What the Knight News Challenge on Open Government Tells Us About Open Government

Global Integrity
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Earlier this week, the Knight Foundation opened a new Knight News Challenge, this time focused on promoting innovative approaches to "open government." The announcement has received quite a bit of attention; any time you commit up to US$5 million in funding for something, people's ears tend to prick up.

We've spent plenty of time here at Global Integrity thinking about the definition, potential, and limits of open government in the past few years.  We invest heavy amounts of effort into making the Open Government Partnership work and generally think that open government is a really good thing. Personally, I track the continued conflation of "open data" with "open government" over at this Tumblr.

In short, we pay very close attention to the uses and abuses of open government as a term of art. Here's what we're seeing so far come out of the Knight News Challenge on open government that both excites and worries us.

Open government = technology for governance?

Happily, the positioning and language behind the contest avoids the conflation of "open data" with "open government," which can be a very misleading mistake. Rather, what we are picking up is a tendency to equate technology, or more specifically citizens + technology, with open government. The contest is framed as a way to "improve the way governments and citizens interact," but virtually all of the examples involve leveraging technology or "civic hacking."

Don't get us wrong, we love technology; we even build software to advance our own work. But open government goes well beyond technology and software tools. It involves a fundamental reorientation of power and decision-making, two decidedly non-technical (but pretty important) things. We hope to see at least some contest entries focused explicitly around non-technology ideas.

We still don't know what open government really means.

We've discussed this ad nauseam elsewhere; see our "Working Definition of Open Government" for how we think the term might be defined. The Open Government Standards project is another place to find some ideas (although please let us know in the comments if anyone is keeping that alive…it seems to have gone silent).

The News Challenge takes a, well, relaxed approach to any sort of definition. Per the contest brief: "Our definition of 'open government' is broad, and ranges from small projects within existing structures to ambitious attempts to create entirely new ones. To use an architectural analogy, we’re interested in everything from putting a new coat of paint on the house to razing the house and replacing it with a geodesic dome."

So basically anything involving government, civic participation, and technology, one can surmise. We like the idea of not pigeonholing the contest through too narrow of a definition, but one wonders just how messy and disparate the entries might end up being without a sharper focus.

Absent an agreed definition, the "history" of open government remains controversial territory.

Knight seems to take the post-2009/U.S. Open Government Directive approach to this history:

"The idea of open government has had a rather winding journey—from the first datasets opened to the public, to apps for reporting potholes, to open systems that track the movement of disease across the world. Dedicated groups of talented people have attempted everything from opening IRS data locked in millions of PDFs to collectively writing legislation online."

Other scholars and practitioners strongly disagree, however, taking a far more expansive view of the movement. In their influential paper on the distinction between open data and open government, Harlan Yu and David Robinson trace the history of open government in the United States back to the post-World War II era. Early administrative reforms and advocacy efforts following the war in the United States, for example, would culminate in the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, an absolutely fundamental aspect of open government. To treat open government as something discovered in early 2009 when President Barack Obama and his team published the Open Government Directive is to ignore more than fifty years of prior work and some valuable perspective.

Cheers to Knight

While we might choose to craft certain aspects of this News Challenge differently ourselves, Knight should be commended for wading into this potentially controversial territory. If we're lucky, we'll see some impressive new ideas funded that will lead to answers for a number of the questions raised above.

— Nathaniel Heller

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