Author: Rob Pinkerton

Will you read the Open Government Memo on an iPad?

I love the Open Government Memo, I think it represents some of the most thoughtful and seminal policy strategy I’ve seen in 20 years in government. I don’t know who actually wrote it for the President, but I think that person should get a medal. And whoever reads it and doesn’t find inspiration for technology’s potential role towards advancing the ideals of our democracy is simply missing out.

At Adobe, we have been lauded and criticized for our role in enabling open government. When we have been criticized we listen and learn so we can improve our business strategy to support the goals of open government. (If you don’t believe me, look to our current collaboration on Design for America with the Sunlight Foundation and PDF best practices forum on GovLoop as evidence of this commitment.) But regardless of your view of Adobe technologies, you will be hard pressed to find an Adobe decision maker who hasn’t internalized the Open Government Memo, felt inspired by it and willing to support its goals.

Conversely, I don’t think the decision makers at Apple have internalized it, because Apple’s recent actions reflect no understanding of Open Government’s true possibilities or principals. I still find it hard to believe that a company that founded one of the most generative platforms in the PC era (the Apple II – which shaped an innovative spirit that enabled the Internet era to follow) could possibly work so hard to close down the openness of the Internet. Yet that is exactly what the iPad and iPhone strategy does – a strategy that contradicts the President’s Open Government goals and undermines Internet era innovation. If you are not sure what I’m talking about, I’d suggest you read the introduction to Jonathan Zitrane’s Book, the Future of the Internet, and How to Stop It, which was written before the Open Government Memo was published.

Of course, if you’ve followed the recent news, you know Apple is at odds with the broader developer community. So you can color my point of view as you wish, but I’d still ask you to consider whether you think that Apple’s strategy contradicts the principals of open government along the three main pillars of transparency, participation and collaboration. Here is my argument:

  • Development for the App Store is not transparent. The Open Government Memo “promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.” But if government wants to use the App store to do this, they’ll have to acquiesce to publishing restrictions, development guidelines and performance metrics that are defined by a closed process dictated solely by Apple. Open government developers will not find transparency at the App store. In fact, the development process is so closed that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) actually obtained the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement by using a FOIA request to a Federal agency! (I’ll save EFF an additional FOIA request, they can find Adobe’s license agreements here).
  • The iPhone and iPad are not participatory: The Open Government Memo encourages participation through “public engagement (that) enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions.” Mobile devices are a great new platform to enable this type of participation. You can get this kind of information on your iPhone from the White House iPhone application for example. But if you are one of the 298 million Americans who choose to use a different mobile platform, you don’t get the same access. Download is limited to Apple controlled devices. If you want non-Apple users to participate with a similar application (not mobile browsing), start from scratch, and remember those ongoing extra development costs come from the taxpayer.
  • Apple is not collaborating for mobile platform openness. The Open Government Memo charges government with collaborating across agencies, private sector and non-profits to innovate. What a great way to evolve formative ideas! If you want to see what collaborative mobile application development looks like check out the Open Screen Project (OSP) where dozens of mobile technology companies like Google, RIM, Intel, Motorola, and Verizon Wireless are working to provide a consistent environment for open web browsing and standalone applications. OSP includes 19 of the top 20 major mobile manufacturers – Apple chose not to collaborate. They are first to the mobile app market, and it appears that their vision for the future of mobile doesn’t include anyone else.

Six months ago, when government executives held up iPhone apps as examples of open government I cheered because the elegant and intuitive design of these devices helped people understand the possibilities of open government. But now I cringe because they are self limiting examples of a closed world where only the most fortunate have access. Open government strives to engage more people, but the government is not going to buy everyone a standard issue piece of proprietary hardware to do so. And it is unrealistic to expect that when the government builds one good application that they then have to expend the resources to rebuild it for every other mobile platform. In the Internet age, cross-platform application development is good for innovation, good for job creation, good for government and the future of our country. Innovating openness requires all of us to think along the lines of President Obama’s memorandum.

