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How the Public Views Open Government Initiatives

By Lee Rainie, Director Internet, Science, and Technology ResearchPew Research Center
Cross-posted from the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance Blog
Government reformers and advocates believe that two contemporary phenomena hold the potential to change how people engage with governments at all levels and how they are served by public agencies. The first is data. There is more of it than ever before and there are more effective tools for sharing it, analyzing it, and organizing it. This creates new service-delivery possibilities for government through use of data that government agencies themselves collect and generate. The second is public desire to make government more responsive, transparent and effective in serving citizens — an impulse driven by tight budgets and declining citizen trust in government.
A third factor is also inspiring some level of hope about the impact of releasing large volumes of data. Some believe that clever commercial and social entrepreneurs will be able to find ways to exploit the data and create new businesses or policy solutions once they can have access to the vast stores of information governments collect – much the way weather forecasting companies use government data to create products and services that help tens of millions of people.
The upshot has been the appearance of a variety of “open data” and “open government” initiatives across various levels of government in the United States. They aspire to use data as a lever to improve government performance and encourage warmer citizens’ attitudes toward government.

Key public opinion findings

The Pew Research Center conducted a national survey of 3,212 adults last winter designed to benchmark public sentiment about the government initiatives that use data to cultivate the public square. The survey was done in association with the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation and the findings included:

As open data and open government initiatives get underway, most Americans are still largely engaged in “e-Gov 1.0” online activities, with far fewer attuned to “Data-Gov 2.0” initiatives that involve agencies sharing data online for public use.Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 2.08.34 PM

The survey showed that 65% of Americans in the prior 12 months have used the internet to find data or information pertaining to government.
In this early phase of the drive for open government and open data, people’s activities tend to be simple. Their connection to open data could be as routine as finding out the hours of a local park; or it could be transactional, such as paying a fine or renewing a license.
At the same time, minorities of Americans say they pay a lot of attention to how governments share data with the public and relatively few say they are aware of examples where government has done a good (or bad) job sharing data. Less than one quarter use government data to monitor how government performs in several different domains.
Few Americans think governments are very effective in sharing data they collect with the public:

  • Just 5% say the federal government does this very effectively, with another 39% saying the federal government does this somewhat effectively.
  • 5% say state governments share data very effectively, with another 44% saying somewhat effectively.
  • 7% say local governments share data very effectively, with another 45% responding somewhat effectively.

Relatively few Americans reported using government data sources for monitoring what is going on in their communities:

  • 20% have used government sources to find information about student or teacher performance.
  • 17% have used government sources to look for information on the performance of hospitals or health care providers.
  • 7% have used government sources to find out about contracts between government agencies and outside firms.

Americans have mixed hopes about government data initiatives. People see the potential in these initiatives as a force to improve government accountability. However, the verdict is mixed as to whether government data initiatives will improve government performance.Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 2.02.10 PM

When looking at government performance, however, people are less optimistic, with less than half of Americans saying open data can help the quality of government services or officials’ decisions. Proponents of open data hope that a variety of benefits might emerge from greater transparency about government activities, from more public accountability to better customer service. Majorities are hopeful that open data can help journalists cover government more thoroughly (56% do) and 53% say open data can make government officials more accountable. Combining those who respond affirmatively to these propositions means that 66% of Americans harbor hopes that open data will improve government accountability.
Additionally, 50% say they think the data the government provides to the public helps businesses create new products and services.

People’s baseline level of trust in government strongly shapes how they view the possible impact of open data and open government initiatives on how government functions.

In this survey, 23% of Americans say they trust the federal government to do the right thing at least most of the time. This trusting minority of Americans is much more likely than others to see the potential benefits of government data initiatives:

  • 76% of those who generally trust the federal government say government data can help government officials be more accountable.
  • 73% believe government data can help journalists cover government more thoroughly.
  • 71% back the idea that government data results in better government decisions.
  • 70% agree with the notion that government data can enable people to have a greater impact on government affairs.
  • 69% say government data can improve the quality of government services.

Americans’ perspectives on trusting government are shaped strongly by partisan affiliation, which in turn makes a difference in attitudes about the impacts of government data initiatives.Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 2.03.07 PM

Those with different partisan views have different notions about whether they trust government. Some 31% of those identifying as Democrats (or leaning that way) say they trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time, compared with 15% of those identifying as Republicans (or leaning that way).
The differences between Democrats and Republicans views on the possible impact of open government initiatives are highlighted in the nearby chart.

Americans are for the most part comfortable with government sharing online data about their communities, although they sound cautionary notes when the data hits close to home.

People’s comfort with government data-sharing varies across a range of topics:

  • 82% of adults say they are comfortable with government sharing data online about the health and safety records of restaurants.
  • 62% are okay with government sharing information about criminal records of individual citizens online.
  • 60% can accept government sharing data about the performance of individual teachers at schools online.
  • 54% are comfortable with government sharing data about real estate transactions online.
  • Only 22% are comfortable with government sharing information about mortgages of individual homeowners online.

Where does this leave things?

