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Open Government in the White House: Dead or Alive?

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, June 23 2011

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth since the news broke that White House Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra will be leaving in August.

Absent Kundra's drive, goes the thinking — most recently espoused by Vivek Wadhwa in the Washington Post — there will be no more movement on open government initiatives and efforts to modernize the federal government's admittedly awful IT infrastructure.

At GovFresh, Luke Fretwell disagrees, saying there are too many advocates who have already gone too far.

"Open government will never die," he writes.

In a paean to open source, participatory decision-making and open data, Fretwell calls for citizen organizing and advocacy around the cause of open government.

Both of these ruminators make valid points; Wadhwa, that the money is no longer there for large-scale advances in the way government IT works, and Fretwell, that the White House is not the only place where change is happening. He leaves out perhaps the most promising example, though: Last week, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)'s DATA Act made it into the House and Senate. By the way, the bill was approved by his House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Transparency is not usually the strong suit of the executive branch. The Freedom of Information Act, remember, the predecessor to every idea of open government that exists today, became law with a reluctant, even grudging, stroke of President Lyndon Johnson's pen.


Whenever a program loses its key evangelist, it normally dies. The Open Government Initiative is likely to suffer a slow, inevitable death.

We may live in the richest nation on Earth, but most government agencies and large corporations still process their mission-critical transactions on ’60s-era legacy systems that were designed for machines with less processing power than an iPhone. And they’re more expensive. The I.T. systems for these mainframes typically took years to build and cost millions of dollars — and that doesn’t include the hundreds of millions more we spend to maintain them.


While I agree the federal Open Government Initiative itself has lost momentum without set dates, timelines and leadership from the top, this by no means is an indicator of the overall health of open government.