An open government provides access for you to participate in making it better.

“No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” – Joy’s Law

The obvious next question is, “How do you get all those smart people to help you?” Today, you hear a lot about this “new thing” called crowd-sourcing, but governments have been doing this for a long time. Okay – so it wasn’t called that then, and the focus initially was slightly different but the goal remains the same – leverage the knowledge and experience of the public to improve government. With a little effort, you can probably find a local city council meeting to attend this month where you can share your opinion on whatever decisions they are about to make. This is an example of how governments can involve you in decision making, but they can also involve you in solving government problems and improving the services they provide.

There are three main ways that an open government may involve you in making better decisions: collecting your comments, giving you the opportunity to influence decisions, or actively involving you in making the decision. The first one is when your government tells you there is a decision that is going to be made and gives you an opportunity to submit comments about your perspective on it. Generally speaking, the only response you will get from these comments is acknowledgement that they were received, and perhaps some generic reference to how they were incorporated into the final decision. If your government allows you to influence the decision, this means that there is more active discussion between you and your government – and also with other citizens. The final way an open government might involve is you is by giving you an equal seat at the table. For example, participatory budgeting gives the responsibility for determining part of the government budget to the citizens themselves.

Moving beyond just decision-making however, an open government should also empower you to solve its problems and improve its services. There are three main ways to do this: work with you to create solutions, accept external contributions and ideas, and inspire innovation and contribution. The first of these is when government makes its data and services available so that you can mix it with other data or put it in a better format so more people can benefit from it. Secondly, your government may accept contributions and ideas from you. You may have developed an idea based on the frustration of interacting with your government or in response to a specific government program. Finally, an open government can inspire innovation and contribution by holding challenges and competitions to solve specific problems, hackathons to bring together software developers, or by using game mechanics in the design of its participatory processes to get you more actively involved.

Additional Info

For an excellent beginning place for learning more about public engagement, check out the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation’s (NCDD’s) Resource Guide.

Open governments understand that there are different motivations that will get citizens engaged, for example intrinsic vs extrinsic. The first is about internal motivations, eg to solve a personal frustration or because you love doing something. The second is about getting a reward, eg a paycheck or a prize or public recognition. Interestingly enough, it is generally accepted that offering a reward actually lowers the internal motivation, so depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, a reward can work against you. Here’s an academic article for in-depth info, Wikipedia for the quick overview, and a very entertaining video about motivation.

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