So I return to the question of my post – will you read the Open Government Memo on an iPad? Of course you can, but if you do I hope you will recognize the irony in doing so.

If you’d like an extra dose of irony for your re-read of the Open Government Memo on your iPad, please read it via a cross platform technology that is managed by the International Standards Organization, was invented by an American technology company, and spurred years of innovation – you can do so here in PDF . (And before you offer your comments juxtaposing the differences between PDF and Flash on this point, please consider Adobe’s record and philosophy on evolving open technology, which you can learn more about by clicking here)

Does Congress care about open government?

I was honored this week to be invited to testify before the Senate Government Affairs Sub Committee hearing entitled, “Removing the Shroud of Secrecy: Making Government More Transparent and Accountable“. A first panel of government leaders including Vivek Kundra, Aneesh Chopra and US Archivist David Ferriero were invited to discuss progress on Open Government. A second panel of industry and advocacy experts including representatives from the Sunlight Foundation, the National Security Archive and Meritalk Online (and Adobe) were also invited, although our testimony was cut short by procedural maneuvers relevant to the health care debate occurring on the Senate Floor. For the two and half hours we were there, Senators Carper and Coburn participated fully. The hearing may be rescheduled to complete the witness testimony, but in the interim, two things were very clear to me: we have come a long way in recent years but the Open Government movement is still missing critical agents of change in government.

My how things have changed

I worked in the Senate from 1995-99 and got my first real introduction to the intersection of technology and government during the Microsoft anti-trust oversight hearing in March, 1998. That hearing was a major Washington spectacle including the CEOs of the major tech titans of the time. And my distinct memory was the anxiety that Senators and staff had about publicly discussing technology – which most Senators at the time didn’t use or particularly understand. The hearing itself questioned whether Microsoft violated anti-trust law by bundling its IE browser on the Windows desktop. And I remember explaining to my 96 year-old boss that the words ‘Browser’ and ‘Bundling’ were actually words despite the fact that his copy of Webster’s failed to corroborate my claim. And that the word ‘Desktop’ was actually a homonym and not a physical part of furniture. I have no doubt that the Senate staffers preparing for this week’s hearing had very different discussions with their Senators who were clearly knowledgeable and passionate on the promise that technology brings to government. This may seem like an obvious observation – of course this value is clear 12 years later. But while measuring the distance of how far we have come is positive and, perhaps, humorous, the distance we have to go is more daunting. Which leads to my second observation that we need to get Congress more involved in Open Government.

Vision meets the Law

The most interesting and frictional piece of the hearing came from Senator Coburn who wanted to know when Vivek and Aneesh planned to comply with the Federal Funding and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFTA) authored by Coburn and then-Senator Obama. Coburn applauded the Administration’s open government efforts, but questioned why so many initiatives had been undertaken by executive order when the one transparency law that was a fully codified law on the books had been ignored. He claimed we would be much further along if Vivek and Aneesh put their efforts towards than towards the OGD and evangelism and “everything else.” He was referring specifically to OMB’s responsibility to publish a report to Congress on Federal sub-award and sub-contract spending. But generally he was referring to the very basic constitutional principal that the law of the land is established by Congress, not the Executive branch. And if we want to progress through openness and technology, we should focus on the Law because agencies and citizens have to follow it. It’s a remarkably simple commentary but one that doesn’t seem to have much energy in the Open Government movement. (Although I would love to know if I’m missing something). Most of the efforts have been about vision and possibility (marketing) or about data propagation (developer enablement). But I have not seen much in the way of true institutional incentive change – funding, organizational restructuring, program creation and requirements and economic incentives – the things that really do mean ‘change.’ Bills that become laws. Take a look at the Healthcare debate and ask yourself ‘when does change occur?’ It’s when Congress passes legislation. Now you may counter my comment with my own post – Sen. Coburn says himself the one transparency law – FFTA – is not enacting change. But he furthered that sentiment by inviting Vivek back every month to discuss the issue until he gets a suitable answer. A polite reminder of the inherent checks and balances in our system required to make change happen.

