Is open government open enough?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has no shortage of open-government projects. In June, it began making data on consumer credit card complaints available via the Consumer Complaint Database on the bureau’s website. In July, the agency announced plans to create a disclosure form for mortgage applicants that would consolidate the paperwork required under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act and the Truth in Lending Act. And the agency is collaborating with Cornell University on an initiative that seeks to make the process of creating regulations understandable to people other than policy wonks.

“We are trying to make that more transparent,” said Chris Willey, the bureau’s CIO. “Citizens want to know how their government works. A lot of the time, it feels like a black box to people.”

The bureau’s initiatives cover the range of definitions associated with the term “open government.” Some observers view open government as making data available to researchers and software developers, who create products and services based on the government’s data. Others believe open government means creating resources that directly engage and benefit a wider cross section of people. Government watchdog groups, meanwhile, see open government as an exercise in achieving greater insight into the workings of government.

Criticisms of open-government efforts rarely focus on the number of projects or their variety. Since the federal Open Government Initiative launched in 2009, the main objections have been about quality, utility and impact. Are the datasets the government releases useful? Are agencies truly providing insight into their operations? Do enough people benefit?

The Obama administration’s status report on the Open Government Initiative, published last year, acknowledges the criticisms leveled against projects such as Data.gov. “Agencies have provided mostly raw, ‘wholesale’ data through Data.gov, as opposed to user-friendly ‘retail’ data that has been aggregated in some way,” the report states. “As some have rightly observed, for ordinary citizens, raw datasets may not be immediately meaningful.”

Since then, agencies have shown some signs of pushing open government to a higher level. Some are doing more to promote their data and engage potential users, for example. A few, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, view open data and government transparency objectives as complementary and are pursuing both.

Nevertheless, there’s a general consensus that attempts at open government have been a mixed bag thus far and that much more needs to be done.

A growing emphasis on technology

“It’s clearly been a mixed set of results, and the people working to implement open government would be the first to say so,” said David Robinson, a student fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project.

Robinson and Harlan Yu, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University, co-authored “The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government,’” a paper published earlier this year that explores the shifting vocabulary of open government. The authors note that the “open-government data” label might apply to a project that seeks greater public accountability or to a more technical exercise that aims to boost the delivery of public services.

Robinson said open government’s emphasis of late has moved toward the technology end of the spectrum. The Obama administration’s recently released Digital Government Strategy underscores that notion, he added.

“I think the move toward what they call a Digital Government Strategy is telling,” he said. “It is focusing on what the technical underpinnings are and pointing to a broad spectrum of benefits.”

As for that technical foundation, the digital plan calls for agencies to design new IT systems for openness and make high-value data available via Web application programming interfaces (APIs). The policy directs agencies to take that approach with existing systems as well. The Office of Management and Budget has asked agencies to identify at least two significant customer-facing systems with high-value data and “expose this information through Web APIs to the appropriate audiences.”

That activity is now under way. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Consumer Complaint Database, for example, has a built-in data visualization tool and lets developers extract data through an API. In July, the Census Bureau released what it called its first-ever public API. It lets developers tap the bureau’s demographic, socioeconomic and housing data to build Web-based and mobile apps.

Historically, Census maintained its statistics in a table format that users would export into a tool such as Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet software. That method put the burden on users to download massive datasets and combine multiple tables to conduct statistical analysis, said Stephen Buckner, chief of the bureau’s Center for New Media and Promotions. The API approach, however, lets developers access Census data without going through a time-consuming data extraction process every time they want to pull updated numbers.

“This is really a change in our approach in terms of making sure the data we do collect gets out there in a more easily accessible format,” Buckner said. “Americans...spend a lot of time giving us the data. We have to make it easier for them to get the data back.”

Going beyond spreadsheets

Juan Gonzalez, client services director at digital strategy firm EchoDitto, said releasing APIs is an important move for agencies. But he added that much of the government data available online remains difficult to access and manipulate, even via spreadsheet tools.

“Use of open standards, like XML data feeds, would be a major step in the right direction, and even though some agencies have begun to make their live data accessible through early APIs, we think that there is still a long way to go,” Gonzalez said.

Census, meanwhile, aims to go beyond making data available to actively promoting its use. The bureau has launched a developers’ forum to support its API effort. It is also using the API to develop its own mobile apps. In August, Census unveiled America’s Economy, an app that pulls together data from Census, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The goal is to encourage developers to create additional apps.

“We’re following the model that some of the other technology firms have done,” Buckner said, citing Apple and iOS app development. “You release something...to give people an idea as to the possibilities of what can be done. We are just trying to showcase a few things that you can do with our data and then let the users take over.”

