Buck the system or work the system?


“Systems are broken because they exist to sustain themselves, and the people who run the system rely on the system to stay the same. Why should they change it? It works well for them.”

Chris Guillebeau

My friends at Technical.ly Philly ran an interesting piece yesterday about the long road to the release of an important data set on property valuations and ownership in the City of Philadelphia. It’s definitely worth a read.

The story is compelling for many reasons. It details the interactions of a small group of people (myself included) moving into and out of government and employing different strategies to win the release of property data – a resource much sought after in the journalism and civic hacking communities in Philadelphia. Throughout the story an interesting dichotomy emerges.

“Buck the system” or “work the system” – which approach works better?

So, then, is the lesson here that city chief data officers need to play the long game? Wait till the naysayers leave city government? Choose their battles in the meantime? And … does that mean that some data might be locked up indefinitely?

It’s an interesting question. I certainly have my own opinions but I don’t pretend to know the correct answer. In many ways, I think we’re all still finding this out.

However, if we’re going to take time to evaluate which approach works better then I think it makes sense to consider what the ultimate objective of a municipal open data program is (or should be).

If the objective of an open data program is to produce more open data then I think there is an argument to be made that working within the system has some advantages. As open data becomes more familiar to people working in government, and as more people move into government service from the civic technology community, attitudes about it are bound to become more favorable. Open data and civic hacking are now topics of regular discussion in public administration programs across the country. The relentless march of attrition will no doubt help ensure a more favorable view of open data over time.

But I don’t think the end goal of open data programs should be simply to produce more open data. Data releases are incidental to much larger, more fundamental changes that need to happen in the way government operates and is organized.

We live in a time when data and technology play an increasingly important role in how the business of government is conducted – particularly for local governments that must balance their budgets and face eroding tax bases. And yet, government is spectacularly ill equipped to acquire and manage modern technology assets. The end game on open data has always been about something larger than simply filling up an open data catalog – open data is a pathway to creating a new way of operating in government.

These changes will be hugely disruptive to the way that governments operate today, and have for a long time. They will require a new way of thinking about how we organize government, and how changes to the structure of government are made. They will require government leaders and government employees to change the way they think about what they do and how they do it.

In the end, I think the question of whether to “buck the system” or to “work the system” may not be the right one.

The better question is what approach can we use to change the current system, to help governments become more efficient and more effective at doing their job.

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