TESTIMONY OF DR. BETH S. NOVECK
HEARING OF THE STANDING COMMITTEE ON ACCESS TO INFORMATION, PRIVACY, AND ETHICS HOUSE OF COMMONS CANADA
MARCH 2, 2011
[This is the version as delivered.]
Chairman Murphy and Members of the Committee:
Thank you for the honor of appearing before you today.
By way of background, I served for two years as the United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government and led the White House Open Government Initiative. I am also a law professor at New York Law School where my research focuses on the impact of new technology on legal and political institutions.
You have asked me to join you today to reflect about the meaning and value of open government and to share some insights about creating an open government culture in practice. The views represented in this testimony are entirely my own and are not intended to represent official United States government positions.
I would like to tell you briefly about the White House Open Government Initiative and what we did to begin the process of changing the culture of government. I will then share ten principles for designing open government institutions and conclude with a few thoughts about open data. But first let me begin by laying out why I believe open government matters.
Open government goes far beyond transparency. Opening up how institutions work to enable greater collaboration – open innovation - affords the opportunity to use network technology to discover creative solutions to challenges that a handful of people in Ottawa or Washington might not necessarily devise. By itself, government doesn’t have all the answers.
In the network age, twenty-first-century institutions are not bigger or smaller ones: they are smarter hybrids that leverage somewhat anarchic technologies within tightly controlled bureaucracies to connect the organization to a network of people in order to devise new approaches that would never come from within the bureaucracy itself. By using technology to build connections between institutions and networks, we can open up new, manageable and useful ways for government and citizens to solve problems together. Everyone is an expert in something and so many would be willing to participate if given the opportunity to bring our talents, skills, expertise and enthusiasm to bring to bear for the public good.
Government agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration use their role as honest brokers to coordinate unprecedented data sharing among government, universities and companies. As a result, researchers are finding with astonishing rapidity the biological markers that show the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in the human brain. By collaborating to share all of their data and making it available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world, the project enables researchers to build upon one another’s work and make faster progress. The collaborators are achieving in record time together what no one company or researcher could or would have done alone.
As President Obama recently said, “we cannot win the future with a government of the past.” The real motivator for changing how government works is to make government more democratic. Providing opportunities for citizens to collaborate is vital to fostering an engaged and democratic citizenry. Especially in this era when journalism is in economic transition, we have to look to new strategies that leverage technology to create democratic accountability by making many more people partners in the co-creation of governance.
The White House Open Government Initiative
On his first full day in office, President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, calling for “unprecedented level of openness in Government” and creating public institutions governed by the values of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. The White House Open Government Initiative, a collaboration between the White House and all the major Departments and agencies, was coordinated by White House Counsel, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Two years later and every cabinet department and major agency in the U.S. has a brainstorming website for public consultation and can visit the General Services Administration’s apps.gov online catalog to select from many more. The White House alone has eight Twitter accounts, including an open government account (@opengov) with over 150,000 followers, and many Cabinet Secretaries as well as their Departments tweet. Each of these organizations also has a fully articulated Open Government Plan, laying out concrete and specific steps they will take to make themselves more transparent, participatory and collaborative.
Agencies are putting up thousands of collections of government information online on their own agency websites and making those data sets searchable through the national data portal – Data.gov. In addition, agencies and the White House are reaching out to get “all hands on deck” to solve problems through Challenge.gov, the new national website that offers prize-backed rewards for the development of creative solutions to problems.
In its first two years, the Obama Administration started to experiment with collaboration in day-to-day governance. These “open government” initiatives have demonstrated that, when thoughtfully designed, participation can yield productive and creative solutions to serious issues.
As you will hear today, when the National Archives wanted to improve the Federal Register, the notoriously impenetrable daily gazette of government, it launched a prize-backed challenge and ended up turning to three young programmers, who had developed a highly readable prototype while sitting in a cafe in San Francisco. For the first time in the Federal Register’s seventy-five year history, a member of the public can easily read and search it.
When the Department of Health and Human Services wanted to help policymakers and citizens make more informed decisions about their healthcare, it made hundreds of public health indicators available online and invited companies and individuals to transform this raw Community Health Data into useful tools and visualizations. Within three months, people outside of government developed two-dozen innovations to improve community health. Since that time, they have developed many more.
When the United States Patent and Trademark Office, beleaguered by over a million backlogged pending applications, wanted to devise a way to get at better information faster to inform the determination of the patent examiner, it launched a pilot program with my law school called Peer-to-Patent to connect the institution to a network of volunteer scientists and technologists who contributed their own know-how and rated and ranked each other’s submissions for relevance and accuracy.
