Tag Archives: governance

Open Data and New Public Management

This morning I got an email thread pointing to an article by Justin Longo on #Opendata: Digital-Era Governance Thoroughbred or New Public Management Trojan Horse? I’m still digesting it all but wanted to share some initial thoughts.

The article begins with discussion about the benefits of open data but its real goal is to argue how open data is a pawn in a game to revive the New Public Management Reform Agenda:

My hypothesis, based on a small but growing number of examples highlighting political support for open data, is that some advocates—particularly politicians, but not exclusively—are motivated by beliefs (both explicit and unconscious) forged in the New Public Management (NPM) reform agenda.

From this perspective, support for more open data aims at building coalitions of citizen consumers who are encouraged to use open data to expose public service decisions, highlight perceived performance issues, increase competition within the public sector, and strengthen the hand of the citizen as customer.

What I found disappointing is the article’s one dimensional approach to the problem: open data may support a theory/approach to public management disliked by the author, consequently (inferring from the article’s title and tone) it must be bad. This is akin to saying any technology that could be used to advance an approach I don’t support, must be opposed.

In addition, I’d say that the idea of exposing public service decisions, highlighting perceived performance issues, increasing competition within the public sector, and strengthening the hand of the citizen as customer are goals I don’t necessarily oppose, certainly not categorically. Moreover, I would hope such goals are not exclusively the domain of NPM. Do we want a society where government’s performance issues are not highlighted? Or where public service decisions are kept secret?

These are not binary choices. You can support the outcomes highlighted above and simultaneously believe in other approaches to public sector management and/or be agnostic about the size of government. Could open data be used to advance NPM? Possibly (although I’m doubtful). But it definitely can also be used to accomplish a lot of other good and potentially advance other approaches as well. Let’s not conflate a small subset of ways open data can be used or a small subset of its supporters with the entire project and then to lump them all into a single school of thought around public service management.

Moreover, I’ve always argued that the biggest users and benefactors of open data would be government – and in particular the public service. While open data could be used to build “coalitions of citizen consumers who are encouraged to use open data to expose public service decisions” it will also be used by public servants to better understand citizens needs, be more responsive and allocate resources more effectively. Moreover, those “citizen consumers” will probably be effective in helping them achieve this task. The alternative is to have better shared data internally (which will eventually happen), an outcome that might allow the government to achieve these efficiencies but will also radically increase the asymmetry in the relationship between the government and its citizens and worse, between the elites that do have privileged access to this data, and the citizenry (See Taggart below).

So ignoring tangible benefits because of a potential fear feels very problematic. It all takes me back to Kevin Kelly and What Technology Wants… this is an attempt to prevent an incredibly powerful technology because of a threat it poses to how the public sector works. Of course, it presumes that a) you can prevent the technology and b) that not acting will allow the status quo or some other preferred approach to prevail. Again, there are outcomes much, much worse the NPM that are possible (again, I don’t believe that open data leads directly to NPM) and I would argue, indeed likely, given evolving public expectations, demographics, and fiscal constraints.

In this regard, the article sets of up a false choice. Open data is going to reshape all theories of public management. To claim it supports or biases in favour of one outcome is, I think beyond premature. But more importantly, it is to miss the trees for the forest and the much bigger fish we need to fry. The always thoughtful Chris Taggart summed much of this up beautifully in an email thread:

I think the title — making it out to be a choice between a thoroughbred or Trojan Horse — says it all. It’s a false dichotomy, as neither of those are what the open data advocates are suggesting it is, nor do most of us believe that open data is solution to all our problems (far from it — see some of my presentations[1]).

It also seems to offer a choice between New Public Management (which I think Emer Coleman does a fairly good job of illuminating in her paper[2]) and the brave new world of Digital Era Governance, which is also to misunderstand the changes being brought about in society, with or without open government data.
The point is not that open data is the answer to our problem but society’s chance to stay in the game (and even then, the odds are arguably against it). We already have ever increasing numbers of huge closed databases, many made up of largely government data, available to small number of people and companies.
This leads to an asymmetry of power and friction that completely undermines democracy; open data is not a sufficiency to counteract that, but I think it is a requirement.

It’s possible I’ve misunderstood Longo’s article and he is just across the straights at the University of Victoria, so hopefully we can grab a beer and talk it through. But my sense is this article is much more about a political battle between New Public Management and Digital Era Governance in which open data is being used as a pawn. As an advocate, I’m not wholly comfortable with that, as I think it risks misrepresenting it.

Right to Know Week – going on Right Now

So, for those not in the know (…groan) this week is Right to Know Week.

