My commitment to Honolulu open government

The recent Open Government Pledge on brought a moment of pause for me as I watched all three Mayoral candidates respond with a YES within minutes of each other. I am one of the three candidates and the incumbent Mayor, Peter Carlisle. When I see the other candidates take the Open Government Pledge it makes me wonder what that really means to them. For me, since talking office in October 2010 my administration has lived the Open Government ethos. It’s not a campaign slogan or a bullet point on a city presentation. It is a philosophy I hold dear and have brought people into my administration that can make it happen.

Gordon Bruce, Director of the Dept of Information Technology (DIT) and his Deputy Director Forest Frizzell embody this open philosophy. Bruce was the Director of DIT for six years when I was elected and he laid the groundwork for an IT infrastructure common across the various city departments. I felt it important to keep Bruce on board and have him continue the work he started 6 years ago. He and his Deputy, Forest Frizzell have continued to make more information about the city available through open datasets and collaborative interactions with the public.

In 2011 Honolulu was recognized as the #1 Digital City by the Center for Digital Government and Government Technology. We also build a collaborative environment with our civic minded tech community during a CityCamp in December 2011. The motivation was to encourage an open dialog between the community and City officials on what kinds of issues can the community help solve with access to data. In January 2012 the City sponsored a first ever Civic Hackathon which resulted in several application prototypes. By April 2012 we had our first community generated app called DaBus that provides Bus routes, Bus Stop locations and arrival times based on open Bus APIs. This means you and your family can make reliable transportation plans.

Realizing that opening up data and encouraging collaboration does not happen over night I issued a letter to all my department heads to bring focus to my ongoing commitment to open government. We also launched to showcase the datasets, budgets and date visualizations that we are continually making available. Through our 2012 engagement with Code for America we recently released Adopt a SirenRoute View and Art Finder. All of these websites are showcased on our website where we feature websites and applications made by citizens and City employees alike. Just this past month we conducted the first ever Write-a-thon that brought community together with City subject-matter-experts to help answer citizen generated questions. We took this user-centric approach to bring simplicity and clarity to our community’s frequently asked questions. Essentially, we heard questions from people from in the community about what they wanted the city to answer, and we will provide those answers at

My administration integrating technology with government in an effort to increase transparency and engagement. Others might say YES to this Open Government Pledge but I can demonstrate a track record of performance. As I said in my letter to the departments, “By freely sharing data amongst the citizens of the City and County of Honolulu we hope to develop opportunities for economic development, civic engagement and create a more informed citizen.” That has been and continues to be my pledge.

Peter Carlisle

Big Blue guide to implementing open government

An Open Government Implementation Model: Moving to Increased Public EngagementFinally got around to reading the IBM Center for the Business of Government’s guide to implementing open government and wanted to share highlights. The report, An Open Government Implementation Model: Moving to Increased Public Engagement, was written by professors Young Hoon Kwak (The George Washington University) and Gwanhoo Lee (American University), and their research is based on 5 case studies from within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Below are the phases (with select excerpts), challenges and recommendations identified in the report.

4 stages to implementing open government

Open Government Implementation Model

1. Increasing Data Transparency

As the Pareto Principle (i.e., the 80/20 Rule) suggests, agencies should focus on the top 20 percent of their data that would most benefit the public. To do so, agencies need to put in place an effective governance structure and process to formally identify relevant data, assure its quality, and publish it in a timely manner. Data quality is extremely critical as low quality data may misinform and mislead the public about government work and performance. Once unreliable data is published and shared, it is very difficult to recall the information without causing damage to the agencies’ reputation and to the public’s trust of the agencies.

2. Improving Open Participation

It is important for agencies at this stage to build the capability to respond to the public’s feedback in a timely and consistent manner. This capability requires formal processes, coordination mechanisms, and government employees dedicated to responding to public comments.

3. Enhancing Open Collaboration

The Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule applies not only to Stage One but also to Stages Two and Three. Agencies at Stages One to Three should not try to implement everything; they should only select high- value, high-impact initiatives and focus on strengthening what is working rather than worrying too much about what is not working.

4. Realizing Ubiquitous Engagement

Agencies at Stage Four put an effective governance structure and process in place to enable continuous improvement and innovation of public engagement programs. Furthermore, the agencies, the public, the private sector, and other stakeholders form and nurture a sustainable ecosystem and a virtuous cycle for effective public engagement.


