Panelists: More understanding, collaboration needed to advance Open Gov

“Open Government: State of the Union” panelists (from left to right): Kathy Conrad, Andrew Hoppin, Waldo Jaquith, Seamus Kraft and John Bracken. Photo courtesy of the Paley Center for Media.

Digitizing government data aids the everyday decision-making of ordinary people. Nevertheless, users of that data can’t always readily access government information nor employ it in ways that boost civic involvement and hold government accountable, or help create the kinds of communities they desire.

That was the broad consensus of tech developers, community organizers, government watchdogs, government officials and others at “The Next Big Thing in Open Government,” a forum co-sponsored by Knight Foundation and The Open Society Foundations at the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan Thursday.

“We were founded on the [ideal] that government can work ‘for the people’ and ‘by the people’ but only if we make it so,” said the event’s keynote speaker, Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of San Francisco-based Code for America, a Knight grantee.

To be sure, there have been strides in local, state and federal government efforts to make it easier for the average Jane to view and download information on such far-flung subjects as education, elected officials, the environment, health, human services, policing and so forth. But that system of providing information remains piecemeal, varying in quality, content and intent from locale to locale and, sometimes, from agency to agency within states and on the federal level, experts said.

As one sign of how things are, another speaker, John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, said the October 2014 Empire Center’s SeeThroughNY Website Report Card gave the official websites of 85 percent of 500 of New York’s largest counties, cities, towns, villages and school districts an “F” overall for user-functionality and friendliness.

“There are massive inconsistencies and strange oddities,” said Kaehny, also co-chairman of NYC Transparency Working Group.

He noted that New York’s state government has won acclaim for innovations in open access to state data but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was blasted in some quarters for a 2013 order that state employees’ emails be automatically deleted after 90 days.

There’s “an old expectation that the government tells the public what it knows, what it’s doing and what it intends to do,” Kaeny said, citing 1967’s Freedom of Information Act. Ordinary citizens, he added, have long organized and agitated around issues ranging from child care to taxation to traffic safety.

“The challenge for the civic technology movement,” he said, “is how do you engage that public when they may not even know the term ‘open engagement’ or ‘open government’?”

Asked Kathy Conrad, a panelist at the event and associate administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies: “How do you make people aware of what’s out there that’s working? There’s a lot of emphasis on what doesn’t work rather than what works. How do you build trust?”

Public confidence in a presumably open government is generated—or not—partly in response to how well the government delivers information that people want, speakers said.

Jason Bobe, executive director of Harvard Medical School’s Personal Genome Project, said the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, wrongly decided it would not grant access to results from blood and other medical tests for 250,000 veterans who volunteered for the VA’s Million Veteran Study, launched in 2011, of the link between genetics and health. This, even though two-thirds of the veterans surveyed in 2009 said they would be less likely to enroll in the study if they were got given access to its findings.

“If ever there were people who deserve full partnership, veterans are it,” said Bobe.

Results of any government-funded medical research—whether at the VA or private research labs—should be made public, he added. “We want to break down silos.”

Indeed, said Code for America’s Pahlka, former U.S. deputy chief technology officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, that involves persuading open source app developers and software coders that they are part of a larger coterie of open government proponents, including individuals at the grassroots of their communities.

 “There’s a misconception that this work [mainly] is happening because of hipsters and tech people…,”Pahlka said. “But you’ll find there are people like [retiree Rita Legrand who] has been mapping [New Orleans’ neighborhood blight] on tons of paper covering her living room walls and telling people about it. Before we did it, Miss Rita was doing it, and that was the equivalent of a full-time job.”

Members of Code for America’s trained “brigade” helped create Blight Status (now known as Civic Insight, a winner of the 2013 Knight News Challenge on Open Gov) to take the tedious mapping off that elderly activist’s hands so she could, Pahlka added, “talk with her neighbors and advocate for her neighborhood.”

Refining how Freedom of Information Act-protected government data is circulated requires having more conversations about why open access matters—even to those inside government who may fear some kind of fallout from widespread access—and accepting that it will take time to create a system that is relatively error-free, easy to navigate and understood even among older and other Americans not weaned on social media and mobile apps.

“I’m a firm believer,” said Seamus Kraft, executive director and co-founder of OpenGov Foundation, “that everybody can be gotten” and can see how openly accessible government information may benefit them.

During the conference, John Bracken, Knight’s vice president for media innovation, announced $750,000 in new funding for The OpenGov Foundation to help Americans participate more fully in making—and understanding—state and local laws.

“How much have we failed at [ensuring access]?” asked Bracken, moderating one of the panels and probing how sufficiently open access programs and their creators are serving wide swaths of the public: “The single father trying to get his kids to school efficiently … How do you make sure you’re not just thinking about yourself and people you’re in the room with?”

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