Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

No Assembly Required

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sharyn Morrow

When we think about all of the work being done in the civic technology and open government communities over the last several years, it’s easy to see the impact.

Evaluated just in terms of the number of datasets that have been released by governments it is clear that the impact of those advocating for more open, responsive and agile government has been significant. But those working in these communities have far more to show for their efforts. One of the most under appreciated (at least in my opinion) is advice: solid guidance and recommendations for how to make things better.

Consider all of the work being done to provide recommendations for governments to use technology more efficiently and to become more open and transparent. There are countless examples where individuals that have developed expertise over many years of working to improve how governments use technology and data share their learnings and recommendations freely and openly. We don’t have a shortage of good ideas for governments to use to start making changes to how they use technology to build services and engage citizens.

But I think there is a legitimate questions as to whether enough governments are using these recommendations, or they’re not using them quickly or effectively enough.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately wondering why.

I don’t believe the problem is that there is too little information for governments to act on to make positive changes. Rather, I’m starting to think that much of this information is not in a format that is actionable by those in government who will need to make these changes. What seems to be missing are recommendations that are formatted for immediate action by legislators and other officials – policies that can be adopted by governments to become more open and more agile that require no assembly.

If we look around for blueprints for how this “no assembly required” approach to civic innovation could work, there are some examples of this concept at work.

One example is the body of municipal codes that govern the various aspects of building construction – building codes, electrical codes, plumbing codes, etc. If you look at the statutes of many local governments for the rules governing construction, you’ll probably see reference to the International Building Code. This model code has been developed by the International Code Council and adopted by jurisdictions across the county. These governments prefer to leverage the policy expertise of a central standard body rather than develop their own in-house expertise – an issue that can be particularly acute for smaller governments who may lack resources. The model code developed by the standard body becomes the law of the jurisdiction where it is adopted.

Another example is the Institute for Public Procurement (NIGP) – a trade group representing government procurement officers – which has developed a uniform set of codes governing asset classification that has been adopted by over 1,400 separate governments. These jurisdictions have opted to use the classification system developed by the NIGP rather than invest the time and expense of acquiring the expertise to develop and maintain their own classification systems.

These may seem like esoteric examples – I’m sure there are many others – but they share some common elements:

  • Developing appropriate language to implement a policy requires specialized expertise or experience.
  • The jurisdiction implementing the policy may have limited resources or lack in-house expertise in the specific policy area.
  • The activity to be governed by the policy is common to other jurisdictions – there is nothing inherently unique or special about the activity for any one particular government.
  • A standard body or professional group develops a set of policy guidelines that are immediately adoptable by a jurisdiction with little or no modifications.

Creating model laws and policies for governments to adopt is not a new idea. This is something that groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have been doing for years. Many people would argue they’ve been pretty successful with this approach – perhaps too successful.

But it begs the question – is it possible to develop model policies that can institutionalize the principles being developed in the open government and civic technology communities? If so, why isn’t there an ALEC-like group creating model IT procurement legislation or model transparency legislation for state and local governments?

Over the past year or so, there has been a notable change in thinking about the proper approach to developing successful digital services and civic technology solutions with an enhanced focus on the user.

Maybe its time for the civic technology community to more directly tailor its policy recommendations and advice for those in government that need to adopt them.

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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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