With broader participation in mind, Census officials also plan to launch codeathons or developer competitions to spark app development. Such competitions invite developers to create a particular type of application or solve a specific problem; NASA and the State Department have sponsored some of the more notable federal examples to date. Buckner said Census might partner with universities and platforms such as Challenge.gov, which hosts agency-sponsored competitions.

“We certainly see how crowdsourcing and doing some challenges can be very productive,” Buckner said.

Creating a community around an open-government program — through forums or developer events, for example — is precisely the approach agencies should take to give their efforts staying power, said Mark Headd, government relations director at Code for America, a nonprofit organization that works with U.S. cities to make them more open and advance digital government projects.

“There has to be a way to engage and interact with the community of consumers,” Headd said. Simply offering data through a portal is one-dimensional, he added. A healthy and mature open-government program offers mechanisms for community members to provide feedback and share ideas on how to use the data.

Data.gov has adopted just such a community approach. The site launched in 2009 as a data accessibility point. It was soon loaded with thousands of datasets. But the data repository was short on meaningful information.

“What we realized a year and a half into it was that this is a lot of datasets and not necessarily a lot of context around it,” said Jeanne Holm, the General Services Administration’s Data.gov evangelist.

Holm introduced the idea of adding communities to Data.gov in 2010. At press time, the website had 14 communities in areas such as health, energy and manufacturing. There’s also a developer community.

“In all of these cases, the point is to get people to not only say, ‘How can we use the data?’ and ‘Tell us what is missing,’ but ‘How can I help somebody make a better decision?’” Holm said.

In another twist on open government, earlier this year Data.gov worked with the government of India to make the Data.gov technology platform open source. Other governments can obtain the software through a code repository hosted on GitHub, a site that promotes collaboration among developers.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has also established a presence on GitHub, joining such early adopters as NASA, the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Geological Survey. As it creates tools in the open-government space, the bureau plans to make the software available to other agencies and organizations that would find them useful, Willey said.

However, agencies shouldn’t let elaborate technical projects get in the way of open-government progress, said Michael Shoag, director of government services at Forum One Communications.

“Organizations don’t need to provide online tools to slice and dice the data and provide ‘everything’ reports,” Shoag said. “Those tools can be costly and take time. We’d rather see the data online in machine-readable format, along with a few simple graphs, charts or graphics that help tell some of the key stories the data holds.”

Paving the way for greater transparency

Do open-government initiatives that target developers and researchers go far enough? What about reaching the broader public?

David Eaves, an open-government activist, said programs should be evaluated on whether they result in a greater external use of data. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be judged on the breadth of public participation.

“Frankly, I don’t expect that the whole public is going to start downloading data and use it to develop services or evaluate government,” Eaves said. “But is there a cadre of people [who] are starting to do that? And are they able to use it to assess government services?”

Eaves said open-government efforts that lower the cost of assessing data should increase the number of people who use it, although that increase might be small. “Having even a slightly larger ‘watchdog’ class of citizens is probably a good thing for government and society,” he said.

The bigger rap on open government might happen on the transparency side of the equation. Current efforts focus on improving public services or creating economic benefits by stimulating app development and other data-related business. However, that’s not enough for some observers.

“If you are an activist for political accountability, you won’t be so happy with what the U.S. federal government has done thus far,” said Princeton’s Yu. “If you are an advocate for government working better and using technology for delivering services, clearly the administration has been doing plenty on that front.”

Projects that improve visibility into government operations and invite scrutiny might not be as palatable to government officials as those that help agencies pursue existing goals, Robinson and Yu said. Therefore, those efforts take longer to accomplish.

Sharing transparency-oriented data is more difficult because of the potential impact on agencies. Holm said releasing such data will result in plentiful feedback from a variety of sources, and agencies need to be prepared to act on that feedback, which might not be easy or comfortable. “The challenge is setting the expectations within an agency,” she added.

On the other hand, open-government efforts that focus on data could end up paving the way for greater transparency. Headd said that although open data is not a substitute for transparency, it has become a prerequisite. Because a key task of government resides in creating, curating and managing data, making that data openly available is an important step toward public accountability.

“I certainly think one of the critical elements of a transparency effort is a mature open-data program,” Headd said.

4 ways to test your projects’ effectiveness

Open-government activist David Eaves said agencies can measure the success of an open-government project by answering the following questions.

1. Are more people and organizations outside the agency using the data and assessing the agency’s activities based on that data?

2. Has the project lowered internal transaction costs? Eaves said he believes one of the big benefits of open government is helping federal employees get better access to data and information from within and across agencies.

3. Does the project use tools such as crowdsourcing to achieve policy objectives in new and less expensive ways?

4. Are the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors starting to use the data in their products or processes?

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