"The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s chairman said on Tuesday that regulators plan to review allegations that Morgan Stanley shared negative news before Facebook’s initial public offering with institutional investors." - CNBC, 5/22/12

We’ve posted a good bit about open government and the movement behind it over the last few months.

But, the meaning of open government can get buried in the push forward, particularly when you begin talking about open data and other initiatives that can muddy exactly what open government is supposed to do. A clear direction and purpose is vital for open government to provide substantial and tangible returns, rather than become rhetoric.

Nathaniel Heller — a co-founder of Global Integrity — tackled this topic very well on his blog:

At its core, “open government” to me means three things:

  1. Information Transparency: that the public understands the workings of their government;
  2. Public engagement: that the public can influence the workings of their government by engaging in governmental policy processes and service delivery programs; and
  3. Accountability: that the public can hold the government to account for its policy and service delivery performance.

Into those three buckets we can then deposit many of the “open government” initiatives, programs, and interventions that are often invoked on their own as “open government.” What’s most important here, to me, is that none of these initiatives or interventions in and of themselves constitute “open government” alone. Rather, only when combined with the others do we truly see the potential for “open government” in its most powerful and holistic form.

Bucket 1 (Information Transparency): freedom of information initiatives; open data and Big [Public] Data efforts, including open data portals; procurement, budget, and policy transparency (e.g. voting records, meeting minutes, political finance transparency).

Bucket 2 (Public Engagement): e-government services; open311 and service delivery feedback loops; stakeholder fora and participatory processes (e.g. participatory budgeting, town hall meetings, both online and offline); electoral processes.

Bucket 3 (Accountability): anti-corruption mechanisms (e.g. auditing, ombudsmen); conflicts of interest and influence peddling safeguards.

It goes without saying that the world does not fit neatly into this clean paradigm. Electoral processes are as much a form of accountability as a form of engagement, and the distinction between information transparency and engagement blurs quickly when we talk about something like open311. But hopefully the general construct holds some water.

As for technology? I view technology agnostically in the context of “open government.” Some of the above interventions don’t work without technology — think open data, open311, or e-government services. Others work quite well without websites or apps. Technology can certainly be a powerful force multiplier in the context of open government, and it can take interventions to scale rapidly. But technology is neither open government itself nor required for open government to necessarily take hold, in my view.

We tend to agree with Nathaniel’s outline. As he intelligently points out, the world rarely fits perfectly within a clean set of parameters and technology is not always vital; however, reminding ourselves of the constructs of open government will only help in moving it forward with meaning and results.

- Spencer

The P Word in the Civic Space

"U.S. prosecutors and defense attorneys for five defendants in the September 11 attacks dug in on Sunday for a long legal battle that one lawyer said may never be resolved." - Reuters, 5/6/12

In our last post regarding Transparency Camp 2012 — a gathering of open data/open government activists hosted by the Sunlight Foundation — we touched on the concept that each of us has a role to play in the push for a better, more accountable government.

The initiative is a complex one. Just like the popular aphorism that “beauty is in the eye of a beholder,” to what extent “better government” looks like is visualized in many different ways by many different people. No single parameter defines what a better government means to every American.

The process itself is not easy, either. There are layers upon layers to our government, and all need improvement in not only how government serves citizens, but how it is held accountable as well. But, the multiple layers, divisions, sections, agencies, bureaucracies, and outside entities (such as government contractors) make government — from federal level down to local municipalities — too large, and too expansive, to be tackled in a single front.

And, that’s where we all have a role to play.

A Functioning Government

A better government won’t come from one place. It will originate from multiple initiatives through the cooperation of groups across the civic space. In the Gov 2.0 and open government movement, this is happening.

However, there appears to be one aspect absent. This missing element can be encapsulated in a tweet by Code for America Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka:

@pahlkadot:…technologists are more interested in getting the government to function than they are in getting their guy elected http://bit.ly/JQ5Iuf

The article Pahlka references in her Tweet is here. It largely discusses how open data and open government technologists are pushing Gov 2.0 forward. And, skimmerhat couldn’t be happier about this. But, the troubling part of Pahlka’s quote is that she seems to minimize the value of government policy and representation. This theme — we can help the government function through our ingenuity, sans politics – is inherent in Code for America’s overall branding.

