Saturday, March 20, 2010

Open Government

Having spent the majority of my life in India, I am no stranger to the slow, lumbering and mostly ineffective machinery of government bureaucracy. With computers making their way into the system, there was some improvement but not nearly enough to make the experience of interacting with a government agency less painful than having root canal work done.

When I came to America, one of the first things I had to do was to get a SSN card followed shortly by a visit to the DMV for a drivers license. My experience as a customer, at both these agencies was not unlike what I might have expected in India. I realized that the challenges faced by the largest democracy in the world and those faced by the most evolved one were not so different after all - at least from the vantage point of a customer.

In his book Imagining India, Nandan Nilekani devotes a couple of chapters to changes electronification has brought to the hulking government machinery in urban and rural India. He sees the future of the country in large part, determined by the success of these efforts. In India, projects like the eChoupal and Question Box are impressive not only because of their simplicity and effectiveness but in their ability to pave the way for the future. They set a high bar for innovation and entrepreneurship - and the people completely deserve it.

Being a big fan of open source technology and empowering end users to create their own applications within the constraints of well articulated enterprise architecture, I was curious to see how that might translate for government agencies. Open Government Edited by Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma tries to answer how technology can be used by the American government so it works better for its citizens and increase their participation. A lot of the ideas in the book translate very easily to any democracy in the world.

In chapter one, Mathew Burton proposes starting a Peace Corps for programmers. A key factor in Burton's mind, for such an initiative to attract the best development talent would be to set a time limit after which they could return to their lives and careers outside the government. That and the freedom to fail and innovate while on the job would make a huge difference in the customer experience with government systems and contain cost.

Tim O'Reilly explains what Government 2.0 can be and the benefits of "implicit participation". He cites, the rise of Google Maps as the predomination application in that space due to Google's decision to make their API public which resulted in a wide variety of mash-ups. A very similar idea is the "holy cow machine" envisioned by Health and Human Services CTO Todd Park. This idea was prompted by an Atul Gawande article in  the New Yorker that showed how the highest cost of health-care in McAllen, Texas also had the worst outcomes. Todd wants to build a service that would allow every city to see the correlations between cost and outcomes in health-care.

Beth Simone Noveck makes a case for open and collaborative democracy. She advocates dividing a large policy problem into smaller parts and distributing it to be worked on by a community of volunteers. She cites as an example, the workforce that made Mozilla Firefox possible and continues to make it one of the most popular browsers. Taking the same approach to solve for policy issues would result in faster, better outcomes with the additional benefit of increased legitimacy than what the government enjoys.

Carlo Daffara and Jesus M.Gonzalez-Barhona explain the many benefits of using FLOSS (free/libre/open source software) in government but also discuss the pitfalls to be aware of. While it may provide independence form suppliers, ability to customize and make the internals of any application available for public scrutiny, there are many things that could go wrong as well. One important caveat they point out is the lack of previous cases to learn from or an established set of best practices for government applications.

And that is a very small sampling of the wonderfully thought provoking ideas and the wide range of perspectives in Open Government. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about how democracy and technology confluence today and where things are headed in the future.

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