What is Open Government?


May 31, 2013

As the newest member of the Open Concept team, I wasted no time trying to learn as much as I could about various initiatives using Drupal as its main platform. This mainly entailed watching numerous videos from DrupalCon, starting with Ottawa’s own DrupalCamp in March (organized in part by Open Concept), and now I’m slowly getting through all the new material coming out of DrupalCon Portland.


Although some of the code-heavy videos targeted towards developers tend to elude me, I do find myself interested in the ones discussing open government. This probably has to do with my background in knowledge management - which entails the creation of communities, sharing of knowledge, and increasing efficiency. So, after watching numerous case studies of Drupal benefiting open government, I feel like I have to ask the question: What exactly is open government?

When announcing the expansion of open government in 2011, Stockwell Day claimed open government would "give Canadians the opportunity to access public information in more useful and readable formats, enable greater insight into the inner workings of the Government and empower citizens to participate more directly in the decision-making process."

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the initiatives that governments around the world have been implementing:


Citizen Engagement. One thing governments have been capitalizing on is the involvement of their citizens, getting them interested and allowing them to feel more involved with their government. After whitehouse.gov started using Drupal as their platform, the petitioning website We The People was launched shortly after, allowing US citizens to petition the government on various issues. This website has gained popularity - since September 2011, the site has drawn over 2.7 million users and over 50,000 petitions have been created.


Open Data. A major shift in government is making data open to the public. No longer do people have to put in requests for data and wait, but instead governments are making data openly available - allowing people to make timely decisions and suggestions based on that data. This initiative is meant to foster a more innovative and effective government.

In 2010, the UK government launched data.gov.uk as a way to make raw data available. By doing this, three things have happened: people have identified trends in the the data - coming up with ideas to make certain processes work better, people have built new functionality by creating services (e.g. creating apps based on traffic data), and research is more available to citizens. Through open data initiatives, the government has benefited from the public’s creativity and talent - allowing the private sector to innovate in ways the government may not have the time, talent, or money to otherwise. 

Open data can be related to any number of things: traffic, weather, health, finance, and so on - all aiming to keep the public more informed. In the Canadian government buyandsell.gc.ca was created in 2009 (originally built by Open Concept) to make procurement data available to businesses, government, and procurement professionals. And the new Canadian Open Data Portal (likely to use Drupal as its platform) was announced last year - to be released in Spring 2013, with Tony Clement claiming that open data will “spur innovation, fuel growth, and improve people’s lives.”

By reusing data, the government is saving money and deriving more value from the original data-sets. In fact, the White House released an Executive Order this month “making open and machine readable the new default for government information”.


Transparency. So far there have been many examples of citizens having access to documents and data, but not much evidence of government proceedings being available. Jim Harper argues, “Government transparency is not produced by making interesting data sets available. It’s produced by publishing data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results.”

Naturally, petitions won’t make a difference if the government doesn’t respond or implement any of the changes the citizens are petitioning for. And open data doesn’t give any insight into how the government uses the data, or what their decision making processes are. So, when does transparency become a part of open government initiatives?

During my research, I found a few government organizations using Drupal as a way to be more transparent and accountable for their actions. One example is itdashboard.gov which displays how much the US government spends on IT expenditures. By displaying budget information, this site makes it easier for people in government to make strategic budget and policy decisions. The public can then see how money is being spent within the government.

Another one is the New York Senate - a site that gives citizens more access to the government on the federal level (which is important for the New York Senate - an institution plagued by corruption in the past). The website makes all data about senators, the senate, events, and laws more structured and available. Now, people from all over the world can search information, watch, and reach out as laws are deliberated, discussed, and passed. The project claims that the government is more transparent and accountable, and information is shared more efficiently.


So what have I learned about open government? It seems that open government is a term that’s thrown around to cover a large number of initiatives - it’s almost used interchangeably with transparency, but many government institutions have a long way to go before being fully open, collaborative, and transparent. Drupal can do a lot for government institutions - and has already - but it’s up to those institutions to decide what they want to share and how open they’re willing to be with the public in regards to decision making and accountability. Canada's open government action plan is focusing on three streams: open data, open information (including government activities), and open dialogue (allowing citizens to reach out). It'll be interesting to see what initiatives emerge over the coming years to achieve these.

What do you think? What is your definition of open government, and how would you like to see your government change?


For more information, watch:

Drupal in Open Government - Tom Erickson (CEO of Acquia) at DrupalCamp Ottawa

BuyandSell.gc.ca: Implementing Open Government at DrupalCamp Ottawa

Drupal in the New York Senate at DrupalCamp Ottawa


Click here for a list of Government websites using Drupal