Even more troubling is the trend to distance oneself from politics or political motivation, which seems to be pervasive throughout the Gov 2.0, open data and open government movements in the civic space.

It’s not that this separation isn’t understandable. Politics is complicated, divisive and in many cases, downright hideous. Politics has become such a “dirty word” that it is often avoided in conversation with family and friends.

But, we can’t afford to ignore politics, no matter how messy it may be. If we do, things will only worsen.

A recent Politico article titled “Congress: It’s going to get worse” sums up the state of our nation:

As it stands, Congress is more polarized than at any time since Reconstruction, according to data compiled by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, political scientists who study congressional voting.

And getting more polarized, they correctly argue.

When presented with such a bleak picture, it makes sense that many technologists, hackers, and developers are reluctant to take a political stand when they can be effective in other areas that lack the divisiveness. They may also believe that they must first make an impact in other areas of government before tackling the political process or that too much emphasis is traditionally put on politics.

Unfortunately, this approach is much like trying to fix the engine on a car with a flat tire. It may run better, but you’re still not going to go real far.

Using the “Force”

Having an app for uncovering fire hydrants, or a platform to take a picture and report a problem with traffic lights are great examples of making government more efficient through civic hacking. And, creating APIs for data that previously were buried deep into a filing cabinet is indispensable for making government more transparent.

These endeavors compare to policy work on issues on civil liberties, tax reform and regulation — which are policy areas necessary to the lives of Americans across the country. And, this policy work is just as needed as the work of new APIs (as was discussed in the Hacking Society conversation a couple weeks ago).

Here’s why: In another recent Politico article, a Pew survey showed that it’s been 15 years since Americans haven been as disgusted with the Federal government as they are today:

Today, just one in three has a favorable view of the federal government — the lowest level in 15 years, according to a Pew survey. The majority of Americans remain satisfied with their local and state governments — 61 percent and 52 percent, respectively — but only 33 percent feel likewise about the federal government.

Voices aren’t being heard. People aren’t being represented.

It’s the car with a new engine, but a flat tire. Government may begin to run more efficiently — which benefits all citizens. But, if government isn’t listening to those citizens, we’re still not moving in a positive direction as a country.

Now, imagine applying the strength of Gov 2.0 — which already promotes engagement, transparency and accountability — to make better sense of the “p” word, and make sense of candidates involved in politics. And, not just on the “backend,” after candidates are in office, but on the frontend, too — when candidates are competing for votes in the electoral process.

Skimmerhat envisions this ideal in a system that allows Americans to find the candidates they want to believe in before they are given the limited slate of options on a general election ballot. And, to sidestep the current polarization of politics, we want to build a non-partisan way of finding these candidates.

Our idea uses the momentum of Gov 2.0 as a way for individuals and small donors to unite behind ideas, allowing individual citizens to directly influence the direction of the country — even in the age of PACs and Super PACs.

Imagine lowering the barrier to entry for citizens and candidates alike.

Then imagine this working in tandem with all of the other aspects of Gov 2.0, where data is more accessible and transparent, and where government is more accountable.

Would our government improve?

We think so, made possible through the power of citizen engagement — a core tenet of organizations like Code for America.

A Goal to Pursue Consistently

It won’t be easy. It will be infinitely more difficult than writing about it in a blog entry. After all, there is no utopia where Americans will be in 100 percent approval of the federal government.

However, just because it’s a challenge doesn’t mean we should avoid it, or ignore the problem altogether.

