If you haven’t read the recent terrific posts from Tom Steinberg over at mySociety and Tiago Peixoto worrying about the labeling confusion around open government/data/everything, you should. They raise important points about the naming conventions we “practitioners” use and abuse to describe the novelty of our work. Tom has concerns about the fact that as a community our propensity to change these labels distracts our audiences and dampens potential impact. Tiago argues we are glossing over and ignoring past experiences and learning by pretending that we’ve just discovered the “new new [open/transparent/participatory] thing.” Both are right.
At Global Integrity, we’ve worried about these concerns for many years; in our User’s Guide to Measuring Corruption (with UNDP, 2009) we talked extensively about the labeling problem inherent in our community’s work. Tiago and Tom have helpfully reignite the debate in an era when a new Open Data Charter sits alongside an Open Government Partnership and a nascent Feedback Lab start-up. I can only imagine the confusion for non-native English speakers!
Neither Tom nor Tiago have yet to offer proposals for a better taxonomy or classification system to force some order out of this chaos (Tom is apparently working on this, however). I’ve written before about my own Working Definition of Open Government. But even that fails to capture some of the complexities of what’s involved.
Personally, I gravitate towards a sort of tagging system rather than a one initiative/one label approach. Rather than try to shoehorn organizations, interventions, or initiatives into single categories, it strikes me as more natural and more useful to tag them by common attributes and then assign certain combinations of those attributes plain text labels (such as “e-government”). The reality is that most orgs/interventions/programs tend to cut across multiple labels, and we’re missing the forest from the trees if we ignore the value that a certain “e-government” intervention might have, for example, for broader goals around citizen engagement and participation.
I’d offer the following quick and dirty taxonomy/tagging system. I warmly welcome alternatives, suggestions, improvements, and reasons to abandon this entirely. I have deliberately tried to embrace simplistic plain-English descriptors here to avoid jargon-speak, which only makes things more difficult. I’ve given each one a letter to make the combinations simpler to spell out (the order and alpha-coding are random and carry no importance).
A: Involves citizens in the policy process
B: Involves citizens/beneficiaries in monitoring service delivery
C: Relies on structured information to inform decisions (whether digitized data or other information)
D: Leverages technology (can be broken down into additional sub-categories, software, hardware, web, mobile, etc.)
E: Makes previously hidden, inaccessible, or opaque information more public
F: Empowers citizens/beneficiaries to better hold service providers to account
G: Democratizes previously elite processes (e.g. aid, policy activism)
X: Traditional public sector service/transaction or other traditional service provider
I’d then suggest that:
freedom of information = E + F
e-government = D + X
Gov2.0 = C + X (and sometimes D)
e-participation = A + D
open government data = D+ E
Avaaz, GlobalGiving, Kiva: D + G
These formulas are obviously simplistic and in reality full of nuance. But it’s fair to say that a number of the trendy “fad” public sector interventions identified by Tom and Tiago are constructed with many of the same building blocks. This building block approach can be useful in identifying commonalities, particularly approaches that are truly different in only name/label, as well as core differences.
The larger question that Tom raises in his post: what do we call A + B + C + D + E + F + G? My gut answer is “open government” (although I am less certain about the G-type interventions). I continue to embrace an approach to defining open government as simply a unifying thread or common umbrella under which all (or most) of the above fall. As I’ve written before:
What’s most important here, to me, is that none of these initiatives or interventions in and of themselves constitute “open government” alone. Rather, only when combined with the others do we truly see the potential for “open government” in its most powerful and holistic form.
What do you think? Chime in below with some comments or on Twitter (@GlobalIntegrity and @Integrilicious).