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Dot.Gov as a Listening Device

Aleem Walji's picture

A couple of nights ago, I went to listen to Anil Dash, founder of Experts Labs in Washington, DC. The title of the talk intrigued me. How Dot.Gov is the new Dot.com. 

Given my interest in Open Government and Transparency, I assumed Anil would talk about new business models and how the private sector is well positioned to create social and economic value from datasets that public bodies release. But I was entirely wrong. Although I believe strongly that clean and comparable datasets are an essential raw material for the visualization and creative community to create powerful citizen-facing apps, Anil's point was entirely different and more powerful. 

The two-way or interactive web that surfaced around 2004 in the private sector was about a fundamentally new way of interacting with users. It provided businesses an opportunity to dialogue with customers and listen to users' comments, needs, and feedback in much more efficient ways. 

Has that day come for Governance? Through data.gov and recovery.gov in the U.S., public agencies are able to not only broadcast information to citizens but also listen to what they have to say. What are their priorities, pain points, and the issues they care most about? How would they go about solving pressing policy problems and how do they think politicians and policy makers are doing? 

Is this a new day for social accountability, data sharing, and collaborative governance? I'm not sure where this will go, but I can't help but think that public and international institutions should take notice. Open Data is not just about sharing what you know but listening to what people have to say about it, seeking their feedback, and ultimately making better decisions. 

Imagine a day when our most difficult and seemingly intractable social problems are solved not by the smartest person in the room but by a group of concerned and engaged citizens who engage with a policy maker to make the best decision possible.

Welcome to Dot.Gov 2.0.

Comments

Submitted by Shanta on
You're exactly right. We should seize this opportunity at the Bank to make our internet activities as two-way as possible. Two suggestions. Let's make sure the revamped website (worldbank.org) is explicitly a site that invites people to participate and contribute. The home page should minimize what we want to tell people, and maximize what they want to tell us. Secondly, whenever we publish a research paper, we do so in a manner that invites feedback and comment. We always say "comments welcome," but do we make it as easy as possible for readers to comment? Even our newsletters (and there seem to be hundreds of them) should not be "newsletters" in the traditional sense, but invitations to engage in a conversation.

I'm glad to see this resonates with several colleagues inside the Bank. These are certainly early data for Gov 2.0 but we are clearly moving in the direction of two-way Governance. Even in the developing world, where connectivity is constrained, examples such as the Public Grievance and Redressal Module (PGR) launched by the eGovernments Foundation in India is proving very interesting. More than 250,000 complaints were registered by Indian citizens online in 50 cities in Karnataka. Ofcourse people will only continue to file complaints if there is some response and action on the other end of the line. But when criticism is valid, public, and transparent, there is certainly more pressure to act and find ways to deliver value to citizens. Last Friday, during our datacamp hosted by the World Bank in partnership with the Development Gateway Foundation and AidData, Clay Johnson from the Sunlight Foundation talked about the difference between naked-ness and open-ness in the public sphere. Because public bodies fear criticism of their data and their services, they shudder at the thought of sharing internal information. But what if public agencies saw sharing information as a way to identify gaps, enlist citizen support in improving data blindspots, and hearing from people what they truly think is important? It turns the paradigm of government serving citizens on its head. Its more about government, civil society, and other private actors partnering to improve shared outcomes. Each has responsibilities and opportunities. Understanding what each actor can do best in a given context is key to figuring out what partnerships make sense.

Submitted by Zeeshan on
I remarked to a friend when I walked out of the "Developers for Development" event a few weeks ago, that the Bank is transparent and is open, or at least going in that direction, but the way a user access this information is key. If it is arduous, time-consuming and plain painful, it doesnt make sense for us to keep referringt o ourselves as open and transparent. We shouldnt dupe our stakeholders into thinking they're important, when we dont make it easy for them to interact with us.

Public agencies at least in the U.S. are not quite ready "not only [to] broadcast information to citizens but also listen to what they have to say." Government officials at all levels in the U.S. are often expressly forbidden to respond to articles and comments on blogs and other Internet sites seeking interactivity between the public and the institutions that are supposed to be the public's servants. The reason that governments give for not promoting and engaging in feedback is -- so clever -- that to do so would consume too much time and thus make departments less efficient. A typical attitude is this recent straight-faced response to a citizen's query by the spokesman of the Knoxville (TN) Police Department -- http://blogs.knoxnews.com/silence/archives/2010/03/kpd_we_do_not_r.shtml Unfortunately, data.gov, in its Dec. 3, 2009, "Concept of Operations Draft" -- http://www.ideascale.com/userimages/sub-1/736312/ConOpsFinal.pdf -- didn't push very hard for more openness and engagement. All it says is: "State, local, and tribal governments are also encouraged to find more interactive and elegant ways of interacting directly with the public." That pretty-please request is exactly what the Knoxville Police Department and thousands of other public agencies want to hear. The data.gov operations draft will be greeted with many sighs of relief -- and DELETE buttons -- at government silos at all levels around the U.S.

Submitted by Jag on
It is great that some governments and international institutions are making better use of the interactive web. I hope these initiatives are sustained and in due course come to represent permanent changes in the ways public institutions are held accountable by their owners --- the average citizen and taxpayer. This is happening largely in high income economies. What about low-income countries? In many developing countries access to interactive web is limited, especially among low income groups. Most government agencies have poor web infrastructure and very limited interactive capabilities. Data and information is spotty and rarely current. Without access; listening, sharing and accountability will remain constrained. The poor will remain marginalized. How is the World Bank contributing in concrete ways to overcome the access problem? On the government side, how is the World Bank assisting governments to improve the quality and timeliness of information and enhance interactivity and accountability? Which developing countries can be cited as role models and in which developing countries has the World Bank had (or will have) demonstrable success?

Submitted by Zeeshan on
Developing countries are still grappling with the perennial problems of water, sanitation, food security, so why would internet access rank high, or even rank at all in such a list of commodities needed to survive? Unfortunately, literature on internetaional development is rarely diverse and rarely focuses on the trials the poor have to face. Electricity is a non-entity in these regions! Perhaps focusing on the use of mobile and wireless technology is worth looking into seeing that they are cheap and quite useful in the developing world. Thanks for shedding light on this topic.

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