In a post by David Eaves — where he addresses Tom Slee’s post about the open data movement being a joke — he writes:

Open data is not the solution for Open Government (I don’t believe there is a single solution, or that Open Government is an achievable state of being - just a goal to pursue consistently), and I don’t believe anyone has made the case that it is. I know I haven’t. But I do believe open data can help. Like many others, I believe access to government information can lead to better informed public policy debates and hopefully some improved services for citizens (such as access to transit information). I’m not deluded into thinking that open data is going to provide a steady stream of obvious “gotcha moments” where government malfeasance is discovered, but I am hopeful that government data can arm citizens with information that the government is using to inform its decisions so that they can better challenge, and ultimately help hold accountable, said government.

As we mentioned at the outset of this post: there is no one approach to solving this problem. The solution combines multiple approaches that, when working together, can create a real plan for change.

Advocates of open data, open government and Gov 2.0 are creating the tools to arm Americans with more power, and creating them under the umbrella of a better, more accountable government. We’re building a process of finding and funding our representatives motivated by the same goal.

We’re all under the same umbrella.

"Today, just one in three has a favorable view of the federal government — the lowest level in 15 years, according to a Pew survey. The majority of Americans remain satisfied with their local and state governments — 61 percent and 52 percent, respectively — but only 33 percent feel likewise about the federal government.” - Politico, 4/26/12
The above image shows the route (ATL to DC) we are taking tomorrow when we head to Transparency Camp, a weekend-long event put on by the Sunlight Foundation.
We wrote about Transparency Camp recently here. It is where people from a range of backgrounds gather to share their knowledge about how to use new technologies and policies to make our government really work for the people — and to help our people work smarter with our government.
We have been looking forward to the weekend because we believe we can learn from the knowledge and experience that will be in the room. Even more, it will be exciting to be surrounded by people who want more for our government and Americans and are working to make it happen.
We will be sure to update the blog and our social media links to document our experience in the coming days and weeks. So, be on the lookout for that.
Here’s to safe travels and greater government openness and transparency.
- Spencer

"Today, just one in three has a favorable view of the federal government — the lowest level in 15 years, according to a Pew survey. The majority of Americans remain satisfied with their local and state governments — 61 percent and 52 percent, respectively — but only 33 percent feel likewise about the federal government.” - Politico, 4/26/12

The above image shows the route (ATL to DC) we are taking tomorrow when we head to Transparency Camp, a weekend-long event put on by the Sunlight Foundation.

We wrote about Transparency Camp recently here. It is where people from a range of backgrounds gather to share their knowledge about how to use new technologies and policies to make our government really work for the people — and to help our people work smarter with our government.

We have been looking forward to the weekend because we believe we can learn from the knowledge and experience that will be in the room. Even more, it will be exciting to be surrounded by people who want more for our government and Americans and are working to make it happen.

We will be sure to update the blog and our social media links to document our experience in the coming days and weeks. So, be on the lookout for that.

Here’s to safe travels and greater government openness and transparency.

- Spencer

Transparency & Sunlight

U.S. officials say a rocket launched by North Korea failed moments after being fired, but the White House still described the launch as a “provocative action” that threatens regional security and violates international law.” - AP, 4/12/12

In launching skimmerhat, we strive to make a positive impact on the political system. With this, though, we acknowledge the awesome organizations out there that are already making a substantial impact through the Gov 2.0 and open gov movement.

One is the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens.

At the end of the month, the Sunlight Foundation is putting on an event called Transparency Camp in Washington D.C. The first Transparency Camp was held in 2009, but we are pretty excited to be attending this year’s version of the weekend-long event. Here is a description:

TransparencyCamp is an “unconference” for opengov: an event where, each year, journalists, developers, technologists, policy-makers, government officials, students, academics, wonks, and everyone in between gather to share their knowledge about how to use new technologies and policies to make our government really work for the people — and to help our people work smarter with our government.

As an “unconference,” TransparencyCamp emphasizes the important contributions that each and every attendee brings with them into the sessions, workshops, and conversations associated with this event. In fact, attendees (yes, all of them) are brought into the process of making the schedule for the conference with the organizers and are encouraged to step up and lead sessions themselves. (Check out our 2011 Recap video below to get a better sense of what we mean.)