Congress is the most powerful branch of government in my opinion – but at least equally as powerful as the Executive branch- yet there is not the same level of energy coming from Capitol Hill equivalent to what is coming from the Administration. Which will make it hard for Open Government to progress at the rate we’d like to see it progress. I think this is something that needs to change, and I’m interested in your thoughts to who on Capitol Hill might feel that way as well.

You can read a transcript of my testimony here (pdf).

Video thoughts:

Technology should be viewed as a vehicle rather than a destination

I was recently interviewed on Federal News Radio on their In-Depth with Francis Rose program, where I had the opportunity to discuss open government. We discussed the idea that technology should be viewed as a “vehicle” rather than a “destination” and that the real role of technology in open government is that of an enabler of mission success.

I’m finding more and more that these conversations are evolving beyond discussions about government data publication to a focus on how technology, information and behavior can open up government and make it more effective for people who are at risk or in need.




Why is the Grateful Dead like USSOUTHCOM when it comes to open government?

Despite contemporary wisdom that traditional journalism is in decline, the 150+ year-old publication known as The Atlantic hasn’t lost its edge for writing substantive and thoughtful news commentary. I love this month’s article, Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead, where Joshua Green argues that the Grateful Dead pioneered Internet business models before there was an Internet.

If you are interested in understanding how open and collaborative communities form across distances, look to the legions of Deadheads who connected, followed and enabled one of the most culturally and financially successful bands in history. The Grateful Dead gave their music away for free and it elevated demand, innovation and participation.

This same phenomenon is what the Obama Administration is striving for with open government – give the data away freely and allow innovation and participation to follow.

What I liked best about the Grateful Dead analogy and its application to open government is the concept of ‘strategic improvisation.’ The Dead thrived and survived for decades by constantly improvising on their strategy, which they could do because their openness enabled a unique flexibility. They were responsive to their fans and changing business conditions in the same way we hope government can be responsive to citizens and changing agency mission conditions. Strategic improvisation is a critical concept to embrace. The Grateful Dead contradicted industry practice and forfeited major revenue streams by allowing their loyal fan base to tape live performances, but it generated even greater success through community adoption.

So what does this have to do with the U.S. Military’s Southern Command? USSOUTHCOM certainly doesn’t come to mind when thinking about the Grateful Dead or open government … or disaster relief for that matter. But recently United States Southern Command contradicted strict interpretation of mission strategy when it decided to re-purpose its cloud based Defense Connect Online system as a local emergency response platform within hours after the Haiti earthquake. USSOUTHCOM’s collaborative and adaptive response harnessed critical resources and expertise to the region more quickly than anyone thought possible.

Aneesh Chopra described the inspirational response as “a function of commonwealth that is the foundation of open government.” He made these remarks during his keynote at the State of the Union for Technology event Tuesday, coincidentally hosted by the Atlantic (and not so coincidentally sponsored by Adobe). Aneesh did not use the term strategic improvisation or cite the Grateful Dead, but the significance of the behavior is the same. USSOUTHCOM is not trained for earthquake response, they provide force protection and logistics support in the southern region of the globe. But the community and technology they have developed to support their core mission made them well suited to adapt to the changing mission requirements of the region.

When government agencies begin to view their community as an improvisational amplifier of their mission strategy, great things can happen. I doubt USSOUTHCOM or Chopra would expect to find parity with the Grateful Dead, but if the traditionally conservative management consultants are finding value there, then why not? To borrow from the title of the Grateful Dead’s popular album, open government through strategic improvisation could become an American Beauty.

You can read more about Defense Connect Online here. I recorded a brief video of my thoughts on Chopra’s keynote at the Atlantic event here: