Open government movement seen as way to engage private sector companies to improve government services

Tech book publisher Tim O’Reilly thinks that with greater openness in government, private sector companies will deliver software, services and applications to provide new and improved services at a lower cost to the public and in the process shrink the size of government. -db
May 24, 2010
By John Foley

Tim O’Reilly is raising the bar on what he envisions for the open government movement. At this week’s Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington, D.C., O’Reilly won’t be talking merely about government serving as “a platform” — that was last year’s idea — but about government as “a platform for greatness.”

It’s an ambitious goal for a concept that’s still so new and unproven, but O’Reilly, the tech book publisher and Web 2.0 evangelist, is right to think beyond the release of data sets once cordoned off behind the federal firewall, which is only a starting point. He foresees not just new services and applications being delivered from government platforms, but, in some cases, originating from smaller government entities and at lower costs relative to existing services. “There’s an opportunity to rethink how certain government programs work,” Tim told me in a phone conversation.

O’Reilly compares “government as a platform” to the iPhone phenomenon in which Apple’s smartphone serves as a foundation for thousands of applications created by a thriving ecosystem of third-party developers. Think of how that model might apply to the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Health and Human Services, Transportation, and the EPA — with thousands of useful new apps and services being offered, but not by the government itself — and you begin to see the potential.

The Obama administration unveiled its Open Government Directive in December 2009, and just last month agencies submitted detailed plans on how they will meet the mandate to become more open, participatory, and transparent. You can find a spreadsheet-like dashboard of where federal agencies are in meeting the Directive here. has its own audit of agency plans.

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I argued not long ago that we need more information on the costs and potential savings of Uncle Sam’s open government push, what I referred to it as “total return on openness.”

O’Reilly says we stand to see “enormous cost savings” from open government initiatives in the years ahead. That would happen as agencies enable more in the way of apps and services through surrogate organizations while doing less of the heavy lifting themselves. Such a phenomenon could lead to smaller, more agile government agencies even as new, information-rich services become available. O’Reilly puts it this way: “Government does less, becomes smaller, but provides better services.”

Many people would embrace open government on those terms. This vision requires that private sector companies become part of the open gov ecosystem, delivering software, services, and applications that leverage the government platform. O’Reilly points to healthcare data sharing (HHS’ Connect and NHIN Direct, for example) as one area where it’s already happening.

O’Reilly will expand on this and more in a presentation titled “Government as a Platform for Greatness” at Gov 2.0 Expo, which is co-sponsored by O’Reilly Media and UBM TechWeb, publisher of InformationWeek andInformationWeek Government. By the way, he’s not the only one with such lofty ambitions for open government. In another session, Deloitte’s Bill Eggers, who coined the term Government 2.0, will talk about how governments can achieve “great missions.”

Most federal agencies are still in the early stages of implementing their open government strategies, so real world examples of “greatness” are few and far between. But if downsized agencies can enable new and improved services at lower costs to taxpayers, they’re on the right track.

InformationWeek is owned by UBM TechWeb.

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