Open Sourcing Politics

“Linux is subversive”: so begins “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” Eric Raymond's analysis of the open source way. The subversion there was mainly applied to the world of software, but how much more subversive are the ideas that lie behind open source when applied to politics.

That is precisely what the increasingly-important open government movement aims to do, an area I've been covering in this blog partly because of its close kinship with open source, but also because of the major implications it has for the use of open source – not least because open government tends to promote its deployment. But what exactly is open government, and how does it flow from open source?

Key characteristics of the latter are its open, modular code that allows Net-based collaboration driven by users' needs.

In the sphere of open government, I think the open, modular code maps onto open public data, available in open formats, through open APIs. It's in this area where most of the open government initiatives have been announced, usually under the slightly more generic banner of “transparency”. Here's the latest UK move:

Central government spending transparency

Historic COINS spending data to be published online in June 2010.

All new central government ICT contracts to be published online from July 2010.

All new central government lender documents for contracts over £10,000 to be published on a single website from September 2010, with this information to be made available to the public free of charge.

New items of central government spending over £25,000 to be published online from November 2010.

All new central government contracts to be published in full from January 2011.

Full information on all DFID international development projects over £500 to be published online from January 2011, including financial information and project documentation.

Local government spending transparency

New items of local government spending over £500 to be published on a council-by-council basis from January 2011.

New local government contracts and tender documents for expenditure over £500 to be published in full from January 2011.

Other key government datasets

Crime data to be published at a level that allows the public to see what is happening on their streets from January 2011.

Names, grades, job titles and annual pay rates for most Senior Civil Servants with salaries above £150,000 to be published in June 2010.

Names, grades, job titles and annual pay rates for most Senior Civil Servants and NDPB officials with salaries higher than the lowest permissible in Pay Band 1 of the Senior Civil Service pay scale to be published from September 2010.

Organograms for central government departments and agencies that include all staff positions to be published in a common format from October 2010.

What's interesting here is the highly political nature of these moves: this turning inside-out of the governmental machine represents a sea-change from the previous UK administration, with its love of massive, centralised databases that allowed the centre to exercise power over the rest of us.

Radical though this may be, opening up data in this way is relatively straightforward (not the same as easy); the second part of the open source equation - Net-based collaboration driven by users' needs – is much harder to achieve. That's not because the technology isn't there – obviously the Internet is pretty pervasive in Western societies (although not ubiquitous, which is important to remember.) It's also clear that to promote collaboration you need to release data under open licences, and government-owned code under open source ones. But perhaps more fundamental than either of these is the need for an open architecture – not so much in terms of computing, as in terms of culture.

As the word suggests, “government” is about governing, and for millennia this has often translated into telling people what to do. The democratic process may mean that the latter get to choose (at least nominally) who gives the orders, but generally only at election time. This is not, obviously, how open source works: there, the whole project is guided by and responding to the needs of the “electorate” - the users – at all times. For truly open government, we need to enable something similar to occur.

Fortunately, this does not require a massive, all-or-nothing project: it can be achieved through myriad baby steps, each one of which helps engage the electorate on an ongoing, even daily basis. That's not easy, given the traditional cynicism that many people now have towards the democratic process; and it's made harder by the existing culture of command and control – what in software is the “proprietary” way – that has encouraged politicians and civil servants to cling on to power and to hide the inner workings of government as much as possible.

If you want to explore these ideas in more depth, I strongly recommend reading the Centre for Technology Policy's new report “Open Government: Some Next Steps for the UK”. It is quite simply the best analysis I have come across of what open government means, how much has been achieved so far and how we can realise its full potential through practical actions. Everyone interested in open government should read it: it's pretty subversive stuff – and that's good.

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