  1. Federal budget cycle and lack of resources
  2. Changing organizational culture
  3. Ensuring the quality of data
  4. Increasing public interest and engagement
  5. Balancing autonomy and control
  6. Ensuring accountability and responsibility in open collaboration
  7. Improving information technology infrastructure
  8. Enhancing privacy and information security
  9. Integrating open government tools and applications
  10. Updating federal policies and rules


  1. Use a phased implementation approach
  2. Use a democratic, bottom-up approach
  3. Consider conducting pilot projects and/or establishing centers for excellence
  4. Secure necessary resources
  5. Prioritize the use of the 80/20 rule
  6. Align open government initiatives with the agency’s goals
  7. Establish governance mechanisms for data sharing
  8. Expand the number of metrics over time
  9. Address cultural barriers
  10. Make public engagement an everyday routine
  11. Institutionalize incentives
  12. Establish enterprise architecture early in the process
  13. Integrate public engagement applications
  14. Develop communities of practice
  15. Develop and communicate a government-wide strategy

Download full report (pdf)

Everything you ever wanted to know about FOIA in 17 short videos

It’s movie night for open government advocates.

Sunshine Week is the Bonnaroo for freedom of government information activists and, to celebrate the festivities and launch of the new, the Justice Department has produced 17 videos to help explain everything you ever wanted to know about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

What is FOIA?

What is

What is on

Who can make a FOIA request?

How do I make a FOIA request?

Where do I send a FOIA request?

Who oversees FOIA?

How are FOIA requests categorized?

What will I receive in response to a FOIA request?

How much does it cost to make a FOIA request?

How long does it take to get an answer to a FOIA request?

How is a FOIA request processed?

Who handles FOIA requests?

What is a consultation?

What is a backlog?

What is an appeal?

What are exemptions?

SF Mayor Newsom introduces legislation to open, centralize all city data

While it’s true that November 2nd will help shape the direction of our cities, states and country, this Thursday is also an important date for how government will look like and operate in the future.

On Thursday in San Francisco City Hall legislators will hear open data legislation introduced by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. The legislation if approved would make all non-confidential city data available to the public in one location — — whether it’s crime reports, bus arrival times or street sweeping schedules.

The law would codify an Open Data Executive Directive introduced by Mayor Newsom last year that asked City departments to provide data to the public and make it a permanent fabric of the City.

A Gov 2.0 Movement is Born

The Federal Government launched Data.Gov in 2009 to open government data to the public. With data from Data.Gov, the public can build applications, websites and mash-ups. San Francisco followed President Obama’s lead and launched a local version, a few months later with more than a hundred datasets.

San Francisco City leaders did not know what the public would do with the data, but believed that the public should have easy access to their data and that the City’s innovative citizens would build programs to bring government into the 21st Century.

Government as a Platform

Just weeks after the launch, new apps and websites started popping up. Developers built programs to help City residents find out when a bus was arriving, where to recycle hazaderous materials and show crime patterns in the city — all from data available on

Since the launch of there have been more than fifty apps created from the City’s data with many more in the works. But, this is just the beginning of Gov 2.0 in San Francisco and hopefully throughout the country. San Francisco legislators have the opportunity to create a whole new generation of civic leaders by making open data official policy in the City by the Bay.

If you support open data sign the online twitter petition and if you live in San Francisco show up for the fun on Thursday.

‘Integrated’ is the new ‘open’ for government

37signals points out Apple’s use of the word ‘integrated’ as opposed to ‘open’ in the ongoing ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ debate (Apple changes words in order to change the debate), and it has important relevance to the open government movement.

Here’s what Apple CEO Steve Jobs said at a recent shareholder meeting:

We think the open versus closed argument is just a smokescreen to try and hide the real issue, which is, “What’s best for the customer – fragmented versus integrated?” We think Android is very, very fragmented, and becoming more fragmented by the day. And as you know, Apple strives for the integrated model so that the user isn’t forced to be the systems integrator. We see tremendous value at having Apple, rather than our users, be the systems integrator. We think this a huge strength of our approach compared to Google’s: when selling the users who want their devices to just work, we believe that integrated will trump fragmented every time.

…So we are very committed to the integrated approach, no matter how many times Google tries to characterize it as “closed.” And we are confident that it will triumph over Google’s fragmented approach, no matter how many times Google tries to characterize it as “open.”

