A number of my friends and advocates in the open government, transparency and open data communities have argued that online government transparency initiatives will be permanent since, the theory goes, no government will ever want to bear the political cost of rolling it back and being perceived as “more opaque.” I myself have, at times, let this argument go unchallenged or even run with it.
This week’s US budget negotiations between Congress and the White House should lay that theory to rest. Permanently.
The budget agreement that has emerged from most recent round of negotiations – which is likely to be passed by congress - slashes funding to an array of Obama transparency initiatives such as USASpending, the ITDashboard, and data.gov from $34M to $8M. Agree or disagree, Republicans are apparently all too happy to kill initiatives which make the spending and activities of the US government more transparent as well as create a number of economic opportunities around open data. Why? Because they believe it has no political consequences.
So unsurprisingly, it turns out that political transparency initiatives – even when they are online – are as bound to the realities of traditional politics as dot.com’s were bound by the realities of traditional economics. It’s not enough to get a policy created or an initiative launched – it needs to have a community, a group of interested supporters, to nurture and protect it. Otherwise, it will be at risk.
Back in 2009, in the lead up to the drafting and launching of Vancouver’s Open Data motion I talked about creating an open-government bargain. Specifically, I argued that:
..in an open city, a bargain must exists between a government and its citizens. To make open data a success and to engage the community a city must listen, engage, ask for help, and of course, fulfill its promise to open data as quickly as possible. But this bargain runs both ways. The city must to its part, but so too must the local tech community. They must participate, be patient (cities move slower than tech companies), offer help and, most importantly, make the data come alive for each other, policy makers and citizens through applications and shared analysis.
Some friends countered that open data and transparency should simply exist because it is the right thing to do. I don’t disagree – and I wish we lived in a world where the existence of this ideal was sufficient enough to guarantee these initiatives. But it isn’t sufficient. It’s easy to kill something that no one uses (or in the case of data.gov, that hasn’t been given enough time to generate a vibrant user base). It’s much, much harder to kill something that has a community that uses it, especially if that community and the products it creates are valued by society more generally. This is why open data needs users, it needs developers, think tanks and above all, the media, to take interest in it and to leverage it to create content. It’s also why I’ve tried to create projects like Emitter.ca, recollect.net, taxicity and others, because the more value we create with open data for everyone, the more secure government transparency policies will be.
It’s use it or risk losing it. I wish this weren’t the case, but it’s the best defense I can think of.