Right to Know (RTK) Week is and internationally designated week with events taking place around the world. It is designed to improve people’s awareness of their rights to access government information and the role such access plays in democracy and good governance. Here in Canada there is an entire week’s worth of events planned and it is easy to find out what’s happening near you.

Last year, during RTK Week I was invited to speak in Ottawa on a panel for parliamentarians. My talk, called Government Transparency in a Digital Age (blog post about it & slideshare link) seemed to go well and the Information Commissioner soon after started quoting some of my ideas and writings in her speeches and testimony/reports to parliamentary. Unsurprisingly, she has become a fantastic ally and champion in the cause for open data. Indeed, most recently, the Federal Information Commissioner, along with all the her provincial counterparts, released a joint statement calling on their respective governments to proactively disclosing information “in open, accessible and reusable formats.”

What is interesting about all this, is that over the course of the last year the RTK community – as witnessed by the Information Commissioners transformation – has begun to understand why “the digital” is radically transforming what access means and how it can work. There is an opportunity to significantly enlarge the number and type of allies in the cause of “open government.” But for this transformation to take place, the traditional players will need to continue to rethink and revise both their roles and their relationships with these new players. This is something I hope to pick up on in my talk.

So yes… this year, I’ll be back in Ottawa again.

I’ll once again be part of the Conference for Parliamentarians-Balancing Openness and the Public Interest in Protecting Information panel, which I’ll be doing with:

  • David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States
  • Vanessa Brinkmann, Counsel, Initial Request Staff, Office of Information Policy, U.S. Department of Justice; and
  • James Travers of the Toronto Star

Perhaps even more exciting than the panel I’m on though is the panel that shows how quickly both this week and the Information Officer’s are trying to transform. Consider that, this year, RTK will include a panel on open data titled Push or Pull: Liberating Government Information” it will be chaired by Microsoft’s John Weigelt and have on it:

  • Nathalie Des Rosiers, General Counsel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association
  • Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy
  • Kady O’Malley, Parliamentary blogger for CBC.ca’s Inside Politics blog
  • Jeff Sallot, Carleton University journalism instructor and former Globe and Mail journalist

Sadly I have a prior commitment back in Vancouver so won’t be there in person, but hope to check it out online, hope you will too.

Welcome to Right to Know Week. Hope you’ll join in the fray.

Structurelessness, feminism and open: what open advocates can learn from second wave feminists

Just finished reading feminist activist Jo Freeman’s article, written in 1970, called The Tyranny of Structurelessness. She argues there is no such thing as a structureless group, and that structurelessness tends to be invoked to cover up or obscure — and cannot eliminate — the role, nature, ownership and use of power within a group.

The article is worth reading, especially for advocates of open (open-source and openspace/unconference). Occasionally I hear advocates of open source — and more frequently hear organizers of unconferences/openspaces — argue that because of the open, unstructured nature of the process, they are more democratic than alternatives. Freeman’s article is worth reading as it serves as a useful critique of the limits of open as well as a reminder that open groups, organizations and processes are neither structureless, nor inherently democratic. Claiming either is at best problematic; at worst it places the sustainability of the organization or effort in jeopardy. Moreover, recognizing this reality doesn’t make being open less powerful or useful, but it does allow us to think critically and have honest conversations about to what structures we do want and how we should manage power.

It’s worth recognizing that Freeman wrote this article because she did want feminist organizations to be more democratic (whereas I do not believe open source or unconferences need to be democratic), but this does not make her observations less salient. For example, Freeman’s article opens with an attack on the very notion of structurelessness:

“…to strive for a ‘structureless’ group is as useful and as deceptive, as to aim at an ‘objective’ news story, ‘value-free’ social science or a ‘free’ economy. A ‘laissez-faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez-faire’ society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones.”

This is an important recognition of fact, one that challenges the perspective held by many “open” advocates. In many respects, unconferences and some open source projects are reactions to the challenges and limitations of structure — a move away from top-heavy governance that limits creativity, stifles action and slows the flow of information. I have personally (and on many occasions) been frustrated by the effect that the structure of government bureaucracies can have on new ideas. I have seen how, despite a clear path for how to move an idea to action, the process nonetheless ends up snuffing the idea out before it can be acted upon — or deforms it to the point of uselessness.

But I have also experienced the inverse. I’ve personally experienced the struggle of trying to engage/penetrate an open source community. Who I should talk to, how to present my ideas, where to present them — all often have rules (of which, within Mozilla, I was usually informed by friends on the inside — while occasionally I discovered the rules awkwardly, after grossly violating them). Most open source communities I know of — such as Mozilla or Canada25 —  never claimed (thankfully) to be democratic, but there is an important lesson here. Recognizing the dangers of too much (or rather the wrong) structure is important. But that should not blind us to the other risk — the danger outlined above by Freeman for feminists in 1970: that in our zeal to avoid bad structure, we open advocates begin to pretend that there is no structure, or no need for structure. This is simply never the case. No matter what, a group structure exists, be it informally or formally. The question is rather how we can design a flexible structure that meets our needs and enables those whom we want to participate, to participate easily.

The danger is real. I’ve been to unconferences where there are those who have felt like insiders and others who have known they were outsiders. The same risk – I imagine – exists for open source projects. This isn’t a problem in and of itself – unless those who become insiders start to be  chosen not solely on account of their competence or contribution, but because of their similarities, shared interests, or affableness to the current set of insiders. Indeed, in this regard Freeman talks very intelligently about “elites”:

“Elites are not conspiracies. Seldom does a small group of people get together and try to take over a larger group for its own ends. Elites are nothing more and nothing less than a group of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activities. They would probably maintain their friendship whether or not they were involved in political activities; they would probably be involved in political activities whether or not they maintained their friendships. It is the coincidence of these two phenomena which creates elites in any groups and makes them so difficult to break.”

This is something I have witnessed both within an open source community and at an unconference. And this is not bad per se. One wants the organizers and contributors in open projects to align themselves with the values of the project. At the same time, however, it becomes easy for us to create proxies for shared values — for example, older people don’t get unconferences so we don’t ask them, or gloss over their offers  to help organize. Those who disagree with us becomes labelled trolls. Those who disagree sharply (and ineffectively) are labelled crazy, evil or stupid (or assumed to be suffering from asperger’s syndrom). The challenge here is twofold. First, we need to recognize that while we all strive to be meritocratic when engaging and involving people we are often predisposed to those who act, talk and think like us. For those interested in participation (or, for example, finding the next million mozillians) this is of real interest. If an open source community or an unconference does want to grow (and I’m not saying this should always be a goal), it will probably have to grow beyond its current contributor base. This likely means letting in people who are like those already participating.

The second challenge isn’t to make open source communities more democratic (as Freeman wished for the feminist movement) but to ensure that we recognize that there is power, we acknowledge which individuals hold it, and we make clear how they are held accountable and how that power is transitioned.  This can even be by dictate — but my sense is that whatever the structure, it needs to be widely understood by those involved so they can choose, at a minimum, to opt out (or fork) if they do not agree. As Freeman notes, acting like there is no power, no elite or no structure does not abolish power. “All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it.”

In this regard a few thoughts about structure come to mind:

  1. Clarity around what creates power and influence. Too often participants may not know what allows one to have influence in an open setting. Be clear. If, in an open source community, code is king, state it. And then re-state it. If, in an unconference, having a baseline of knowledge on the conference subject is required, state it. Make it as clear as possible to participants what is valued and never pretend otherwise.
  2. Be clear on who holds what authority, why, and how they are accountable. Again, authority does not have to be derived democratically, but it should be as transparent as possible. “The bargain” about how a group is being governed should be as clear to new contributors and participants as possible so that they know what they are signing for. If that structure is not open to change except by an elite, be honest about it.
  3. Consider encoding ideas 1 and 2 into a social contract that makes “the bargain” completely clear. Knowing how to behave is itself not unimportant. One problem with the “code is king” slogan is that it says nothing about behaviour. By this metric a complete jerk who contributes great code (but possibly turns dozens if not hundreds of other coders off of the project) could become more valued then a less effective contributor who helps new coders become more effective contributors. Codifying and enforcing a minimum rule-set allows a common space to exist.
  4. Facilitate an exit. One of the great things about unconferences and open source is the ability to vote with one’s feet and/or fork. This means those who disagree with the elite (or just the group in general) can create an alternative structure or strike up a new conversation. But ensure that the possibility for this alternative actually exists. I’ve been to unconferences where there was not enough space to create a new conversation – and so dominating conveners tortured the participants with what interested them, not the group. And while many open source projects can be forked, practically doing so is sometimes difficult. But forking – either an open source project or a conference conversation – is an important safety valve on a project. It empowers participants by forcing elites to constantly ensure that community members (and not just the elites) are engaged or risk losing them. I suspect that it is often those who are most committed (a good thing) but feel they do not have another choice (a bad thing) who come to act like resentful trolls, disrupting the community’s work.

Again, to be clear, I’m using Freeman’s piece to highlight that even in “open” systems there are structures and power that needs to be managed. I’m not arguing for unconferences or open source communities to be democratic or given greater structure or governance. I believe in open, transparency and in lightest structures possible for a task. But I also believe that, as advocates of open, we must constantly be testing ourselves and our assumptions, as well as acknowledging and debating practises and ideas that can help us be more effective.