From Open Source to Open Government


Yesterday I had an interesting chat with Paul Clarke, an advisor to government departments on digital strategy, and a man with fingers in many interesting pies, about open government. The central issue we were ruminating upon was how to help those within government who want to open up, given the huge inertial forces operating against them.

One idea was that companies on the *outside* might play an important role. This is similar to the concept of “government as platform” outlined by Tim O'Reilly:

the real secret of success in Government 2.0 is thinking about government as a platform. If there’s one thing we learn from the technology industry, it’s that every big winner has been a platform company: someone whose success has enabled others, who’ve built on their work and multiplied its impact. Microsoft put “a PC on every desk and in every home,” the internet connected those PCs, Google enabled a generation of ad-supported startups, Apple turned the phone market upside down by letting developers loose to invent applications no phone company would ever have thought of. In each case, the platform provider raised the bar, and created opportunities for others to exploit.

There are signs that government is starting to adopt this kind of platform thinking.

Behind Federal CIO Vivek Kundra’s site is the idea that government agencies shouldn’t just provide web sites, they should provide web services. These services, in effect, become the government’s SDK (software development kit). The government may build some applications using these APIs, but there’s an opportunity for private citizens and innovative companies to build new, unexpected applications.

So, the question becomes: assuming government took such a step of providing such APIs – admittedly rather a leap of imagination at the moment, but it will happen – what needs to be done on the corporate side to maximise the mutual and social benefit from those moves ?

I think it comes down to realising that open government is really all of a piece with open source – that the ideas behind openness, collaboration and sharing are universally applicable, and not just limited to the realm of writing code. This means that once a company has begun the open source journey, and started to understand what that implies in terms of how software is created and used, they are then far better placed to work with governmental implementations of the same approach when they appear.

In other words, the more a company deploys open source now, the better it will be able to see – and grasp – future opportunities as government gradually opens up its data treasuries. Yet another reason for not only using free software, but also embracing the underlying ideas it represents.

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