Government is very fragmented (I’ve discussed this here before) and that’s part of the problem with the open government message. We can create more disparate .gov citizen Websites or mobile applications, but what citizens want at the end of the day is integration.

I’ve said before government needs a Chief Marketing Officer, but what it really needs is a Chief Experience Officer.

Government may not be a business, but it should think more like one when it comes to citizen adoption (satisfaction), especially given a recent study that Americans give low marks to Obama transparency effort at agencies. It’s no surprise Facebook has 500 million users or that Apple’s iPhone is so popular and responsible for a large percentage of mobile app downloads. Both are simple platforms that easily integrate everything we need in our daily lives.

Government would do good to excerpt Jobs and make his statement their own:

When selling the citizens who want their government to just work, we believe that integrated will trump fragmented every time.

When government becomes more integrated, citizens will see it as more open.

Transparency is Dead. Long Live Transparency.

As sovereign power passes to the new king upon the death of the old, so do I propose that Ellen Miller’s proclamation that “the drive for data transparency has stalled” [Speech video 0:49 ] yields a pursuit for transparency and open government that is filled with renewed vigor – and new perspectives.

While I agree that enshrining mandates for data transparency and open government principles in law would be the easy way to ensure that they continue in perpetuity, I don’t believe that it’s the best way to forward the movement.

In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that open government will only be accomplished by:

  1. Relegating transparency to an equal position with participation and collaboration.
  2. Building civic responsibility in citizens.
  3. Changing government culture.

Relegating transparency

Transparency has enjoyed a special (and dominant) place in the open government movement such that I feel as though I speak sacrilege when I say it is a false god. Now don’t get me wrong, I love transparency and completely agree that it is a necessity for open government. But transparency alone is not enough.

I say it’s a false god because the real goal is accountability. Transparency is only the lens through which accountability can be determined. Once data is verified, or a transgression is uncovered in the data, what do we do? Well today, we announce it publicly and expect the appropriate agency to respond out of fear and embarrassment.

There has to be a better way!

Enter participation and collaboration. How nice would it be if every time a transgression was discovered, there was a reliable way to not only ensure that the information could get to the people within government that could fix it (participation); but in addition, if the various offices and individuals that were responsible had the ability to work together to actually solve the problem (collaboration).

Sounds kinda like a fairy tale or a children’s story, doesn’t it?

But I believe that is what we’re pursuing – we don’t want a government that we can monitor, we want a government that we can monitor and that’s responsive to our needs and input as citizens.

Building civic responsibility

The Open Government movement has largely been focused on what all these cool new technologies are enabling – and that makes perfect sense. In order to utilize any tool, you have to understand it first; and in order to understand it, you have to play with it. We’ve been doing that.

Now however, we seem to have moved to another plateau. There are a lot of conversations about what the goal of the movement actually is. For me, it’s about a sea change in the relationship between citizens and government in the United States of America. I grew up with no concern for, nor belief in anything the federal government or any representatives said or did. Unfortunately, this is more the norm than the exception today.

I see the Open Government movement as a panacea for the ills of our current government system. The technology creates the possibility of a government like the one taught in our childhood civics classes – the American Dream: all people are equal and live in a true meritocracy that is fairly governed by a system that perfectly balances service provision and minimal interference in the lives of its citizens, enabling each and every one to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in whatever way they choose to define that.

As soon as I realized that this fantasy is driving my involvement in the movement, I also saw a flaw in the fantasy. Where is civic responsibility in this idyllic vision we were raised with? Does the average American want to sign up for selective service, pay taxes, serve on a jury, vote, or even serve as a representative in government? Of course not! We’re all good with the life-liberty-and-pursuit-of-happiness-greatest-country-in-the-world thing, but you can keep the rest of it – thanks, but I’ve got other things to do.

Now, you and I can pretend that this isn’t part of what we do. We work on technology implementation and adoption. We’re revolutionizing government. Right?

Unfortunately, a transparent, participatory, and collaborative government isn’t worth much if no one looks at the data, participates, or collaborates with it! If you haven’t realized this yet, open government is actually going to add more civic responsibility to an already jaded and apathetic citizenry. What are we going to do about that?

Oh. And don’t fool yourself that there will always be watchdog groups that are passionate about specific issues. These groups are merely a proxy for citizens, and their legitimacy rests on being able to engage a broad constituency.

To make a long story short, if you’re working in this space and your strategic plan doesn’t include some means of empowering, impassioning, or educating citizens on why they should care, you’re missing something.

