When we talk about open government or transparency, there’s an assumption the goal is to change the behavior of various actors inside government. This is true, but transparency on a granular, day-to-day level, has an aspect that is much less discussed: the opportunity to change the perspective of citizens as well. It’s a chance to build trust, and to help citizens see their individual needs as part of a whole, in the context of a larger society.Pahlka illustrates how this works by describing web applications she wants to have built through her organization, Code for America. For example:
Today, in most American cities, when you report something that needs to be fixed (say, for instance, a pothole), your request essentially disappears into the machinery of the city administration. If you’re lucky, when the problem is fixed, there may be a message telling you so (or at least telling you that the city thinks its fixed, because sometimes the information you gave about the problem wasn’t specific enough for the city to know exactly WHICH pothole you meant). But in between, your request is invisible to you. The machinery itself is opaque, and obscures the path your request follows as it is routed to the correct department, prioritized, and eventually fixed. Thus the term transparency; we’re talking about a view into the process. At Code for America, we envision applications that allow you to see the status of your request at any given time, the same way you can track your Fedex package online in real time. You should be able to see not only which part of the machinery currently holds your request, but the other requests competing with yours for the scarce resources to fix them.
This transparency makes it possible to track how well the city is keeping up with requests, their performance over time, which neighborhoods are getting help first, etc. This is a good thing. But when you see the other requests in the queue and realize that your issue is one of thousands in your community, it’s not just the government who becomes accountable; you start to be held accountable as a citizen as well. At the very least, it can shift your perspective. It’s easy to complain that a broken light on your street hasn’t been fixed; if you could see a list of all the lights that weren’t fixed in your city, and see that a dozen people had complained that there had been a spike in crime under another broken light in another part of town and that people were really suffering because of it, you might you think to yourself “hey, it’s more important to fix that light than my own.” This is a moment of citizenship, when the needs of the larger group take precedence over the individual’s needs. It’s also a moment of citizenship if you say to yourself, “hey, the city should know that that light should be their top priority; I wonder if I could help write the software that detects the highest needs.” But whether you’re seeing your place in the larger community or actually trying to help fix the problem, neither is possible if the machinery is opaque. Governments may be afraid (though fewer and fewer are) to expose the inner workings and the laundry list of outstanding issues, but when they protect their constituents from that knowledge they are also discouraging them from practicing citizenship. [emphasis added]
I could not agree more with this 30,000 foot perspective of what constitutes the best case scenario and end goal for how we function and function well and optimally.
So - who wants to help write some apps!?