“Transparency, participation, collaboration” is, by no means, an exclusively American mantra. Ten countries have launched national data portals to make public information transparent and accessible in raw formats. The British Parliament is debating amending its Freedom of Information Act to provide that, when so requested, the government must “provide the information to the applicant in an electronic form which is capable of re-use.” Poland and Brazil are also working on open access legislation. Ten Downing Street like the White House has invited the citizenry and civil servants to brainstorm ideas for how to cut spending. They both publish government contracting data. Australia launched a national Government 2.0 taskforce to explore opportunities for citizen engagement. The United Nations and the World Bank are jumping on the open-data and collaboration bandwagon. India and the United States have an open government partnership. Local governments from Amsterdam to Vladivostok are implementing tools bring citizens into governance processes to help with everything from policing to public works in manageable and relevant ways.
Last September, President Obama gave a boost to the international open government movement when he called upon every nation to “make government more open and accountable.” The President exhorted other countries to return to the United Nations this September and “bring specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement; and to leverage new technologies so that we strengthen the foundation of freedom in our own countries, while living up to ideals that can light the world.”
From Principles to Practice: How to Build an Open Government
Beginning the process of creating an open and collaborative culture in the public sector requires a combination of 1) policy; 2) platforms; and 3) projects. In the United States, we used policy, including a very specific mandate that all public data is to be made open in raw formats, to provide the necessary assurances and incentives to the civil service. Furthermore, setting out the lofty ideals of openness and collaboration in the strongest terms inspired people to do the hard work required to transform institutions mid-stream.
Second, we used new platforms such as data.gov to enable officials to translate principles into practice. It’s one thing to pay lip service to transparency and another to have a place to put data to make it findable and searchable. Challenge.gov makes it possible for agencies to post and Americans to find ways to get involved. The availability of technological platforms for institutional innovation encourages would-be innovators to use the tools at their disposal.
Third, we encouraged the launch of a multiplicity of projects across the Executive branch in order to infuse open government values throughout the bureaucracy and empower civil servants to act as innovators. Then we celebrated those projects online and in meetings in an effort to identify and reward innovative people committed to the practices of openness. Also we launched our Open Government Initiative, we did so by using free social media tools to consult with both government employees and the public and thereby modeled the change. This has spawned dozens if not hundreds of such engagements.
It is also worth noting that going from principle to practice requires attention to changing the culture in government, civil society, and among the media. We can’t “do democracy” differently if we only address one. The Department of Health and Human Services is helping to co-convene an event on healthcare journalism in the era of open data, educating those who cover and write about health to become partners in the transformation under way.
A Note on the Importance of High Value Data
The Open Government Directive, the government-wide policy directing federal agencies to create open government plans, orders agencies to inventory their “high value” data, where high value is defined as: “[I]information that can be used to increase agency accountability and responsiveness; improve public knowledge of the agency and its operations; further the core mission of the agency; create economic opportunity; or respond to need and demand as identified through public consultation.”
First, going beyond spending data or the schedules of Cabinet Secretaries – traditional forms of accountability data – focuses on the data that people want (and are requesting via the Freedom of Information Act or via open gov websites) and ensure that open government serves the needs of the public.
Second, by starting with high value data and steering clear initially of national security data or personally identifiable information, government officials can publish data about bridge safety or patent filing and create a widespread culture change quickly.
Third, high value data emphasizes putting out information that improves people’s daily lives. For example, healthcare.gov, uses public data about health insurance options to give citizens more informed choices. There is a wealth of government data that can translate into useful knowledge to empower people and policymakers.
Fourth, publishing high value data allows government and the public to start developing a collaborative instead of an adversarial relationship. The Agriculture Department published nutritional data in raw form, enabling the First Lady’s Office to sponsor a prize to create the best games to teach kids health eating habits. Productive collaboration encourages public officials to publish more data and enlist people’s help with using thereby producing more opportunities for productive engagement. High value data is the means to turn citizens into the co-creators of government.
Instead of focusing on transparency for its own sake, it is important that government, together with the public, identify problems that need to be solved; publish data that enables the public to devise informed and creative solutions; and institute the platforms and the policies that enables collaboration by the people in their own governance.
Getting from Here to There: Principles for Open Government
Based on my experience designing and implementing open government practices across the Executive branch in the United States, I offer ten short recommendations for the Committee’s consideration.
1. Go Open – Government should work in the open. Its contracts, grants, legislation, regulation and policies should be transparent. Openness gives people the information they need to know how their democracy works and to participate.
2. Open Gov Includes Open Access - Work created by and at the behest of the taxpayer whether through grants or contracts should be freely available. After the public has paid once, it shouldn’t have to pay again.
3. Make Open Gov Productive Not Adversarial – Given the time-consuming nature of responding to information requests today, Government should invest its human and financial capital in providing the data that people really want and will use. Officials should articulate what they hope people will do with the data provided (ie. design a new Federal Register) and also be open to the unexpected contributions that improve the workings of the organization and help the public.
