Chapter 20

The Bigger Picture: Ten Lessons for Taking Open Government Further

My job at the Knight Foundation is to identify people with promising ideas and help them execute them. Our primary tool for that is the Knight News Challenge, through which we’ve supported nearly a hundred projects, with more than $30 million over six years. We’ve supported several open government-related projects and groups like LocalWiki, the Open Knowledge Foundation, Ushahidi, EveryBlock, and Open Street Maps.

The code, insights, and talent networks we’ve supported through the News Challenge moved us to focus a recent iteration on open government. Our goal was to expand the table of people who engage with open government. In addition to practical open government applications, we hoped to uncover ideas about how the internet can change the ways in which citizens and governments interact. We wanted to involve more people in the use of technology to solve community problems, and we sought to expand the geographic footprint beyond what’s become the standard open government metropoles of San Francisco, Chicago, and the Boston-New York- DC Acela nexus. Silently, I hoped that at least one of the winners would not even consider themselves as part of the open government movement.

During the application period, we partnered with locally based organizations to conduct events in fourteen cities, including less typical open government cities, like Lexington, Kentucky; Macon, Georgia; San Diego; and St. Paul, Minnesota. Out of the 860 submissions we received, several themes emerged that captured the open government zeitgeist. These included:

  • Increasing citizens’ direct participation in policymaking
  • Strengthening policies for data transparency
  • Making sense out of multiple datasets
  • Understanding government spending and campaign contributions
  • Making better use of public spaces and vacant land

After our analysis of the contest process and submissions, our assessment was that open government is generating more aspirational ideas than practical tools and approaches that address citizens’ needs and wants. We learned a lot by talking directly with civic leaders, government officials, and hackers, particularly with those outside of the leading open government cities. I spoke with high-ranking government workers who were worried about the security and sustainability of open source projects, elected officials who were curious about citizen demand for data, and journalists who were dubious about governments’ commitment to openness.

Our trustees ended up approving eight projects as winners. Not coincidentally, each of the eight had already demonstrated their idea and was able to talk to us about what was and was not working. Also, for the most part, they have been around the open government block for a while. (My hopes of supporting people entirely new to the field failed.)

Fundamentally, the eight winning projects are practical rather than aspirational. They address identified needs of citizens and governments. Despite our exhortations, few of the ideas that made it to the final rounds re-imagined democracy in the age of the internet. They are about building practical tools that citizen-consumers can use to more easily build businesses, reclaim abandoned land, and sell services to the government. They don’t seek to engage citizens in re-imagining democracy or co-creating their communities. That could reflect the bias of the Knight Foundation and the investors, journalists, and developers who advised us, but the list may also be a reflection of where the open government movement is at this point in its development: in a field driven by aspiration, the value lies in practical businesses and services.

For a guide on moving more robustly from the aspirational to the practical, we might look to Kevin Costner. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kevin Costner was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Near the apex of his career, Costner starred in Field of Dreams, a 1989 fantasy-drama designed to make high school jocks weep. Prompted by the whispers of a disembodied voice, Costner’s character plows under his cornfield, turning it into a baseball diamond for ghosts from the 1919 Chicago White Sox. “If you build it, he will come,” the voice promises him.

“If we build it, they will come,” has been open government’s operative mode for the last few years. Like other social movements before it, open government is inspired by dreams of what might be, not on an evidence-based assessment of what people want or need. It’s a movement based on the belief that by pushing out data, our fellow citizens will build things, government will be more efficient, and we will all live happier lives. Inevitably, we’ve been disappointed when those idealistic outcomes don’t pan out and we realize that the vast majority of our neighbors lack the skills, wherewithal, time, or inclination to actively participate. Our aspirations for engagement have outpaced the reality—a status appropriate for such a young social project. As open government emerges into adolescence, though, we need to bridge the gaps between innovators and citizens, who are the ultimate users.

To make that leap, we need to consider a later Kevin Costner movie: The Postman. Based on David Brin’s 1985 post-apocalyptic fantasy novel, this movie features Costner playing a drifter who dons the uniform and identity of a dead mail carrier. In so doing, he inadvertently becomes the personification of the disbanded US government. Costner’s uniform and the act of distributing mail between previously disconnected towns rekindle a civic spirit among those he visits. (The movie was a dog, but Brin’s novel is pretty great.)

How does open government move from building fields of dreams to delivering like a postman? How do we stop making baseball fields out of Iowa cornfields and start going town-to-town, knocking on doors, and building links, one community at a time? Now that we have the vision of it all down, it’s time to shift into the practicalities of building useful tools. Here are ten things we need to prioritize to move from dreaming to doing:

Realistic Expectations

We need to learn how to build projects and businesses that bring value to customers, not just venture capitalist moonshots. Civic technology will not produce companies with a hundred times the return on investment. We need to be okay with that and build the financing and support services that will enable entrepreneurs’ visions to become real and sustainable.


No one waits excitedly at the window for the postman to deliver us information about voting, taxes, or municipal budgets. Messages from loved ones, narratives in magazines, and holiday cards are what I look for when the mail arrives. We need apps and tools that are fun to use and don’t feel like homework.


“We have 2,000 bills. Little bill bits,” said California Governor Jerry Brown earlier this year. “You can’t run a world on bill bits. That’s not what moves people. There has to be drama. Protagonist and antagonist. We’re on the stage of history here.” We need to do a better job of taking civic data and presenting it to our neighbors in stories, visualizations, and culture.


To appreciate the mail, it helps to be able to read. What are the skills and approaches citizens need to contribute to and benefit from open government, and how do we identify and develop them?


What is the baseline for what does and does not work? How do we know how we’re doing and determine what to do better? What are we measuring? How do we know whether what we’re doing works, and how can we brag to others about it? How can we demonstrate an ROI to governments and potential investors? The fact that we don’t have answers to these questions this late in the game is worrisome.


When people ask us how to do open government, where can we point them? We need solid, well-documented success stories of real results.


When they need to hire, where do governments go? Programs like the Code for America Fellowship are a great start, but they aren’t enough to form a workforce. We have a great set of leaders, but most of them could fit into one conference. We need to set up places for them to go when they leave government so we don’t lose their experiences and networks to other fields.

Professional Development

Many people who take government jobs don’t do so to be agents of change or to drive innovation. They often take them because they are good, solid jobs. Where do career government workers and civilians go to develop the skills we need to drive the movement forward from the inside out?

Leadership Transitions

We put a lot on the shoulders of individual government leaders to drive change. How do we build the systems so that the innovations built by a chief executive are not dismantled with their administration? What tools would help with transitions from one mayor or governor to another?

Risk Tolerance

How can we encourage and enable government leaders and workers to take risks that they are generally dissuaded from trying? We need to build a culture inside government that is tolerant of taking smart, well-calculated risks.

For open government to succeed, it needs to make its principles—transparency, openness, and data-driven decision-making—become synonymous with democracy. In order to fully benefit from the values of sharing and the wisdom of community, we need to move beyond placing our hopes in whispered promises toward doing the practical work of building useful, sustainable tools and a supportive ecosystem.

About the Author

John S. Bracken is the director of media innovation for the Knight Foundation. He oversees the Knight News Challenge, Knight’s prototype fund, its journalism, and its technology investments. Bracken has over ten years of experience as a philanthropic investor in digital media, media policy, innovation, and global internet freedom, having previously worked at the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

John Bracken