Development Seed

The openwashing of

Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Perhaps the old saw “lipstick on a pig” is the best description for the information technology fiasco that was on October 1, 2013.

A project hyped in open government circles for its innovative content delivery architecture and use of open source frameworks became almost unusable for the first week of the launch, as the beautiful website failed more often than not when clicking through to the “Log in” link.

Or maybe the best way to describe the rollout of the site is “openwashing.”

Behind a thin veneer of Jekyll, a simple yet-elegant GitHub repository and a hot boutique consulting firm, was upon launch a bloated and badly designed project reportedly led by a giant government contractor.

In March, Development Seed, the brilliant DC team behind MapBox and active on projects such as the Google Election Center, was touting the initial site as “completely new and open source.”

“We’re going to build it and then buy insurance through it,” the firm’s co-founder said in a June profile of the project. Development Seed reposted parts of that profile on its blog, including a key quote from Bryan Sivak, the Health and Human Services chief technology officer:

“The goal is get people enrolled. A step to that goal is to build a health insurance marketplace. It is so much better to build it in a way that’s open, transparent and enables updates.”

But last week, as angry reports flooded out about folks unable to navigate the sign-in and marketplace features of, HHS and its subagency, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, weren’t commenting on what went wrong. On Friday, Reuters reported that CGI, a sprawling professional services contractor out of Canada that delivers everything from payroll setup to websites and turns up in $1.15 billion in contracts with a simple search on, was responsible for the site.

Greenwashing describes misleading and deceptive practices meant to “green up” corporations and their business practices to gain public approval. Green PR has gained popularity along with public support for the environment, so I guess it’s to the open government movement’s credit that we regularly see openwashing at all levels of government (read here for a thorough critique of openwashing in government).

Openwashing in government is spin that deceptively promotes IT projects and policies as “transparent” and “innovative” when actual practices and spending are not.

It’s openwashing when President Obama claims his is the “most transparent administration in history” while ushering in an era of ubiquitous government-sponsored digital spying on private citizens and regularly rejecting Freedom of Information Act requests.

It’s openwashing when the mayor of San Francisco gives large tax breaks to the portfolio companies of one of his biggest campaign backers and calls it “tech policy.”

And it’s openwashing when the tech head of a giant federal agency rolls into SXSW talking about innovation while the guts of his biggest web property are rotten on launch.

OpenGovDC, ‘open source tools for open government’ and Q&A with Phase2 CEO Jeff Walpole


Federal government open source and open government practitioners will convene for a one-day conference, OpenGovDC, June 14 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. Produced by Development Seed and Phase2 Technology, tickets are now on sale for $45.

Federal Communications Commission Managing Director Steven VanRoekel will keynote. Panelists include WordPress/Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg, as well as representatives from the White House, DOE, State, GSA, NASA, FCC and Sunlight Labs. Topics range from open source Web platforms, open data, security and geospatial visualization, among others.

Jeff WalpoleWe asked Phase2 CEO Jeff Walpole to share his thoughts on organizing the event, and why he believes open source is important to facilitating open government.

What is OpenGovDC, who should attend and what will be the takeaway?

OpenGovDC is a one day conference to give government technologists an action plan for implementing open source web applications. With the growth in interest and adoption of open source by federal agencies, we wanted to create a forum where the first wave of adopters could share their experience and offer best practices to government technologists exploring the capabilities of open source tools.

OpenGovDC is for:

  • Open Government stakeholders who wants to better understand—or build—technical platforms that support agency-level needs.
  • People curious about open source tools, like Drupal, Node.js, and WordPress, in the realm of government applications.
  • Developers who want to learn about the unique challenges faced by government web practitioners.

What’s your take on the state of open government? What aspects are thriving or need more focus?

I have participated in numerous events this past year that have done an excellent job of setting the stage for the open government movement and open source adoption. In March I was at the NASA Open Source Summit at the Ames Research Center. NASA is releasing recommendations based on input from the Summit this coming week, and we’re excited to have Nick Skytland with the Open Government Initiative at NASA participating in OpenGovDC to discuss these recommendations and how they shape cross agency collaboration for open source technology.

Examples such as this demonstrate that we are leaving the exploration phase and moving very much in the action stage of open government. Many of the obstacles have been identified, so the next year will be about creating solutions to share and leverage resources across agencies. This is a huge opportunity for focus.

What are your long-term goals for OpenGovDC and how will it cultivate a sustainable open government movement?

We’re coordinating OpenGovDC in partnership with Development Seed and right now the priority is to look at how open source tools can be used to advance open government by focusing on how to best share technology across agencies and giving people real life examples of each topic in government.

By combining each session with a technical workshop, participants can walk away with better understanding of how open source has been used successfully so far and develop an action plan for their agency. The more successful implementations there are in the open government movement, the more we can all learn from each other and improve the movement as a whole.

Learn more at or register here.