Changing government culture

I simply don’t believe that mandating open government will result in open government. Granted, without President Obama creating the climate in which change can occur, it would be much more difficult than it is currently, but that has already happened. The political cover necessary for drastic change has been laid out.

What is required is the laborious process of changing government culture. I will not claim to be an expert on agency open government plans, but I was looking at NASA‘s the other day and was pleasantly surprised by their three flagship initiatives: Policy, Technology, and Culture. That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? If you can change those three things, you can successfully implement open government internally. I do think there is an order that needs to be followed here however (and you’ll notice that culture gets the limelight):

  1. Technology needs to be understood. I’m not going to talk much about this because this is mostly what we’ve all been doing so far. Nonetheless, technology creates opportunities and in order to leverage them, you need to understand how it works and what it’s capable of.
  2. Culture needs to change. The first step is figuring out what the change is that you’re trying to bring to fruition (I think the Open Government movement’s current introspection that I referenced in the previous section is a form of this). In keeping with the principles of the movement, it’s probably good to do this in a way that is transparent, participatory, and collaborative – with the civil servants that will be directly affected as well as all stakeholders, be they at other agencies, organizations, or actual citizens. There is no better way to lead than by example. The exciting part of this is that the process itself will also set the change in motion. (for more detailed cultural change hints, Lovisa Williams recently wrote a great post about effective culture change within an agency called The Elephant of Change).
  3. Policies will need to change to support the new technologies and culture. That is their job after all – to provide a structure that produces reliably consistent results. I would encourage policy changes to be liberal when providing more freedoms and very conservative when creating restrictions. This is a time for trial and error, and (where appropriate) the mantra of ‘fail early, fail often’ will actually help to shorten the transition period. At that point, it will be possible to create intelligent policies that are crafted not only with the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, but also with all of the benefits that the open government movement will have brought to government.

In my estimation then, the key to successful Open Government implementation is a focus on changing the culture of your agency or department or office to be transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Exactly what that means in your specific case is where the complexity lies, and most likely you’ll get it at least partly wrong the first couple of times you try to figure it out. It doesn’t matter – mitigate the risks, fail where you can afford to, and move on. This is how transitions work, and if we are proactive about our intentions, maybe we can build that idyllic country that we grew up believing in – although with responsible and engaged citizens that make it even better and ensure its longevity!

Is open government closing?

Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Ellen Miller said what’s been on many minds of late during her ‘Open Government Scorecard’ speech at Gov 2.0 Summit today. In a nutshell, “the drive for transparency appears stalled,” she said. Miller highlights the lack of data quality on and and gives an overview of Sunlight Foundation’s new Website,, a scorecard for data accuracy on

Here’s the full text of her speech and a few strong quotables:

We are beginning to worry that the Administration is more interested in style than substance.

If we settle for a superficial kind of approach, Gov 2.0 will be remembered as a failure. Government has learned to say the right things — now we need government to actually get serious about technology and transparency.

Our job is to hold the Administration’s feet to the fire – bureaucrats aren’t going to act just because someone asks nicely. Government isn’t going to change how and when it makes data available – even when a few good people on the inside want it to – because of a directive.

It’s not going to happen until laws are changed, or Executive Orders are issued, or until enforcers are given real power and the President himself makes it a priority.

Video of speech:

O’Reilly Media Washington correspondent Alex Howard interviews Miller at Gov 2.0 Summit:

Accountability, better services and economic opportunity

The promise of government accountability, better government services, and new economic opportunity is why we do what we do.

At the Sunlight Foundation, we spend each day striving to make government more open and transparent by ensuring government data is easily accessible to the public online and in real-time. Around the country there are countless others trying to do the same.

Between the nonprofit and advocacy community working on this issue, the consultancies and companies, and the government itself, there is a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources being devoted to our cause. In the midst of our diligence, though, the community of open government advocates rarely stops to communicate exactly why we do what we do to the public – and why it’s so critical that we succeed in our mission.

OpenGovies need to remember to continuously break things down for those outside our echo chamber. When doing so, it’s useful to have a benchmark, and the one I use is, “Would what I’m saying or writing make my family in Middle Tennessee care enough to act?”

After a lot of trial and error, in big and small towns across the country, I think we can boil down the need for our work this way…

An open government built on open data is worth fighting for because, through it, we will achieve three exceptionally valuable results for society: Accountability, Better Services and Economic Opportunity.

