What the Private Sector Can Teach Us About Open Government

How data sharing can improve citizen services.

The buzzword of the moment among local leaders is “open government,” and chief information officers are attempting to make the hype a reality. In the Center for Digital Government’s 2014 Digital Cities and Counties surveys, one of the top priorities for CIOs at the local level was “open government/transparency/open data.”

Yet, despite the strategic focus on open data, a recent Pew survey on views about open government found that only 7 percent of Americans think local governments share data effectively.

So why the failing grade? And where is the disconnect? The answers lie in the evolution of open data in local government.

Where We Are

Until recently, open government was synonymous with transparency, which emphasizes government accountability in informing citizens about public operations. For example, local governments can achieve transparency goals by sharing public documents via a Web portal or sharing video footage of government meetings on the organization’s website.

Transparency, of course, is important, but it is more about pushing information to the public than collaborating with citizens.

Local governments that go beyond transparency can often be described as participatory. Participation occurs when government opens mechanisms for feedback so that policies can be informed by the expertise and priorities of the public. These mechanisms can include social media, or even Web portals that allow the public to submit ideas for new public projects and give suggestions an up/down vote.

Even in the participation phase, however, the conversation is primarily one-sided, though the public is the main contributor. In order to meet citizens’ demands, local governments need to move to a more dynamic interchange of information.

Where We Need to Be

Effective collaboration is built on cooperation and partnerships between governments, businesses and citizens. When governments provide data as a service to the public, it allows businesses and citizens to be more effective. Data as a service means presenting government information in a way that is useful to constituents in business and their personal lives.

Companies such as Waze and Yelp are already modeling this approach by collecting traffic and menu information, respectively, and then transforming it into a service to help consumers avoid traffic and dine well. Experiences with companies like these set the standard for government data sharing.

In the public sector, Skagit County, Washington, is a leader in collaborative open government. One of its most popular open data services gives the public access to a GPS location-based mapping application that allows citizens to pull up information about real estate around them on their smartphones.

After selecting a property, a citizen can look up the cost and tax values, permits and other records, as well as associated photos. The application is used by real estate agents, banks and even pizza delivery services, and it gets more than 7,000 hits per day.

People are turning to this service because the information is more accurate than what they can find on search engines such as Google and Bing.

By synthesizing and presenting government data as a service, the public is able to consume and take action on the data. Constituents are better equipped to find new opportunities (such as the best place to locate a business or home in Skagit County), and the government benefits from expanded businesses and livelihoods in its community.

Moving Forward

As local governments adopt a collaborative, open approach, one of the major challenges will be branding and marketing the services they provide. Often, when citizens use government information, they do not realize the source of the data.

In order for citizens evaluate and benefit from government open data initiatives, they must be aware that government is behind it.

And once we’ve mastered collaboration? The next phase of open government will be to apply data from the private sector to public services. Uber, for instance, has far more data on transit patterns than many public transportation agencies. Imagine the power of sharing Uber’s data to better provide public service.

By finding a way to partner and create data-sharing programs, both the public and private sector would gain better insights—which would lead to better services—and citizens would reap the benefits. Now, that sounds like a very effective data-sharing initiative.

Katie Burke is the government program strategist at Laserfiche

(Image via quinky/Shutterstock.com)

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