Building a scalable open government process

Much of the energy and effort around open government to date has literally been hacked together or leans towards a reactive, transparency watchdog approach to making government more extroverted.

This is understandable. Any new growth area has its experimental phase and, in order to discover what works, you must try everything. After two years of open government (yes, others have been doing this much longer), we’re at a point where we’ve tried a number of tricks, and it’s time to assess what works and what doesn’t.

We’ve reached the point in the movement where hacking for hacking’s sake and professional finger-pointing has reached its capacity to affect sustainable change in government. Both of these aspects have their merits (the former much more so than the latter), but it’s time to think critically about what effort is being put forward, start assessing the return on investment and institute proactive processes for a scalable approach to open government.

It’s now time to be big picture proactive and results-oriented.

When Brian Purchia and I came up with the idea for SFOpen 2011, a San Francisco mayoral candidates forum focused on open government issues, we both agreed on the importance of building on something much bigger than one event. We wanted to build a process that educated and assisted the San Francisco mayoral candidates to the fundamentals of open government.

For starters, as part of SFOpen, we created an Open Government Pledge for the candidates. While it’s not perfect and doesn’t address specific deliverables, it’s the beginning of what should be a fairly straightforward process for every elected official.

As we’ve progressed with the planning, we realize there are a number of other items that can be compiled into an “Open Government Toolkit” that begins with the candidate and follows him/her through the election and into office. Now we’ve started thinking about what a comprehensive kit should include and how to best go about building this.

For starters, here are some ideas:

  • Candidate Open Government Pledge
  • Candidate Open Government Report Card
  • City Open Government Directive
  • City Open Source Procurement Policy
  • City Open Data Implementation Guide
  • City OpenAPI Guide
  • Civic App Contest Guide

So, what does an open government process and toolkit look like to you? As we begin to build this out, we’re looking for ideas on how we can move this forward and how others would like to help create it. Please share your thoughts and feedback in the comments.

Open government can scale. We just need to think big picture, work together and help make it easier for elected officials and public servants to execute on.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh, co-founder/CEO of ProudCity and co-host of the podcast, The Government We Need. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at

5 Responses

  1. Brian Purchia

    Great post, Luke. Right on — we’re looking for candidates and elected
    officials to show their imagination — think big picture when it comes
    to open gov and civic participation.

  2. I recently detailed the process I went through as a community member setting up a low cost public API populated with raw government data:

    I’d encourage more developers to get involved with local data! 

  3. Luke Fretwell


    Would love to see this added to the toolkit. Please let me know if you’re interested in contributing this.


  4. Okay, let’s see if I can use the “tool-kit” metaphor to explain a key tool that most people have been ignoring (and that I have been trying to explain for the past two years).

    A tape-measure. 

    Yes, it is certainly more fun to just start banging nails and sawing wood.  But, for those of you who do not actually own a toolkit, a tape-measure is the thing that a person uses to measure the hole in the wall (or whatever) that needs fixing.  This is what should happen BEFORE nail-banging and wood-sawing!

    See those lines on the tape-measure?  Those are inches and feet.  They are called “units of measurement” that are the standards that were accepted by everyone (wait for it) before you even thought of picking up a hammer or a saw.

    Luke:  Yes, people have been trying all sorts of things to see “what works” (I chalk it up to youthful exuberance).  But guess what?  They forgot to start off with an accepted way to measure the relative success of one approach or another.  “Push-all-the-buttons-and-see-what-happens” is the approach most favored by impetuous teenagers (and, too often, adults as well).

    For OpenGov over the past two years, we did not stop to agree on a baseline to tell us where we were starting from.  It was like someone trying all kinds of diets and, oh wait a minute (duh), they forgot to figure out a method (or even the units) for weighing themselves in the beginning (or evern along the way).

    Anyone interested in a serious and, yes, prolonged discussion (i.e., not just as comments to a single blog-post) can join the new email-group that I set up for TransparencyCampDC earlier this month.  Warning: Don’t expect to go there and find “The Answer”; this is about our collaborating for one.

    Stephen Buckley

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