Quotes of the day

For me, three quotes epiomize what the recent Open Govt West BC conference was all about:

1. “A digital citizenry doesn’t want to engage with an analog government.” According to David Eaves, government must transform itself from an outdated, industrial model to a more inclusive, Web 2.0-friendly one. It must embrace the technologies that a highly digitally literate citizenry uses so commonly in other areas of their lives.

Government needs look no further than the open source community for examples of how to do this. Many groups in this community operate with very limited resources. There have no choice but to collaborate, build external partnerships, and generally do things faster, better, and cheaper. This means relinquishing the locus of control and embracing ideas and solutions from others if they can help get the job done better. Government can learn a lesson from this model. And it’s up to change agents (like the folks at the OGWBC conference) to help make this happen.

2. “We’ve run out of money, so it’s time to think.” (Winston Churchill, via Chris Rasmussen) – Chris kindly shared with us the experiences of the American intelligence community around the collection of data. According to Chris, billions of dollars has been spent on platform after platform, but the gravy train is starting to run out. Agencies will now have to do more with less. They will have to think of ways they can involve the general public, the broader public sector, and private businesses in finding new and more efficient ways to tackle some of today’s big challenges. For B.C., addressing the problem of climate change immediately comes to mind here (e.g., Apps 4 Climate Action Contest.)

3. “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world.” (Archimedes, via I can’t remember who???) Citizens are looking to play a role in the way their world is run. They want unfettered access to the information that will help them do that. That means access to open data to mash up, transform, and repurpose into products and applications that will better society as a whole. That means being empowered by government to make a difference.

Awesome conference. So glad I could attend. A big thank you to everyone who worked so hard to put it all together.

The Power of Collaboration

It is nearly a week since our big event.  The OpenGovWest BC conference had a remarkable impact.  There is a buzz.  A lot is happening.  People are talking about things they haven’t talked about before.  A difference was made.  New connections.  Courses altered.

Organizing this conference was an amazing experience.  I had the privilege of working with a group of talented, committed people toward something important.  We were a team. Each of us had the opportunity to contribute the best of ourselves.  We created space for that, and we let it happen.

Participants exclaimed at the quality and diversity of the speakers, the diversity of the format, the energy of the day and beyond.  That outcome was a direct result of the diversity and talent on the team.  The conference wasn’t created by one brain, and it wasn’t vanilla flavour.

The experience makes me think of one of my favourite quotations of all time, by Margaret Meade:  ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has’.

Open government means something slightly different to each of us.  Core tenets include transparency and collaboration.  I am proud that we created this conference about open government using the tenets of open government.

The Power of Open

The OpenGovWest BC conference is now complete. The day was filled with amazing speakers, amazing speaking formats and amazing topics.

One of the highlights of the conference was the talk given by Nick Charney (@nickcharney) and Walter Schwabe (@fusedlogic) where they talked to the audience about participation, and as part of their talk unveiled a blog where folks in the conference were encouraged to participate in real time, right there, while they were talking. Now, days later, blog posts are still being generated on http://www.opengovnorth.ca by individuals and the enthusiasm is still present.

Nick and Walter took a risk. They put the idea out there, provided a place for it to happen and then made a simple request for participation. Though they are both accomplished bloggers they didn’t tell people what to write, or how to write it, and they didn’t try to control the conversation. They shared their ideas generously and provided a space for expression.

When skilled speakers like Nick and Walter encourage audience members share their ideas with each other in real time, while the talk is going on, they are engaging the participants in a vastly larger conversation. And when the talk they are giving happens to be about encouraging this type of engagement then they are really leading by example, in an almost recursive way.

They also weren’t trying to promote themselves, or their organizations, or trying to take credit for anyone else’s work or building their brand.

No, they were just there as Nick and Walter, a couple of guys encouraging us to take a chance and move a little closer to the edge. Giving us a gift, expecting nothing in return. Within minutes the site was crashing because the server had exceeded its capacity.

In a closed model, people focus on controlling the message and dictating top down what is supposed to happen. This model is built on fear and lacks trust and although many results can be and are generated this way, communities are not. Contrast this with what Nick and Walter created.