For stakeholders hopeful that open data and open government can have an impact, the data provide a mixed message. About 17% of adults see the potential of open data pretty clearly. A slightly greater number, 20%, are relatively familiar with government data initiatives, but remain wary that these initiatives will have much impact on government performance.
Some 27% see the appeal of open government-open data, but for whatever reason do not use the tools that much. And 36% can be described as having an uncertain outlook because they are not now interested or engaged with these issues. To the degree they might ponder open-data initiatives, they seem to be wondering whether these initiatives can make a difference and are reluctant to start exploring something for which they see little potential impact.
A potentially significant barrier to government data initiatives lies in the connection between trust in government and skepticism among some citizens about whether these initiatives will bolster government performance. The greater a person’s trust in government, the greater the likelihood she believes government data initiatives will improve government performance. That sets up a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Do government data initiatives spark high levels of trust in government? Or do low levels of trust in government attenuate the benefits to civic engagement that are a motive for many government data initiatives? In highlighting this dynamic, this research points to the challenges and possibilities in ongoing efforts in the open data and open government arena.
After looking at these findings, Jon Sotsky, the Knight Foundation’s director for strategy and assessment argued similarly, “While most Americans use the internet to intermittently access government information or services, few have considered how increasing the availability and utility of government data could impact their lives. The split feelings about whether openly publishing more government data even has the potential to improve government accountability primarily reflects existing low levels of trust in government, which is ironic because open data initiatives largely aim to increase this trust.”

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A "calculus" for open data

Arnaud Sahuguet (The GovLab) and David Sangokoya ( The GovLab) at Medium: “The value, impact and promise of making data publicly accessible have driven citizens, government agencies and businesses to embrace open data as a way to increase efficiency, promote transparency and maximize utility…..While the rise of the open data movement has led to numerous commitments and increasing enthusiasm to unleash the potential of open data, data providers lack a common language for evaluating and weighing the decision to open their own data.

Government agencies and city officials often open their data as a result of top-down pressure to champion efficiency, meet citizen demand or increase transparency through the number of datasets released rather than the impact these datasets may create. They often do not understand the hidden costs associated with opening their data and miss opportunities to leverage knowledge from communities or outside expertise for optimal data sharing.

Corporations are mostly embracing a wait-and-see attitude. While some have begun sharing corporate data for research or policymaking intended for public benefit, others are building business models from public open data. Since data is seen as a business asset holding significant value, companies are cautiously considering why they should take on risks to competition and engage in activity amidst nascent legal and regulatory frameworks.

End users are motivated to share their data. However, they often are not the true “owners” — their data being stored and managed on their behalf by technology and social media companies. Even when they are, the fear of unwanted government surveillance or corporate marketing practices dissuades them from making their data more publicly accessible.

Stories from the field

We briefly start with a few selected examples to highlight the value and impact of open data and the need for a better decision framework when choosing to open data… (More)

A calculus for open data

Our calculus centers around a simple equation:

P × B + D > C

where

  • P is the probability that opening the data will have some effect,
  • B is the individual benefit of opening the data,
  • D is the global or ecosystem impact, and
  • C is the cost.

Any increase in P, B or D and a decrease in C will make the outcome of opening the data better.

Let’s now revisit each variable one by one and look at concrete factors that influence it….(More)”

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New GovLab Resource: R-Search – Rapid Re-Search Enabling the Design of Agile and Creative Responses to Problems

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 1.37.24 PM
How to quickly, yet systematically, become smart about a topic when seeking solutions to public problems? What questions to answer that can help assess the problem and solutions space better? How to identify rapidly the stakeholders that matter? Today, the GovLab released a new resource seeking to enable problem-solvers to design agile and creative responses to public challenges based upon research and due diligence.
The “R-Search” rapid research methodology encompasses two central components that, when leveraged, can enable researchers to develop, iterate and implement evidence-based solutions to public problems:

  •   Getting smart quickly on a topic by:
    • developing a clear and detailed understanding of the problem and solution area;
    • identifying actors at play in the problem and solution space; and
    • understanding the larger context in which the problem and potential solutions exist.
  • Staying in the know regarding new developments in the problem and solution space.

R-Search, consistent with the GovLab’s action research approach, is not premised on the belief that static, in-the-lab research should get in the way of real-world problem-solving. Rather, the R-Search approach is built around the notion that:

  • Seemingly intractable problems require agile and creative responses; and
  • Meaningful and agile creativity can only arise when there is a rapid understanding of the topic at hand.

R-Search, therefore, seeks to:

  • enable the development of a MAP (a topic’s Milieu, relevant Actors and existing Problem space) of issues, scholarship, actions and opinions surrounding a topic to allow for the design of responses that are more informed and targeted;
  • allow for the development of a baseline against which progress can be measured;
  • enable the completion of a project canvas to guide development, implementation and assessment; and
  • provide for knowledge-building to inform rapid prototyping.

View the full resource here.

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From Governing: Measuring the Impact of Public Innovation in the Wild

Reprinted from my monthly column in Governing:

With complex, seemingly intractable problems such as inequality, climate change and affordable access to health care plaguing contemporary society, traditional institutions such as government agencies and nonprofit organizations often lack strategies for tackling them effectively and legitimately. For this reason, this year the MacArthur Foundation launched its Research Network on Opening Governance.
The Network, which I chair and which also is supported by Google.org, is what MacArthur calls a “research institution without walls.” It brings together a dozen researchers across universities and disciplines, with an advisory network of academics, technologists, and current and former government officials, to study new ways of addressing public problems using advances in science and technology.
Through regular meetings and collaborative projects, the Network is exploring, for example, the latest techniques for more open and transparent decision-making, the uses of data to transform how we govern, and the identification of an individual’s skills and experiences to improve collaborative problem-solving between government and citizen.
One of the central questions we are grappling with is how to accelerate the pace of research so we can learn better and faster when an innovation in governance works — for whom, in which contexts and under which conditions. With better methods for doing fast-cycle research in collaboration with government — in the wild, not in the lab — our hope is to be able to predict with accuracy, not just know after the fact, whether innovations such as opening up an agency’s data or consulting with citizens using a crowdsourcing platform are likely to result in real improvements in people’s lives.

Continue reading here.