Proposal: Open-source government

Transparency. Conversation. Collaboration.

In a post below entitled “How not to fix your city,” I ended with an off-hand remark:

But the way to retain young business people can be as simple as making it easy to start a small business.

Kevin Knuth, chairman of the Allen County Democratic Party, rightly thinks I’ve left a few things unsaid:

I would appreciate you explaining how the city can make it easy to start a business. Are you referring to financing? incentives? I am not wanting to sound snarky, I really do want to hear your viewpoint on this.

I’m not talking about incentives. I’m no expert in that area. My area of expertise is communication. And it’s my belief that any city that successfully talks with clarity to its own citizens will shine like a beacon among U.S. cities.

I propose something I’m calling open-source government.

Maybe that’s not the best term, because many advocates of what’s called open source governance go too far with applying software terminology to government, replacing one kind of jargon with another. No thanks to that.

What I mean by open-source government is the application of some of the philosophy of the open-source software movement to government, not necessarily the technology. This idea is not too far-fetched — open-source software got much of its inspiration from the workings of democracy.

The three core principles of open-source government as I see them are:

  • Transparency: All details of any of the workings of government are open and understandable.
  • Conversation: The government speaks and listens to its citizens as though they are intelligent, but not as though they are already savvy insiders.
  • Collaboration: With transparency and conversation in place, the citizens are invited to have intelligent involvement with their government.

This sounds easy, but consistently putting it into practice takes a lot of dedication. If it were easy, why was there no information about the city of Fort Wayne’s election on the city of Fort Wayne’s Web site? A claim such as, “Oh, that’s the county’s job,” goes against everything I’m proposing. Citizens have every right to expect the city government to have information about its own elections, or at least be able to point to the information elsewhere. Not having election information on the city Web site is embarrassing.

In fact, although “conversation” may sounds like the easiest component of my proposal, it may be the hardest to do well. The typical city is divided into many separate departments, organized not for the understanding of the citizenry, but for the understanding of the people inside the government. So a citizen with an opened-ended question — such as, “What do I need to know to open a small business in Fort Wayne?” — has to file through department after department, looking for all the bits and pieces of information that may or may not be applicable.

Why is such communication difficult? Those of us in journalism know that the more you understand a concept, the harder it becomes to remember what it’s like to not understand a concept. So for a communicator, it’s not enough to understand the complex. You must also understand how to make the complex understandable.

That should be a function of a good city government: Making the complex understandable. Without transparency, conversation and collaboration, government remains distant to most of its citizens.

More can be said about the topic, but that’s enough from me for now. What do you think?