A Lesson In Democratising Government

Adam Price
23 September 2009

An exciting, innovative and efficient approach to transparency in Government; it sounds a little too good to be true, but the District of Columbia seems to have managed it, being declared winner of the 2009 Innovations in American Government Award in Urban Policy. Offering up all district government operational data in its raw (unedited) form for the first time is important as a means of demonstrating commitment to openness, but on its own would have been a mere gesture – a lot can be hidden in raw data, and if there’s not the means of making sense of it, and a way to find what you’re looking for, such a measure is all but irrelevant for anyone other than the most determined of investigators.

The judges behind the award seem to have recognised this, however, and the District of Columbia’s ‘Data Feeds’ goes a lot further. There’s the creation of a virtual town hall offering up to date government information along with how to get involved through social networks, the opportunity to subscribe to real time feeds on a variety of subjects of interest (including, intriguingly, government employee credit card transactions), and – perhaps cleverest of all – an ‘Apps for Democracy’ contest for the best applications using the data feeds. This last produced an eclectic range of applications such as ways of locating parking meters, demographics and crime rates in your area and a guide to biking in D.C., saving an estimated $2.6 million in development costs.

Nor is D.C. alone in this. Similar schemes are being developed in New YorkSan FranciscoNanaimo and Vancouver. The idea is clearly not the result of a one-off fortuitous congruence of factors that allows the scheme to work, but a model that can, and should, be adopted across the developed world.

With examples like this on offer, it’s clear that our own Government could go a lot further than its own highly trumpeted, but under-resourced Freedom of Information measures, which, in the Department of Health, for example, don't merit anything like the resources devoted to press and marketing. Is it too much to ask for a little government innovation on this side of the Atlantic?

(Hat tip Steven Clift)

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