We’ve seen a lot of productive, amazing results from TCamp in years past: US-based TCamp attendees have started unique, globally recognized initiatives, including CityCamp and CrisisCommons, and our international guests have gone on to organize TCamps in their own countries. As the year 2012 is bursting with major questions about government transparency, openness, and accountability, we hope that participants take the opportunity to use TransparencyCamp as a platform for to get (or at least get close to) answers.


It will be great to be around people who expect and are working for more accountability out of our government, and as skimmerhat grows, we want to align with organizations and other companies who keep transparency and openness in the forefront of conversation when it comes to our government.

— Spencer

A Sane Business

"A surge in tax refund fraud and identity theft has prompted the Internal Revenue Service to consider sharing more tax return information with police, a senior official told a congressional hearing on Tuesday." - Reuters, 3/21/12

We really love introducing skimmerhat and the concept behind it to new people. It is one of the best parts about building a startup, especially in our situation as the startup environment isn’t overloaded with companies trying to improve government processes.

To many we’ve talked to, they think skimmerhat sounds like a cool idea, finding and funding candidates in a non-partisan, non-traditional way. This seems increasingly true among those in our age bracket — between 20 and 30. 

However, it is even more fun when we get a chance to speak about skimmerhat with those who have been in the weeds of the political system and have the stories and scars to prove it.

We’ve been trying to connect with as many of these type of people as possible. While skimmerhat is a ‘cool idea,’ we don’t want to get lost in the reality of what we face.

That reality, as was phrased by a former state senator we spoke to, is that we are not entering a sane business. When he said this, he gestured to the fella sitting to his left and said, “This guy, he’s in a sane business. You are not.”

Now, you’re saying, “Of course. No one in their right mind thinks that the government, taken as a whole, is sane.”

And while some people certainly believe real estate, banking or law is insane, government is a different animal. By and large, as Americans, we believe that democracy, and thus our government, is the shining example of freedom, liberty and happiness. No one is saying that about real estate and banking (maybe a few?).

So how can our government — something that so many have pointed to as a model of how to run a country — also be insane?

That is the core of the message our state senator friend was getting to; it’s the belly of the beast. The part that very few want to see, and even fewer really want to fix.

People will come after you, he warned, especially if donations are gained and elections are won from those donations through skimmerhat. Even more so if it seems like a certain type of candidate is prospering from skimmerhat (to be clear, we truly want all candidates including incumbents, challengers, conservative, liberal or otherwise to benefit from skimmerhat) To us, however, that means we will have had an impact on the process, which isn’t guaranteed but is an opportunity we fully embrace.

We are aware (or as aware as you can be without experiencing it first-hand) of the implications of throwing a wrench in the system. In an application to a startup program, it asked “Who are your competitors? And who do you fear most?” We listed our marketplace competitors — some civic startups as well as bundling organizations like ActBlue and ActRight — and then we wrote that we do not fear our competitors.

We wrote that we fear politicians who might strengthen ballot access laws to make it more difficult for independent-type candidates to succeed. We also wrote that we fear gerrymandering, as it already occurs in crafting districts to create easier support and victories for a certain party or segment of people. But, then we wrote that we believe if given the right tools and the power to control our government — as Americans do and always have — citizens will make the right choices to prevent all of this from happening.

Sure, our fears might sound like paranoia, but, remember, we aren’t entering a sane business.

Even with that, though, as we noted, we have faith in Americans if they are given the appropriate tools to work with.

As we build skimmerhat, we believe we are one of the tools that will help form a more engaged citizenry. But luckily, we aren’t alone in making an impact on government in a positive way. Far from it.

There are resources like OpenCongress and POPVOX and OpenSecrets and plenty of others that are pulling open the curtain of government to give it to us, the people. Then there are organizations like Code for America and open data journalists like Alex Howard. The open data and open government/Gov 2.0 movement will supply citizens with the information and access that will educate them and allow them to take action. It will create transparency in a system that seems more muddied than ever.

So, while we know we aren’t entering a sane business, if skimmerhat, along with the others working for a better system, can incrementally improve government processes, we will gladly accept the insanity.

Being idealistic is hardly sane itself.

— Spencer