I agree with others who have remarked that this particular conference has taken us from a great idea to a movement. I think there are several reasons for this and I also want to acknowledge the lead organizer, Donna Horn (@inspiricity), who just like Walter and Nick, used an open approach with with her expertise in community building and leadership to support, encourage and then trust the conveners and speakers to create their own parts of the conference. And the result was a level of enthusiasm from the conveners and the speakers that spilled over to everyone else in the conference.

That’s how a community is created and that’s the power of open.

Twitter as a tool for the hard of hearing

I’ve been wearing hearing aids since I was 2 years old.  I don’t normally have problems talking face to face, but group settings are difficult – particularly large groups in large rooms.  Like conferences.

On Wednesday I attended Open Government West, which was a group of 200 government enthusiasts working to foster progress on open government issues throughout the US and Canada.  200 of those enthusiasts, all in one room.

Add to this mix, some of the presenters contributed virtually from Edmonton, Poland and Argentina.  We watched them on a screen,  and their voices were transmitted through the mics on their computers, through the internet to be broadcast in our room through large speakers.

Lipreading?  Nope.

Accents?  Yep.

A challenge to figure out what’s going on?  Absolutely.

There are a number of assistive technologies out there to help people with hearing loss in these situations, but most of them require a very specialized skill set and are usually very expensive.  It is very hard to pay these costs in order to support one person – simply put, it doesn’t usually happen.

So, enter my big suprise on Wednesday.

Using my iPhone, I followed the hashtag for the conference on twitter.  Within an hour I realised that I was surrounded by people taking notes for me.  People were posting the key points of the talks on twitter.  And I could read them in real time.  Heck, I could even ask them questions.


Big thanks to everyone who contributed to #ogwbc this week, and keep it up.

“Open” feels insufficient

Chris Rasmussen’s talk on the Intellipedia effort in the US intelligence community really hammered home that “open government” is not necessarily about openness at all. Since, clearly, the intelligence community is not going to be sharing their data with others. But Intellipedia and the efforts around it are about changing the way government works with itself and perceives effectiveness — looking beyond organizational silos to the actual users. In the case of the intelligence community, that would be the White House, the Pentagon, the Congress, and so on.

If government can learn to be more open within itself, to build business processes that cross the barriers of organizational silos (maybe using high-tech tools like wikis or just “talking to one another more”) then expanding those conversations outside the government silo will also come more naturally. If the spooks can do it, probably anyone can.

Open+shared purpose=self-organising communities?

Working with the other conveners to organize the conference was a great experience.  For the last year, my main project was organizing a water symposium for BC that was held in August in three locations simultaneously.  As you can imagine it was a lot of work, worked with a lot of great people, and together we delivered a great symposium.  There was a sense of team work but I wouldn’t say we were self-organizing.  At the start I sent out a committee org chart, roles and responsibilities, and time lines.  This worked but I wonder how efficient it was.

For the OGW BC conference, I saw a lot of dedicated people looking for ways to contribute and be helpful without a set structure.  Everyone’s time was limited as everyone was volunteering yet by the day of the conference all the details fell into place.  There was definitely huge effort on the part of some (hooray for Donna and Bowen) and the conveners seemed to be self-organizing.  The principles of Open were used throughout the planning process (google docs for everything) and  I’m wondering, is a shared sense of purpose and openness the only ingredients for self-organizing communities or are there others?  -Angeline Tilllmanns

Thoughts on David Eaves’ opening remarks

I came into the room this morning to hear David Eaves relate how he is excited about web 2.0 and social media and how it will allow public servants work better together. Through a more open government, public servants will be better able to self organize and make things happen without needing permission of someone else.

I don’t doubt this is the case in David Hume’s Citizen Engagement group and other pockets of government, however that’s a tough row to hoe for most of the public service. Ok, to tell the truth, as a former government worker (for 4 years) my first reaction to that statement was “What planet is he on? This isn’t government right now, not in BC!”

