May 11, 2010

‘Open Government’ review: Big & beautiful ideas

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Book chronicles how the Gov 2.0 movement is slowly becoming a reality

JD LasicaWe’ve known for years how social media and Web 2.0 have been transforming the way political campaigns are run, the way we interact with big institutions, the way news is reported and distributed — indeed, practically all facets of modern society. So it comes as no surprise that social technologies are slowly transforming the way government works.

What is surprising is that editors Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma and O’Reilly Media have managed to make a potentially wonky topic like Government 2.0 accessible, fresh and actually interesting. Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice is a big (432 pages), beautiful book, from the gorgeous, sumptuous cover to the breadth of ideas and angles inside. In its collection of 34 essays written by thought leaders and practitioners in government reform, the book offers dozens of examples of a new approach to government: open, democratic, distributed, bottom-up, shareable, data-driven and focused on making “we the people” a reality again.

Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media — the best computer book publisher in the world — carried the same message in a webcast today that proved so popular my browser crashed four times. O’Reilly has been at the forefront of the open government movement and contributes the key second chapter, “Government as Platform.” O’Reilly Media co-produces the Gov 2.0 Expo, coming May 25-27, and Gov 2.0 Summit on Sept. 9-10, both in Washington, D.C.

In today’s “The Power of Platforms” webcast, O’Reilly touched on Apple’s iTunes Store, saying that Apple programmers had written only 15-20 apps for the launch of the iPhone but by opening up the platform (relatively speaking) to third-party developers, there are upwards of 200,000 apps in the store. “That’s the magic of the platform,” he said. He said governments need to take a similar approach, creating emergent platforms “instead of building finished solutions.”

O’Reilly cited a number of great examples (and the live chat contributed a few), ranging from Ushahidi in Haiti to the U.S. State Department on Twitter to the local businesses in Hawaii that decided to fix a key road themselves instead of waiting two years for government contractors. (I had already included a few of these examples in my upcoming Mobilize Your Cause Bootcamp at Personal Democracy Forum on June 2.) The webcast should be live soon — it’s worth a look

Opening up data mines, collaborating on revealing campaign contributions


In the book, the editors have assembled some of the top names in the government reform movement: Ellen Miller, Micah L. Sifry, Mark Drapeau, as well as Fernanda Viegas, Dan Gillmor and dozens of others. (Disclosure: I’m friends with many of these people.) You’ll learn about the potential of, the initiative to create a simple framework to share public information, and Open Secrets from the Center for Responsive Politics, used by to correlate congressional voting patterns and campaign contributions. The chapter on Tweet Congress details the efforts to get members of Congress to use Twitter — even today, Republican Congressmen out number Democrats on Twitter by something like a 2-1 ratio. Other chapters lay out countless other examples of how open government has moved from a geek idea to the mainstream.

Writes O’Reilly in a key passage:

Government 2.0 is not a new kind of government; it is government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and reimagined as if for the first time. … There is a new compact on the horizon: information produced by and on behalf of citizens is the lifeblood of the economy and the nation; government has a responsibility to treat that information as a national asset. Citizens are connected like never before and have the skill sets and passion to solve problems affecting them locally as well as nationally. Government information and services can be provided to citizens where and when they need them. Citizens are empowered to spark the innovation that will result in an improved approach to governance. In this model, government is a convener and an enabler rather than the first mover of civic action.

If you roll your eyes at that and think government is the problem, buy the latest Ann Coulter fairytale. But if you believe that government belongs to us, and we can collectively convene to solve some of the great issues of our day, then get “Open Government” (it’s a bit pricey at $45 for the paperback — $36 as an ebook). Buy one for any of your friends who work in a government agency. Change can happen one small miracle at a time.

This is always a challenge for book publishers, but it’s too bad that the inside title page displays the usual “All rights reserved” copyright mark instead of a Creative Commons license, given the public importance of the topics covered. (Later: Seven chapters are available online as a downloadable PDF.) Still, much of the information layered in this book is available online, and I’m halfway done in putting together an Open Government section of the Socialbrite Sharing Center. This book will make a prominent addition to any such collection.

Note: In a previous life, I was — among many other things — a book editor at the Sacramento Bee.


Gov 2.0 folks to follow on Twitter (Socialbrite)

Citizens as government watchdogs (Socialbrite)

California’s Secretary of State: Come and collaborate! (Socialbrite)

How the government can help spur social innovation (Socialbrite)

Mobilize Your Cause Bootcamp at Personal Democracy Forum

Civic Engagement on the Move: How mobile media can serve the public good (PDF — a free ebook by JD Lasica)

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JD Lasica, founder and former editor of Socialbrite, is co-founder of Cruiseable. Contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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4 thoughts on “‘Open Government’ review: Big & beautiful ideas

  1. It wasn't long ago that President Obama spoke at a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Tickets cost $30,400 per couple.

    If you roll your eyes at that and think government is the problem, you're one step closer to finding a solution.

  2. JD,

    Anyone who implies that "Gov 2.0 is making Open Government a reality" is letting the world know that their experience with this topic is so relatively brief that they don't even know which one came first.

    But, being the open-minded person that I am, perhaps I'm not understanding something about your perspective. So it would help if you could clarify a few things to me:

    Do you think that the "Open Government" movement only came into being *after* President Obama came into office? Do you think that the 2005 book "Government 2.0" by Bill Eggers was written *before* the beginning of the Open Government movement?

    When, do you think, "Gov 2.0" started? When, do you think, "Open Government" started? Keep in mind that the older of the two can NOT be the product of the one that came later.

    And so, for the benefit of those just starting to learn about OpenGov and Gov2.0, I think it better if we do NOT confuse them by mixing up which is the Parent and which is the Offspring.

    I'm interested to know what you think. —- SB

    • I haven't read Government 2.0. Since this is a review of a new book, clearly "Government 2.0" came first. I don't claim to have a deep knowledge in this area — and I hope you'd agree that one needn't in order to write a book review — but it's clear that the open government movement began years ago but has gained much momentum with the beginning of the Obama administration.

      Socialbrite has just published our roundup of Gov 2.0 resources — most of these are new or young:

      – jd