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Why "Open Government" is Terrible Branding (Or, Whatever Happended to Participation and Collaboration?)

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, April 14 2011

Looking back, "open government" was a dumb thing to call the Obama administration's early forays into innovative online work (as in, the White House's "Open Government Initiative") writes Beth Noveck, who once headed up open government for the White House:

In retrospect, "open government" was a bad choice. It has generated too much confusion. Many people, even in the White House, still assume that open government means transparency about government.  But through it's repeated use to describe the transformational work underway in governments around the world, especially in the federal agencies in the US, we can rescue the term and clarify its original meaning.

What's so wrong with the phrase? Noveck's argument, in my distillation, is that it conveys too much the idea that all this application of technology to the government space is in service of peeling back the curtain on government. What gets lost is the new potential of new tools and mediums to actually change the way government works, rather than just turbo-charging the government accountability movement.

Or to put it another way, consider that the tag line on the Open Government Initiative was actually, "Transparency, Participation, Collaboration" but that the first one gets all the attention while the latter have been afterthoughts in the first two years of the Obama presidency. Noveck takes as a troubling sign the White House's launch of a micro-site of sorts dedicated to "good government," a phrase that's been around in Washington circles for just about ever:

The problem with aligning the White House's goals to a traditional reform agenda is not only having to endure Jon Stewart's scathing yet humorous attacks on any failures to deliver (no government can ever be transparent enough), but that the White House Open Government Initiative that I directed and the Open Government Directive instructing agencies to adopt open government were never exclusively about making transparent information about the workings of government. 

Open government is an innovative strategy for changing how government works. By using network technology to connect the public to government and to one another informed by open data, an open government asks for help with solving problems. The end result is more effective institutions and more robust democracy.

You can make the argument that focusing on transparency for transparency's sake has politicized the American 'open government' movement in ways that might have not been entirely necessary. Noveck's pushing to reclaim the phrase in a way that captures a spirit of innovation, not just watchdoggery. To do it, she and allies will have to convince folks that opening up government means inviting people to be a part of it all, not just allowing them to keep tabs on things.