I used to give mini-media relations seminars to front line government workers where the only thing I wanted them to remember was “NO SURPRISES,” meaning, everything anyone said in a public forum had to be told to the communications people first, so the Minister could be prepared. For every public meeting there is (depending on the deputy and the Minister involved) a small forest of trees cut down preparing approved messaging, briefing notes, information binders, etc.

So while it’s true that 21st century knowledge workers are also citizens, they indeed are butting up against 19th century government, as David mentioned. How are we going to fix it?

I was pleased David offered some answers: cheaper, better, faster and more efficient ways of doing things will be found no matter what – people disobeying their bosses or in resource-constrained environments will be forced to innovate using new social technologies.

During my time in government I saw many examples of conscientious government workers keeping in close contact with their diverse stakeholder groups, mainly by phone (because the best relationships are still formed in person after all), when preparing new regulations or contemplating new initiatives. They developed relationships of trust where they could share limited amounts of sensitive information and trust each other not to use it to embarrass the other. I was so impressed and inspired when I saw that happen.

I also saw the opposite: people so afraid of approaching constituent groups in person that they dug themselves and their minister an issue-laden hole so deep it nearly paralysed the process: all because they were afraid to share with stakeholders and citizens.

Chris Rasmussen alluded to this in his keynote later in the morning: that an environment of fear (of losing one’s job because of government cuts or restructuring) makes people quite conservative and protective of their turf.

I also saw decisions come seemingly ex nihilo from on high that front line workers could not explain to their stakeholders. It made them feel helpless and frustrated to be ordered to implement decisions no one asked for or requested, seemingly at the whim of their leadership.

How do we make innovation and openness happen every single day? It has a lot to do with leadership, and it comes from the top as well as the rank and file, and it starts also with elected officials and senior (Deputy and Assistant Deputy-level) bureaucrats embracing change, being more tolerant of failure and willing to give up control of the process to a certain extent.

I know I’m sounding a little pessimistic, and I don’t mean to. Today’s conference was certainly a bright light and possibly the start of real change.

But certainly, we as citizens must keep asking more of our leadership.

Chris Rasmussen – you are so right

Chris Rasmussen presented on the U.S. government’s Intellipedia – here are some initial rough notes (annotated in places):

  • “Too many different tools & systems among gov agencies.” — (We’re facing that within an agency of only 26 people!)
  • Kinda stuck on the analytics side. Posting minutes and large docs on wikis os not what the US population asked for with legislation to allow open govt
  • We can finally create a living version – collapse arms into joint forces “purple intelligence” — that’s the vision but Chris is stuck getting there
  • The official voice matters – a convo on Twitter – how do you verify it as an official entity?
  • (We’re finding the same thing with Open Education Resources – people reluctant to use them if they’re not articulated and credentialed…)
  • Why can’t social network/wiki stuff be used as the official agency voice against the crowdsourced work flow?
  • Records retention system, etc. — Must answer the objections. “Be bold” is getting old, its not structurally redefining our business yet.
  • Unless your open gov wiki stuff changes the core way government works you’re going to hit a wall and get stuck like intellipedia did.
  • (I relate this to trying to set up a more cohesive Client Management System in my own small organization … it has to be incorporated into the work flow.)
  • How long are we going to spin the “change takes time” and “training” cliché??
  • Agencies: you’re going to have to give up the outcomes and not control the process end to end. Chris is not seeing indications that agencies want to do that – that’s where they’re stuck.
  • We’re now talking about saving money and rationalizing – people’s jobs at stake – can’t achieve enterprise 2.0 success and then get stuck on people worried about turf-saving and job-preserving.
  • Love/hate relationships – even people who make lots of changes to Intellipedia have the “Let’s not say things we can’t take back” syndrome.
  • This course trajectory might hit any internal environment.
  • (Yes Chris, it most certainly does!)

A challenge for libraries, traditional open public spaces, is to bring knowledge of open gov and open data to our users

“Change Takes Time” OR – Does it?

Chris Rasmussen points out the cliché “Change takes time.” and remarks “It might not, you need to be on the right trajectory”.

I never wanted change to just happen to me, but rather, wanted to be part of that change.

How do we find others who are change agents, brand ambassadors and raving fans of the process of open government? They are out there.

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