An open government can accept contributions and ideas generated by citizens completely of their own volition or in response to a specific item that interests them. Just as a complete hypothetical, if you were frustrated by the way a government service is provided and developed a method for improving it, your government could take that solution and implement it, making life better for everyone! Similarly, government releases software as open source that citizens help to improve, they create opportunities for crowdsourcing such citizen science or volunteering, and more recently in the US, governments have begun to bring tech entrepreneurs into government for six to twelve month stints to help them solve bigger problems.
In July 2010, the White House announced the creation of Federal Register 2.0, a website that would bring the US Federal Register (“The Daily Journal of the United Stated Government”) into the online space. This alone is not too surprising given the excitement around open government and the use of technology to improve government at the time. What is interesting is that the government reached out to two citizens who had created a website called GovPulse.us during their free time to ask them to “repurpose, refine, and expand” their website in order to create FederalRegister.gov.
Surprisingly, government has been a pretty big proponent of open source software and even releases software that is developed internally so that a broader community can benefit from it. In the US, this ranges from research software released by the National Cancer Institute or NASA to the White House’s ePetition site and the US Data repository released in conjunction with the government of India. This accomplishes two things – one, it makes already developed software available for other governments to use and two, it creates the opportunity for more eyes to find bugs in the software and for more developers to create additional features.
If you’re not an expert programmer, there are still plenty of ways that you can contribute to your government’s work, however. “Citizen science” is a term that applies to crowd-sourcing scientific data, and examples include helping NASA to map Mars with an online game that even kids can play, monitoring the quality of drinking water for the EPA by participating in volunteer water monitoring activities, and of course sharing your computing power to search for aliens through SETI@home.
If that’s still too geeky for you, maybe you’d be happier as a citizen archivist, helping the US National Archives and Record Administration to tag, transcribe, and contribute to making historical documents more accessible, transcribing weather observations from the 19th century to build more robust climate change models, or mapping roadkill as you travel the highways and byways of California or Maine in order to help determine the damage that vehicles are having on wildlife populations.
There are a lot of ways that governments are leveraging their citizens to improve their understanding of the world around us and also government itself more broadly.
The final model that you should be aware of has emerged recently in the United States and can be termed “entrepreneurs-in-residence.” The idea is to bring in technical experts to work on solving specific problems in a six to twelve month timeframe. The US Department of Health and Human Services has used this model, as has the White House through the Presidential Innovation Fellows program that launched in August 2012. In addition, there is the nonprofit Code for America that places entrepreneurs within city governments for a twelve month stint.
If you’re interested in what the government is actually doing with open source software, you’ll be surprised to learn it’s quite a lot. Here’s a nice history to bring you up to speed, as well as a lot of additional details up through today on a timeline.