Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Open Government: State of the Union

by Matt Rosenberg November 11th, 2014

Nowadays, Andrew Hoppin is the CEO of NuCivic, an open-source cloud-based Software as a Service provider helping governments and nonprofits host and manage open data, apps arrays, and platforms for hackathons. But along the way, he learned a few things in the New York State Senate.

When Hoppin became the body’s Chief Information Officer in 2009, “we had a political mandate” for transparency and change that made a big difference, he said last week at a panel discussion in New York City, “Open Government: State of The Union.” It was sponsored by the Paley Center for Media and the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation — and kicked off a half-day Paley-Knight symposium, “The Next Big Thing in Open Government.”

“Suddenly senators were getting hundreds of comments on bills, [and] not from the people that they already knew”

Hoppin explained that state senate salaries and expenditures went online, bills became open to online comment before votes, and “suddenly senators were getting hundreds of comments on bills, [and] not from the people that they already knew, who already showed up in the lobby, in their wing-tip shoes — which was literally how a lot of lobbying happens in Albany.”

Lawmakers face a “scaling problem”

Hoppin added, “my take-home… was a lot of senators have a scaling problem without the technology to build [and] aggregate opinion and interact with 400,000 and 500,000 people efficiently. As one human being” each lawmaker is “sort of inherently relegated to paying attention to people who have a big soap box, such as a local organizer, or a big checkbook.” In the New York State Senate, Hoppin said, opening up government with some basic tools started a two-way conversation to solve that problem.

SOPA, PIPA trial by fire

“We had phones flying, Tweets flying, all of this input trying to get in, and the U.S. House of Representatives did not give us the technology to simply do our jobs”

Participatory civic technology has also been at the heart of Seamus Kraft’s work. He told the New York gathering that as a U.S. House committee staffer in early 2012, he and colleagues were overwhelmed by coordinated protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP (Intellectual Property) Act (PIPA). It was “an incredibly messy, political fight… to keep the Internet open and uncensored… We had phones flying, Tweets flying, all of this input trying to get in, and the U.S. House of Representatives did not give us the technology to simply do our jobs, to listen, to serve the needs of our constituents. So we built it ourselves, and that required a massive shift in culture internally, within our own environment on a committee.”

The result was “Madison,” a free online platform which lets constituents offer written feedback on draft legislation. Madison is now operated by The OpenGov Foundation; Kraft is a co-founder and Executive Director. It’s live in the Washington, D.C. city government and the U.S. House, while a third stream curates notable legislation in progress from jurisdictions around the nation.

Open-sourcing the local lawmaking process

Open legislation quickly gets you to open source code, according to Kraft. He said another group, formed this year, called The Free Law Founders, is made up of local elected officials, city attorneys and nonprofit software developers and is working to demystify and make more accessible the legislative process. The Free Law Challenge that the group hopes to meet by next year is to develop a system that lets citizens:


  • access complete, timely and machine-readable laws, codes and legislation online with no paywalls or other constraints;
  • download, share and annotate such materials with no constraints on use;
  • and participate in the law-making process “on their own time and on their own terms.”

  • That last aim in particular will resonate with any citizen lobbyist who has ever had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to drive 65 miles through soul-crushing traffic in order to speak in the state capitol at an early-morning legislative committee hearing, when online or even video testimony would be so much easier.

    The open source ethic in government must extend not just to free sharing and reuse of language for codes and laws but also to civic apps and other technologies that solve problems for constituents, Hoppin said. “Make sure when you do develop new technology or code that actually works in one place, you don’t have to reinvent that wheel somewhere else, or be dependent on a single vendor with proprietary IP.”

    Seek performance measures, not simply “throughput data”

    During audience Q&A, Susan Lerner of Common Cause, New York expressed concern that while governments may talk the talk of open government, the metrics they use to measure the effectiveness of programs, particularly in social services, are often “throughput data” reflecting numbers served, rather than “performance-oriented.” When sharing those concerns with agencies, she added, “we hit a very strong wall, particularly in the social services community, I think because of the feeling of, ‘it’s going to turn into a ‘gotcha.’”

    Laws to mandate performance data disclosure
    Hoppin replied that those travails show why it can be important for legislative bodies to pass laws mandating the disclosure of performance data. That eliminates the risk for bureaucrats because they have no choice but to comply, he said.

    Another challenge in open government is pulling together a seemingly random array of civic tech tools a city, state or federal government may develop. As Abhi Nemani noted in Medium earlier this year, what do you do when “the city has a full digital services stack, but you can’t really see it?”

    To address that problem, Nemani, the former Acting Co-Executive Director of Code for America – and now Chief Data Officer for the City of Los Angeles – introduced a prototype called the Digital ServicesCenter. It shows how you could consolidate in one digital shed the scattered, constituent-facing tools many cities offer.

    Bullets, bills, budgets, buses
    For the 10 communities now included, there’s a common taxonomy of bullets (crime reporting sites), bills (legislation), buses (transit information), budgets, 211 (social services directory), 311 (infrastructure issues reporting), 411, and open data. The prototype includes Chicago, New York, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Palo Alto, Philadelphia and St. Louis.

    The web is messy and imperfect, on purpose, Nemani writes in Medium. “It is these very visible blemishes that drive us into public service. Our government, like the web, is what we make it.”

    This article originally written by Matt Rosenberg was first published on 11/11/14 at The Open Standard under a Creative Commons license allowing full free re-use for non-commercvial purposes.

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