The Open Government Revolution: the Day After the Arab Spring

IN BRIEF:

  • Governments exist to organize the transmission of information and expertise to and from citizens, but our current system of information flow is designed for an earlier age of communication.
  • Scientists have recently begun to see flow as a defining feature of systems, offering insight into the pervasive public dissatisfaction with our current institutions.
  • The next great superpower will be the one whose governance structures connect hierarchical institutions and networks to enable its citizens to collaborate to address our most significant social problems.
  • Citizens must redesign their institutions of governance to curate more participatory opportunities and devolve power.

In her TED Talk from June 28, 2012, former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Beth Noveck argues that citizens must demand a more open source government. In her view, this open government revolution would happen in two steps.

First, information is beginning and will continue to flow more rapidly and efficiently between citizens and their governments, making governments smarter. According to Noveck:

“In the first phase of this open government revolution, we’re seeing designs for channeling information to government to make institutions smarter. Safecast is supplementing and checking government with distributed radiation measurements in the wake of the Fukushima plant disaster. We’ll want to experiment with new ways of educating legislators and bureaucrats independent of lobbyists to inform decision making.”

Second, Noveck posits that open government is not simply transparency and data-sharing. A more open government would be one in which citizens actually begin to take on more traditional functions of governance:

“The second phase is in getting decision-making power out. Participatory budgeting has long been practiced in Porto Alegre, Brazil; they’re just starting it in the 49th Ward in Chicago. Russia is using wikis to get citizens writing law together, as is Lithuania—when we start to see power over the core functions of government–spending, legislation, decision-making–then we’re well on our way to an open government revolution.”

Ultimately, Noveck argues that the most important step citizens must take next is to demand a more open source government:

“We need to start with our youngest people…we start by teaching young people that we live not in a passive society–a read-only society–but in a writeable society where we have the power to change our communities, to change our institutions. That’s when we begin to really put ourselves on a pathway towards this open government innovation, towards this open government movement, towards this open government revolution…The important thing for us to do is to talk about and demand this revolution.”

The talk is an excellent provocation, but the devil is in the details. How do we get from where we are to where we must go? How do we redesign the flow of our institutions to allow for meaningful participation and devolution? Our work creating a research agenda and community to help design participatory innovations is a response and a starting point.

For three related TED videos on the future of government, check out Jen Pahlka’s talk on “Coding a Better Government,” Clay Shirky’s presentation on “How the Internet Will (One Day) Transform Government” and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Cameron’s speech titled, “The Next Age of Government.”

Beth Noveck is a member of Opening Government and can be found on Twitter at @bethnoveck.

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