Monday, May 26, 2008

Government as a platform

There is a lot of creative thinking going on about reorganizing government. While it takes time to gather the social momentum to overcome institutional inertia and entrenched interest groups who benefit from the current structure the process will continue as individuals seek out ways to innovate and improve government. But it won't be the standing-athwart-history-shouting-stop folks who will be coming up with new ideas and thus they will have no say in what the new rulesets will be. So if you want your ideas to be represented in the new ruleset regime then you have to embrace the changes that are taking place and abandon failed approaches to governing, e.g. standing athwart history shouting stop. The social and technological innovations of our time have an internal logic that leads towards decentralization, citizen empowerment, flatter organizational structures, and make civil society institutions the optimal means for accomplishing various ends. But people aren't thinking about these things because they buy into some classical liberal vision but because they are following that internal logic. As I've argued before, classical liberals need to get out ahead of this and associate their ideas with this since classical liberal ideas are the perfect social-political-economic philosophy for informing these social-technological innovations and providing a context for making sense of them. People are going to be looking for a larger vision of society that is consistent with the internal logic of the innovations they are participating in and we should make sure that it is there for them when they are ready for it. Here is an example of some of the thinking that is going on:

The idea is that US government web sites are so notoriously bad, they should just be torn down in favor of private sector alternatives. But this is more than just a privatization push, this is about turning the government into a data platform.

"Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, it should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that "exposes" the underlying data," says the draft version of the article (emphasis theirs). In other words, the government should become a data platform, exposing their vast amounts of data to the public -- i.e., via API -- and let the private sector mash it up to make helpful services for people.

The authors say that an open government data platform would lead "toward an ecosystem of grassroots, unplanned solutions to online civic needs." Eventually, the authors think that data mashup tools will become so commonplace and easy to use that people will no longer need third parties help them consume the information they seek. Instead, they'll be able to tap into the open government data layer and create custom applications with it on their own time. Think: Dapper for government.

That's a compelling vision of the future of open government, and one that makes a lot of sense. The idea is something like CSS -- which separates the display code of a web site from the content. A government data platform would separate the content from the task of displaying it, which the commercial and non-profit spaces are likely better suited for than the government itself.

No comments: