Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Don’t Hang Any Pictures

A few lessons learned and insights gained serving as a municipal Chief Data Officer – I hope this will be of value to anyone interested in starting an open data program.


Helping to create an open data culture in government is a process, not an outcome. It takes time. Though it may sometimes seem easier to shame people into releasing data, or to find ways around seemingly unreasonable objections, getting public officials to “own” the process of opening up their data is a key part of building this culture. But…

Don’t listen to people that tell you to “take pride in how far you’ve come in such a short time.” This kind of attitude assumes that your job is almost done and you can be satisfied in what you’ve accomplished. You should focus not on how much you have already done, but on how much you have left to do. You have lots and lots more work left. Trust me.

When appointed or elected officials release open data, or adopt innovative change, it’s critical to do what you can to make sure they get recognized for it – do this regardless of their party or political affiliation. Transparency is more important than politics. But…

Don’t let people feel like they’re doing you a favor, or going beyond the call of duty by releasing open data. If your city has an executive order covering open data then they are following a directive issued by the Mayor. If your city has an open data statute then they are following the law. You don’t get special credit for following the law.

Always be respectful of elected or appointed officials and understand that as important as you believe your job is, theirs is equally important. Not everyone will believe in what you’re trying to do as strongly as you do, but they will recognize if your actions are sincere. Find ways to frame open data and government innovation in ways that support the mission of their departments or agencies. Show them how their jobs can be made easier by embracing change. But…

Don’t become close or chummy with elected or appointed officials. It makes it more difficult to have the hard conversations when they’re needed. Some confrontation and uncomfortable meetings, where you remind people of their obligations under an open data policy, are inevitable. You should not seek out a fight if it can be avoided, but you also shouldn’t shrink from one if it can’t.

Take pride in the fact that you are a public servant. I believe strongly in the value of public service and that spending time in government working to make change happen is important. I rearranged my life and moved my family to a new state for the opportunity to serve a city that I have come to love. But…

Don’t hang any pictures in your office. Don’t get comfortable. Recognize that your time in public service is temporary. The office I currently occupy looks much like it did 519 days ago when I walked into it. The contents of the cabinets and desk drawers are those that the previous occupant left behind. There are no decorations, few items with sentimental value, nothing to suggest permanence.

You should be a little nervous – at all times – that you may have pushed too hard and the city fathers and mothers will grow weary and decide that your services are no longer needed.

If you don’t feel that way, you’re probably not pushing hard enough.

[Note – photo courtesy of Flickr user Theen Moy]

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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