Funding open government

The Knight Foundation recently announced it is launching a news challenge beginning February 12 that will allocate $5 million in funding to innovative open government projects.

As part of the campaign building up to the initiative, Anil Dash wrote a great post on “lessons from open government so far,” with great insight everyone in the community should read.

Inspired by his and Knight Foundation director John Bracken’s post announcing the challenge, here are my own thoughts related to funding open government through the lens of, as Anil says, “the normal growing pains of a passionate group of people who are still so often figuring out the basics of what works.”

Build for government, not developers

To Anil’s point, “maybe our biggest civic issues can’t be addressed by apps that only run on costly, cutting-edge smartphones.”

He’s absolutely right.

Bracken writes the objective is to fund projects “working to make it easier for citizens to engage with government,” but there needs to be a slight, but important, tweak.

The overwhelming funding focus has been on what developers can build for themselves or other citizens rather than what they can build for government. While it’s much more interesting to build beautiful apps, there are fundamental tools government needs that can be provided at much lower costs than the market offers, mainly because of lack of awareness and inability to get started.

From my experience in talking and working with government managers, the fundamental problem isn’t citizen engagement. They’re more than willing to engage (One of my favorite stories is explaining how SeeClickFix worked and one city manager excitedly said, “You mean, citizens will help us prioritize what they want us to do?”).

The challenge government, especially local government, has is access to resources and new technology that leapfrog their outdated systems and makes it easier for them to perform day-to-day operations.

For example, a project I’ve been working on for a while now is a WordPress theme for government. There’s nothing special about the theme. In fact, by request of the three local governments I’m working with, it’s become embarrassingly simple. In the coming weeks or months, I’ll open source this for other cities to leverage, but there is a huge digital divide in understanding how to execute on getting a basic website up and running without having to pay tens of thousands of dollars they don’t have. All three government have zero dollars budgeted for websites, but because WordPress is a free content management system and some civic nut wants to help them, they’re emailing me at night on the weekends with questions (and generally excited about what they’re learning).

What I’ve discovered from my own quiet “civic hacking” experience is that the website is the fundamental aspect to open government. The three cities I’m working with will soon launch open source, no-cost content management system with machine-readable, XML-based feeds that start to solve many of the fundamental issues around data and transparency.

The rub is that building websites for government is neat, but it isn’t sexy (it can actually be pretty tedious – more on that in another post). In the past, I’ve been challenged talking with open government funders about the importance of this. Honestly, I can’t tell if they don’t get the technology or are just infatuated with it from a theoretical perspective or there’s just an embedded fascination with apps.

Open government funding needs to solve the fundamental, day-to-day technology issues facing government, many of which are trivial to those reading this, but are essential in better enabling core aspects of the movement (see also CKAN).

Fund disruptive technologies that will help government do its job better and more efficient.

Specifically, help solve local government’s digital divide.

Nurture community

One of my open government heroes is CityCamp founder and now Code for America Brigade leader Kevin Curry who, for the past few years, has dedicated himself to bringing developers together locally to focus on civic-oriented work.

A few weeks ago, I sat in on an OpenOakland CfA Brigade gathering where 15 people in an Oakland City Hall meeting room quietly worked on projects, designing, writing and coding away. They do this WEEKLY and are slowly building out an ecosystem of products to better serve the city, and in some cases, inspiring the city to follow suit. A city representative attended the meeting, and does so regularly, gave updates and was familiar and genuinely engaged with the group.

The monthly food and beverage stipend given to OpenOakland is just one simple way to make it easier for others to commit to connecting (as does having access to space).

In October, I created CivicMeet and open sourced the concept to anyone who wants to start one where they live. The idea is to establish a regular meetup that connects government and private sector innovators in an informal setting. Since it launched, there have been CivicMeets in San Francisco, Sacramento, Vancouver, Palo Alto (others are coming). This quick and loose adoption to me indicates there’s a market need for community building.

Efforts like CityCamp, CfA Brigade and CivicMeet are essential and fundamental to maintaining an organic, sustainable open government ecosystem. Enable local organizers to bring people together to discuss and work on solving problems. It’s an opportunity for both citizens and government to collaborate in a non-threatening and productive environment.

Fund the community.

Build measurables beyond the hype

There’s a hype-cycle mentality about open government initiatives, whether it’s focused on a new innovation office, a new C-level role, data platform or application or if Mashable or TechCrunch were there to write about it.

I’m not sure if it’s the need to meet press clipping numbers and maintain visibility or there’s just a lack of understanding in developing a longer-term institutional strategy of culture and technology change within government.

Some of this is, of course, is to be expected. There’s a political and public relations aspect to much of open government that feeds into the politician’s need to show progress, or the appearance of, on this front. My fear is that this is the primary driver in many cases. If so, we must accept that, but it also must come with deliverables and measured outcomes.

Open government is a marathon, not a sprint. Move the measurables beyond the hype.

Fund proactively

Disrupt your funding model.

There’s a passive, “come to us” mentality around foundation giving that resembles the funding approach of venture capitalists. My personal experience in the long past discussing ideas with some have been that they know little about the people and work being done beyond the tiny bubble of top-tier open government leaders and even less so about fundamental technologies, beyond an open data or crowdsourcing application, that drive government.

My open government challenge to Knight is to survey the community for unrealized opportunities and invest in them proactively. While I love the idea of crowdsourced discussions and submissions, it’s a passive approach to accelerating efforts that are evolving organically. If you sense opportunity or momentum, reach out and explore funding possibilities.

Fund proactively.

As Knight and other foundations, and even investors, begin funding open government initiatives, especially as the movement is gaining momentum, my hope is that it does so with the above in mind.

Five millions dollars can go a long way.

I commend Knight and others for funding this type of work. There are many passionate people ready to do great work for a great cause and it wouldn’t be possible without key financial contributions to a nascent movement powered by tons of idealism.

I’ll echo Anil’s sentiments: “I don’t mean to sound cynical or jaded; Indeed, I’m more excited about the potential of civic technology and open government than I’ve ever been.”

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh and a strategy consultant for CivicActions and NuCivic. He can be reached at luke@govfresh.com.

4 Responses

  1. KeithWilliams

    Wonderful post that has shifted my mindset slightly on this. I understand the idea of proactive funding but I think to do that would leave out many talented people who are not currently connected to the open government movement. People who have a fresh and innovative perspectives that could raise the game in this area. People who have great ideas formed in and for different arenas that could work well with open government needs.

    Plus, a lot of the problem stems from the lack of knowledge of many developers of not knowing what governments and citizens actually need. Sure I understand that there are outdated systems that need a reboot. However, for many people interested in helping the cause of open government, it’s simply of getting a better understanding of what services are available, what are the challenges that need solving and how best to build things that help.

  2. Luke Fretwell

    Hi Keith,

    Agree there needs to be opportunities for those not as connected to get visibility and support for their ideas. My proactive approach is an attempt to address those that may not feel comfortable reaching out for support, whether well-connected or not.

    Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

    Luke

  3. Anon

    One consideration/gripe, not entirely off (or on)¬†topic –
    A feature request we made to a (proprietary)¬†government website service vendor met with the response “you’re not our client, get our client to ask for this feature,” which was off-putting given that government exists to serve us, and the website service was, again, there purportedly to serve us.

    (I regret to say I let the matter drop, so I bear as much responsibility as anyone, at this point.)

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