As planning for the next OpenGovWest gets underway, I talked with open government veteran Sarah Schacht last week about the work she’s doing around the event, as well as her role as executive director and founder of Knowledge As Power. Schacht shares her thoughts on her work, organizing events at the local level, what government technology issues we should be paying attention to and advice to government.
What are you working on these days?
There’s several different projects running concurrently at Knowledge As Power. These include: Expanding our free legislation tracking & civic engagement tool, KAPcitizen to cover the Seattle City Council and other states and local governments. Releasing our creative-commons licensed civics curriculum called “Act & Impact” to 8th to 12th grade teachers for testing, use, and revision. With a grant from Seattle, we’re launching a civics skills building program in Q2. Advisory work with governments, helping them modernize their legislative and document information systems through standards adoption. We’re running low-cost usability studies for government websites, like the one we did for Seattle.gov. And, there’s Open Gov West, our Western North America open government conference May 13th & 14th in Portland, Oregon. And, I’m starting work on a book about the underlying challenges to opening our governments.
Talk a little more about the importance of Open Gov West and the regional focus?
Open Gov West (OGW) was my idea to get governments, technologists, and civic stakeholders talking about the common challenges they had in opening their governments. Even now, I think a lot of governments feel like the IT or transparency issues they have are their unique problem. When these problems are widespread. You’re not the only government with no IT training budget, so your skills stagnate. You’re not the only government who is locked into some tool from 1998 for getting your Word documents online in some awful format. And those governments you think are all high tech? Well, those were hard-fought battles to modernize and the people inside those governments still don’t feel like they achieved what they set out to do. They didn’t have a special sauce, they just worked hard.
OGW is designed to highlight the stories, experience, and research of people doing the hard work of opening government, modernizing their tools, and engaging their citizens effectively. It’s not about flashy new technology trends. Frankly, the technology trend that needs to take hold is sharing, experimenting, and asking for help. People seem to like OGW events, we’ve had nearly 1,000 attendees across our three conferences in the last year and our local meetups.
So, OGW is the place to get great ideas, learn from others, build relationships, and participate in collaborative projects. It’s also a place you can trust that people who are speaking are there because we thought they had something valuable to say, not because they’re friends or because they sponsored.
What are the 3 most important open government / government technology issues we should be paying attention to?
- Technology – Standardization. Governments are not precious snowflakes that will melt under adhering to shared standards. However, they are at greater risk of “melting” during an emergency situation, rapid technology changes, and generational change.
- Technology – Open document standards. It is critical that North American governments familiarize themselves with international, open, free standards for formatting their documents in XML & RDF. They’re called Akoma Ntoso and Dublin Core, and I trained on them in Italy this past fall. The proprietary, non-machine-readable formats of our current documents are a huge concern in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Why? Because they believe they won’t be machine-readable in 30 to 50 years. Imagine that. We could lose legislative records our judiciary depends on, and that’s just one branch of government that would be impacted.
- Open Government – If anything, public disclosure laws, even a few portions of the US constitution, mandate making documents and information publicly available. In the past, “available” was defined by the technology you had to share information. Perhaps that was a hardcopy journal. Or printed documents. Or microfiche. Or once-a-week updates in html. But there is now the capacity to instantly share, to do so with respect to privacy, and to make your data.gov sites or web service repositories for documents of all sorts. So, I think we’ll see a day where courts and citizens question the need to request anything. Governments aren’t preparing for that day, and I think they need to.
What advice do you have for government to address these?
There’s no denying that these are tough times in government. But, to borrow a folksy phrase, don’t eat your seed corn. Your IT teams, and modernizing your technology, are your seed corn. You want to do more with less? Great, invest in the skills and technology of your IT departments.
The UK has a two year plan promoted by Martha Lane Fox and 10 Downing to move a majority of citizen interactions with government online by 2012. They’re one of the few governments who have quantified the potential cost-savings in moving citizen interactions with government, online. With moving just one interaction per week online, the UK estimates that’s a savings of £1 billion pounds per year. The currency conversion on that is $1,614,800,000 US. If we were to say that this converted straight across to per-citizen savings, that’s approximately $26.11 in savings, per citizen, per year. Around eight billion dollars in savings a year, nationally. For a city like Seattle, that could be $14,711,554. What would your government be able to do with that level of savings? How could you serve your citizens better with that extra money?
The problem is, US governments aren’t in a position right now to leverage the online interactions their citizens are ready for. Their underlying processes, staff culture, and technology aren’t designed to engage in a data-driven, machine-readable system. Instead of investing in modernizing your document and database systems in open, standardized ways, governments are slashing IT training budgets, cutting their IT staff, delaying improvements, or investing in old technology to realize relatively small cost-savings.
If you’re eating your seed corn, put a stop to it and start planting your crops.