4. Be Collaborative – It isn’t enough just to be transparent; officials need to take the next step of actively soliciting engagement from those with the incentives and expertise to help. Legislation and regulatory rulemaking should be open to public as early as possible in the process to afford people an opportunity – not simply to comment -- but to submit constructive alternative proposals. Legislation should also mandate that agencies undertake public engagement during implementation.
5. Love Data – Design policies informed by real-time data. With data, we can measure performance, figure out what’s working, and change what’s not. Publishing the data generated in connection with new policies as well as “crowdsourcing” data gathered by those outside government enables innovation in policymaking. As an added bonus, open data also has the potential to create economic opportunity.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency in the United States has a ~$5 billion dollar annual budget. Through the open release of data, NOAA is catalyzing at least 100 times that value in the private sector market of weather and climate services when including market and non-market valuations.  The ~$1 billion it spends on the National Weather Service helps enable weather.com, which has since been sold for $3.5 billion. Hidden within the troves of public data is information that can translate into the next GPS or genomics industry.
6. Be Nimble – Where possible, invite innovations that can be implemented in 90 days or less. Forcing organizations to act more quickly discourages bureaucracy and encourages creative brainstorming and innovation. The need for speed encourages a willingness to reach out to others, including across the public sector.
7. Do More, Spend Less – Design solutions that do more with less. Instead of cutting a service to save money, ask if there is another way such as a prize or challenge to address people’s problems that both serves their needs and cuts costs. In this era of scientific and technological advances, we have amazing new ways of addressing problems if we can only recognize and implement them. Innovation may ultimately bring the win-win of more cost-effectiveness and greater engagement.
8. Invest in Platforms – So long as Freedom of Information, declassification and records management processes are entirely manual and data is created in analog instead of digital formats, open government will be very hard. Further, without tools to engage the public in brainstorming, drafting, policy reviews, and the other activities of government, collaboration will elude us. Focus on going forward practices of creating raw data and real engagement.
9. Invest in People – Changing the culture of government will not happen through statements of policy alone. It is important to ensure that policy empowers people to seek democratic alternatives and pursue open innovation. Consider appointing Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Democracy Officers, Chief Technology Officers.
10. Design for Democracy – Always ask if the legislation enables active and constructive engagement that uses people’s abilities and enthusiasm for the collective good. It is not enough to simply “throw” Facebook or Twitter at a problem. A process must be designed to complement the tool that ensures meaningful and manageable participation for both officials and the public.
 Beth Simone Noveck Noveck is a professor of law at New York Law School. Dr. Noveck served in the White House as the nation's first Deputy Chief Technology Officer (2009-2011) and leader of the White House Open Government Initiative (www.whitehouse.gov/open). The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recently awarded Professor Noveck a grant to develop a multi-year interdisciplinary research agenda to gauge the impact of digital networks on institutions. In 2010, Professor Noveck was named “One of the Hundred Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company magazine and “One of the Top 5 Game Changers” by Politico. She is the author of Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful (Brookings Institution Press, 2009), which will appear this year in Arabic and Chinese.
 For an extended discussion of the theory and practice of “collaborative democracy,” see Beth Simone Noveck, Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful (Brookings Institution Press, 2009), chp. 2.
 See, e.g., Department of Labor Enforcement Database (http://ogesdw.dol.gov/); Health Indicators Warehouse health.data.gov (http://www.data.gov/health); Department of Transportation Data Inventory (http://www.dot.gov/open/data/index.html); Federal Communications Commission Data Inventory (http://reboot.fcc.gov/data/review); Environment Protection Agency Data Finder (http://www.epa.gov/data/).
 http://www.usaspending.gov and http://www.contractsfinder.businesslink.gov.uk/
 Ibid, p. 7.
 As just one example of a market that uses NOAA data, the total value of weather derivative trading has been estimated at: $2.0 billion/year in 1998-2000, $4.0 billion in 2001-2002, $4.0 billion in 2002-2003, $4.5 billion in 2003-2004, $9.7 billion in 2004-2005, $45.0 billion in 2005-2006, $32.0 billion in 2006-2007, and $15.0 billion in 2007-2008 (Weather Risk Management Association, 2009). Also for every $1 that energy companies spend in acquiring NOAA climate station data, they receive a potential benefit of saving $495 in infrastructure costs that would be required to maintain their own climate data base storage, archiving, and reporting system. Extrapolating the savings to the entire U.S. energy market yields a potential benefit of $65 million. Source: Investigating the Economic Value of Selected National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) Products, Centrec Consulting Group, Report, LLC, January, 2003. For more information, see http://economics.noaa.gov.