Government IT Can't Pass The Buck On Open Data

Improving the way government shares data will make it more efficient -- if IT commits to getting that work done.
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I was dumbfounded. While giving a talk about open data a couple of weeks ago to folks from a variety of municipalities, an audience member asserted that government IT should stay out of open data.

His line of argument went like this: It's not IT's data. It's the finance department's data. It's the police department's data.

Well, not quite. Each department is the custodian of its data on behalf of citizens' representative government. They no more own the data than IT owns the servers. And when these departments get requests for data, who do you think fulfills them? Right, the IT organization.

The audience member's argument continued: If municipal departments don't want to make "their" data available to the public, then IT needs to back off.

[ For more on open government data, read The Freedom From Information Act. ]

Well, if a department can point to a statute that prevents the release of data, then true enough. But my argumentative friend then went a step further, saying in so many words that if a department were to refuse to release data classified by law as an open record, then IT should just go along with this obstructionist behavior.

My response: So keeping your pals at your local government happy is more important than following the law and fulfilling your responsibilities to the citizens you ostensibly were hired to serve?

I understand that the release of data can be a contentious issue, especially when city staffers think someone is playing gotcha games. But when the law requires municipalities or any other entity to release records, they must release them. And in such cases, it is absolutely IT's role to make that release easier on everyone.

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As I've been saying for some time, automated and on-demand access to open record data lets citizens make better personal decisions; lets entrepreneurs create value, jobs and new services; and frees government personnel from the stultifyingly boring task of fulfilling data requests manually.

Without automated open data, some delay is inevitable, because every record request is treated as a unique event, requiring assessment, redaction of non-public data, double-checking, etc. Automation and providing for self-service not only connect the spirit of the law to the letter of it, but they also save staff time and, over the long haul, keep costs down.

Yes, open data can get political when city staffers release data sets without a plan. My advice: Focus on pragmatics: Where's the biggest bang for your efforts? Where will you save a lot of time for legal, public information and IT staffers? Leave the politics and the policy wars to the political process.

If your local government's IT is being run by folks like my argumentative friend, a common way they'll avoid responsibility is to delegate up: Throw the question of "should we even offer open data" to the mayor or other policy makers. It's a tactic akin to asking policy-makers if electronic forms should be used instead of five-part NCR paper.

Let's agree on this as a starting point: If we're going to promote more efficient, accountable and agile government, we need more open data. I'm not suggesting that policy-makers can't get involved in prioritizing data sets. I'm just saying that delegating up shows a lack of IT leadership. When data is opened up to the public, it should be done so in the most efficient way.