Here’s what we mean.

1) Transparency and Accountability

Online, real-time data makes it possible for any citizen to understand what’s (actually) going on with government at any time from anywhere. And when they know, citizens can act.

Applications which make it easy to see how tax dollars are spent, how our elected officials are being influenced, or how legislation that citizens can weigh in on are moving through Congress, can all be built on open government data. This transparency and public engagement made possible through open government data is a game changer for the media and for citizens’ ability to hold our government accountable at every level. Imagine an electorate being able to make informed decisions based on data rather than punditry and political spin…

In short, open, transparent, and accountable is the way participatory democracy was always supposed to be. And for perhaps the first time ever, we have affordable, ubiquitous technology today which can make it truly possible within a generation. Let’s create something that would make our Founding Fathers drool.

2) Better Government Service

Love them, hate them or indifferent, the services that government provide touch every citizen’s life every day. From schools to roads to health clinics to electricity grids to defense, we as citizens have invested in (and trusted) government with a very large portion of our livelihoods.

Open government data will allow for citizens and government alike to more easily see what’s working and what’s not by the numbers. Through open government, and the applications it allows for, we’ll ensure that tax dollars are more wisely spent and services more effectively and efficiently provided.

Need an example? Take a moment on SeeClickFix and report that pesky pothole or downed road sign in your neighborhood.

3) (Tremendous) Economic Opportunity

Perhaps the greatest by-product of creating a more transparent, accountable government through freely available open government data, is that in so doing, we will simultaneously create one of the most vast opportunities for new enterprise in recent history.

The Weather Channel is a $3.5 billion company built on data freely available from the NOAA. Companies like Garmin, or companies that produce smart phones, running watches or any of a hundred other devices that have geo-locational ability are similarly all profiting tremendously from the open government data in the Global Positioning System (GPS). In fact, one could argue (as Gov 2.0 evangelist Tim O’Reilly has done) that Ronald Reagan is the father of social network phenom FourSquare by making GPS data available to the public over twenty-five years ago.

What government data set will create the next new highly valuable and profitable business? Anil Dash, the founder and executive director of the new Expert Labs, says the trove of new health data recently released by the Department of Health and Human Services. I would agree.

When it comes to the opportunity with open government data, the sky is the limit. Were I a gambling man, I’d put money down that government would produce more jobs in the next 10 years by opening it’s data (an iniatiative that is ultimately a cost-saver), than through the $787 bn stimulus package it passed last year.

The only tricky part is that government doesn’t inherently want to get to where we need them to go. Government won’t become more transparent and accountable by opening its data on its own – and nor will it provide better services or create the kind of opportunity that the OpenGov community can already envision.

We’re going to have to demand it of them. And that’s what we’re doing through the Public=Online Campaign this year. We hope you’ll join us. shines light on campaign contributions from last 20 years

Sunlight Foundation has launched TransparencyData, a new Website that lets users easily access the past 20 years of federal and state campaign contributions all in one place. The site merges data from OpenSecrets, and lobbying information from the Senate Office of Public Records.

Sunlight Labs Director Clay Johnson:

“This tool is focused on giving people bulk access to data. Instead of generating complex visualizations, and a slick user interface, we’ve focused on making it easy to query this large dataset, and walk away with a spreadsheet of the data you need. The ultimate output of this tool isn’t an HTML table, but a CSV file so you can take the data and do the research you need to do … Look for government contracting, earmarks, and congressional biographical data coming shortly.”

Video overview:

More from Sunlight:

Gov 2.0 guide to the Public Online Information Act (POIA)

The Public Online Information Act (POIA) of 2010, H.R.4858, was introduced on March 13 by Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) to put public information online in user-friendly formats in a timely fashion. The bill applies to Executive Branch agencies and is essentially a proactive approach to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act). Sunlight Foundation has launched Public=Online, a grassroots campaign to gain support for the legislation.


To establish an advisory committee to issue nonbinding government-wide guidelines on making public information available on the Internet, to require publicly available Government information held by the executive branch to be made available on the Internet, to express the sense of Congress that publicly available information held by the legislative and judicial branches should be available on the Internet, and for other purposes.

Video intro to POIA:

Press conference with Rep. Israel, Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Ellen Miller and Personal Democracy Forum Founder Andrew Rasiej announcing the bill:

Israel and Miller discuss POIA on MSNBC: