Friday, May 13, 2011

" Reworking Government Through Technical Innovation" at SxSWi 2011

Session main page:

Presented by Jennifer Caldwell

The open government movement was well-represented, with local government officials from around the country and around the world. I was very heartened to see a lot of passionate bureaucrats (an oxymoron, right?) who wanted to make the government more accessible to the people it governs.

What did they mean by open government? Ideas were far-ranging, but many centered on the notion of using technology to bring the people back into government. Making more data generally available is one part of this: having government information be easily searchable seemed to be what people wanted most. Ways to do this include:

  • building better government websites – right now government is exceptionally poor at disseminating information online
  • making it so government databases can talk to one another better, including unifying local/regional/state/federal in a more cohesive way
  • allowing government databases to interact more with private databases (lots of concerns about privacy here, and justifiably so)
  • increasing the technological culture of government
More about this last point: many government agencies do not have a culture of being techie, being savvy, being comfortable with technology. Tim O’Reilly is pushing Code for America (, modeled on Teach for America, wherein tech professionals take time to work with government agencies to a) help government reach its goals of connecting with the people, b) seeding a tech culture within these agencies, and c) help complete concrete projects with both short-term and long-term goals.

Another concern many government officials had was that they don’t have any model for working openly and enthusiastically with the public. There was a lot of wishing they knew how to connect with people, to listen to people, and to respond to people. Something that seemed obvious to me was that they do have a model: the library: the library exists just to provide information and service. I think the library is an ideal model for (other) government agencies to use to improve their customer service. Interestingly, when I brought this up, while everyone enthusiastically supported the library, it was clear they thought of the library as a place to drop off flyers and maybe hold town halls, and NOT as a model for public service. What this tells me is that while the library has a lot to teach, it also has a lot to learn about marketing itself, even to potential (and natural) allies and partners.

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