How to treat government like an open source project

Ben Balter in “Open government is great. At least, it was a few election cycles ago. FOIA requests, open data, seeing how your government works—it’s arguably brought light to a lot of not-so-great practices, and in many cases, has spurred citizen-centric innovation not otherwise imagined before the information’s release.

It used to be that sharing information was really, really hard. Open government wasn’t even a possibility a few hundred years ago. Throughout the history of communication tools—be it the printing press, fax machine, or floppy disks—new tools have generally done three things: lowered the cost to transmit information, increased who that information could be made available to, and increase how quickly that information could be distributed. But, printing presses and fax machines have two limitations: they are one way and asynchronous. They let you more easily request, and eventually see how the sausage was made but don’t let you actually take part in the sausage-making. You may be able to see what’s wrong, but you don’t have the chance to make it better. By the time you find out, it’s already too late.

As technology allows us to communicate with greater frequency and greater fidelity, we have the chance to make our government not only transparent, but truly collaborative.

So, how do we encourage policy makers and bureaucrats to move from open government to collaborative government, to learn open source’s lessons about openness and collaboration at scale?

For one, we geeks can help to create a culture of transparency and openness within government by driving up the demand side of the equation. Be vocal, demand data, expect to see process, and once released, help build lightweight apps. Show potential change agents in government that their efforts will be rewarded.

Second, it’s a matter of tooling. We’ve got great tools out there—things like Git that can track who made what change when and open standards like CSV or JSON that don’t require proprietary software—but by-and-large they’re a foreign concept in government, at least among those empowered to make change. Command line interfaces with black background and green text can be intimidating to government bureaucrats used to desktop publishing tools. Make it easier for government to do the right thing and choose open standards over proprietary tooling.”

Last, be a good open source ambassador. Help your home city or state get involved with open source. Encourage them to take their first step (be it consuming open source, publishing, or collaborating with the public), teach them what it means to do things in the open, And when they do push code outside the firewall, above all, be supportive. We’re in this together.

As technology makes it easier to work together, geeks can help make our government not just open, but in fact collaborative. Government is the world’s largest and longest running open source project (bugs, trolls, and all). It’s time we start treating it like one.

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