed through agreements with Web 2.0 providers, while policy barriers will be addressed with the release of the Open Government Directive later this year.

Saving money, Improving efficiency and Going green

Noveck mentioned several crowdsourcing initiatives as examples of how Open Government tenets can be used to improve how Government operates.

The Federal Government’s SAVE Award was mentioned as an example of how Government can harness the ideas and intelligence of its employees to reduce costs and improve efficiencies. During the three weeks of the competition Federal employees suggested about 38,400 ways to make the Government more effective and efficient. The winning idea will be announced by the President later this month.

Another initiative similar is the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Innovation Competition. Noveck noted how the competition solicited ideas from Federal employees on how to reduce the backlog of Veteran benefits claims and improve processing times. On announcing the competition in August President Obama said: “We’re going to fund the best ideas and put them into action, all with a simple mission: cut those backlogs, slash those wait times, deliver your benefits sooner”. The competition has already received over 3,000 ideas with the top 5 projects receiving full funding for development and execution.

The GreenGov Challenge was also highlighted as another manifestation of the President’s Open Government initiative. This competition challenged Federal employees to submit their own clean energy ideas and vote on others. The competition ran for two weeks in October and solicited 5,314 ideas from 14,139 employees.

These competitions have all harnessed ideas from those working at the front line of Government. Noveck wants to tap into the expertise and intelligence of the American people, and not just those on advisory committees:

We want to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to advise government

Expert labs and Data platforms

The concept of Expert labs was discussed as a means helping ‘policy makers in the U.S. Federal Government tap into the expertise of their fellow citizens’. These ‘do-tanks’ can be used to support and nurture new technologies to answer the big questions facing policy makers. They do this by helping ‘to strengthen the ability of groups to solve problems, make decisions, resolve conflict and govern themselves by designing software and legal code to promote collaboration’.

Making Government data accessible in machine readable format is an area in which Noveck is passionate about. She wants to develop an ecosystem in which citizen developers create applications based on Government data. She believes ‘data transparency is the most interesting and exciting thing in the world’. While accepting not everybody is interested in raw data feeds (such as those available on data.gov), they are important for developers as they make it possible to build new applications that would, or could, not be built by Government alone.

She identified the recently released raw data catalog from Massachusetts, as an example of how just releasing data can inspire others to create exciting new applications. Less than 48 hours after the state Department of Transportation released real-time data on the location of MBTA buses, a developer created a Google map mashup showing bus locations. A spokesman for the Department said:

“We think it’s great. It’s exactly what we hoped people would do with the data: think creatively,”

States as Laboratories for Democracy

In a blog post on Open Government Laboratories of Democracy, Noveck quotes Justice Louis D. Brandeis in 1932:

“It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system, that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

She believes that the Federal Government can learn from State and Local experiments in transparency, participation and collaboration. Already, many states and cities have open data catalogs (e.g. Utah,   Washington, DC, San Francisco and New York) that provide the public with access to information from and about Government. As a result of these many third-party applications have been developed by non-governmental individuals and companies. The San Francisco and Washington DC App stores are high profile examples of ecosystems that can develop when data is released in accessible formats and citizens are encouraged to remix it through new applications.

Noveck’s Open Government Innovations Gallery will help promote these initiatives as best practice examples for other states to follow. The National Association of State CIOs is embracing this movement and helping to promote greater data transparency at State level. It recently published Guidance for Opening the Doors to State Data to further the release of Government data for the purpose of transparency and reuse by the public.

Apps.gov

Noveck mentioned Apps.gov as the platform through which cloud computing applications can be shared throughout Government. Rather than having 30 different brainstorming applications Government can agree to concentrate on a few platforms, thus enabling experiences and best practices to be easily shared amongst agencies. Free and paid-for applications can co-exist, with agencies choosing which is appropriate for their needs.

Submitting an application for Apps.gov, however, still requires companies and individuals to go through GSA’s Schedule Program. Tim O’Reilly highlights how Government procurement needs to be reformed in order to enable more agile sequestering of services.  Paraphrasing a conversation with CTO Aneesh Chopra he said :

“A friend can get something done in an hour for free, but an official government procurement gets the same thing done in a year and costs a million dollars. How do we get developers like the ones in the Web 2.0 Expo ‘in the loop’ without having them move to DC and get on the GSA Schedule? – (via Mark Drapeau)

In response to this, Noveck explained how it’s Jeffrey D. Zients’s role as Chief Performance Officer to focus on Procurement reform. Apps.gov could, however, form part of a dramatic change in how the Federal Government buys commercial technology. By creating a process as effective and efficient as those offered by sites such as Amazon.com and eBay, there is a huge opportunity to reduce costs and streamline the procurement process.

Crowdsourcing initiatives such as BetterBuyProject are seeking ideas on ‘new collaboration and social media to make the federal acquisition process more efficient and effective’. The platform for this initiative is Uservoice, which is already listed as one of the Idea Generation tools available on Apps.gov.

‘Open Government meets Farmville’

Manor LabsAt the end of the conversation Noveck referenced an interesting crowdsourcing experiment in the City of Manor, Texas (pop. 5,800). Tim O’ Reilly noted how the initiative was like ‘Open Government meets Farmville‘, in respect of the size of the city. The experiment highlights how innovation is possible even in small cities with very small budgets. On her blog Noveck writes:

The City of Manor, Texas (pop. 5800) has launched “Manor Labs,” an innovation marketplace for improving city services. A participant can sign up to suggest “ideas and solutions” for the police department, the municipal court, and everything in between. Each participant’s suggestion is ranked and rewarded with “innobucks.” These points can be redeemed for prizes: a million points wins “mayor for the day” while 400,000 points can be traded for a ride-along with the Chief of Police.

Manor is also one of the few cities currently using bar codes (known as QR or Quick Response Codes) to label physical locations around town. These bar codes can be scanned with a mobile phone to communicate historical and touristic information, data about the cost of a municipal service, or emergency management information. Manor is experimenting with techniques for providing different information to different audiences. If a resident scans a QR code outside a home for sale, she gets the floor plan and purchase price; whereas the building inspector gets the inspection history; and the first responder gets information about the current occupant.

While some of the Federal crowdsourcing initiatives highlighted above are restricted to Government employees only, the City of Manor allows anyone to participate regardless of where they live. The site currently has dozens of ideas at various stages of development.

Summary

Beth Noveck has a good story to tell. She highlighted many successful Government crowdsourcing initiatives and enthused about the potential for citizen developers to build apps based on raw Government data. There has been issues, however, around Open Government initiatives such as Recovery.gov (for poor data quality) and Data.gov (for not meeting expectations). Also, pilots such as Peer-to-Patent have not had their funding renewed, notwithstanding the success of the initiative.

Improving data quality, releasing the truly valuable and interesting Government datasets and finding a sustainable means to fund these initiatives should be an important consideration for the further expansion of Open Government initiatives.

The eagerly awaited directive is due to be released later this month. It should outline the steps Federal agencies need to take to embed transparency, collaboration, and participatory government into their processes. The success of this directive will not be judged by Beth Noveck, but rather by citizens in our progress towards a ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’.

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