Creating the Open City: Part One

This post is the first of a two part series on my work creating an open government strategy for the City of Boston this past summer.

During his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama often mentioned expanding civic participation. Solving our toughest problems, he argued, would require action by both government and regular citizens. “The most important thing we can do right now,” he said in February 2008, “is to reengage the American people in the process of governance.”

Once elected, to realize this vision of a more participatory government President Obama turned to the very tool which his campaign had exploited so successfully to win: the Internet.

Issued his first day in office, Obama’s Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government called for the Federal government to “harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public,” and directed the newly-appointed Chief Technology Officer to coordinate the implementation of this vision through an Open Government Directive. The policy described three types of activities: transparency, participation, and collaboration. The wide-ranging efforts sparked by the memorandum and the subsequent directive include experiments with online commenting and discussion, a new government data portal, and targeted programs to capture citizen ideas and expertise.

The Open Government Directive mades the intended purpose of the initiatives clear: for Federal agencies to gain knowledge and effectiveness without ceding any authority. The purpose of collaboration is to improve effectiveness by coordinating private actors with Federal goals. Participation is about capturing ideas and expertise, not delegating power to citizens. Only transparency has political overtones, but only in the most abstract sense: it is supposed to improve “accountability.

If citizens want to be engaged in a more substantive way in the governance of the nation, it seems they should look elsewhere. That place is often cities and towns, where more complex forms of citizen participation are not only possible but commonplace. Although cities have experimented with publishing data and using technology to engage their citizens, they have existing political structures and limited technical resources. How can they translate the principles of open government into specific initiatives? Can the potential for greater citizen influence be realized at the local level? In short, what does it take to become an “open” city?

An Open Government Strategy for Boston

I attempted to answer this question last summer as a Rappaport Public Policy Fellow at the City of Boston, working with Nigel Jacobs, Chris Osgood, and Mitch Weiss in the Mayor’s Office, and Chief Technology Officer Bill Oates in the Department of Innovation and Technology. The project involved two components:

  1. An open government strategy (describing what to do and why)
  2. A technical assessment of two specific recommendations (data and ideas portals).

This post contains the first portion, however I plan to post the second shortly.

Although I considered alternate frameworks, I decided to keep the Obama Administration’s proposal that “open government” should include the categories of transparency, participation, and collaboration. However, each category is tailored to the unique characteristics of local government, and Boston in particular. In addition, since each level requires greater government resources to implement, I argued higher levels should be focused on topics identified as priority areas by the city’s elected officials. Although I view open government as creating a more participatory democracy, it exists in combination with the representative legitimacy of elected officials.


The City of Boston already publishes extensive amounts of information through its website. My report identified 19 data “tools” allowing citizens to query data in city databases, 7 datasets already published online, and 30 GIS layers routinely released in response to inquiries. However, few of these are published in “raw” formats easily consumed by citizens or data intermediaries, who can re-use the data to create citizen-facing apps and services. In addition, legislative information is available but not easily navigated or searched.

Therefore I proposed following the lead of other cities by creating a central public data portal to host data intended for the public. Such a portal would make data easy to find, encourage consistent metadata, and make data available to developers in a controlled way through an Application Programming Interface (API). This system should serve multiple users: researchers seeking raw data, developers seeking an API, the general public who wants limited navigation functions, and all users with the ability to comment and provide feedback on data usefulness and quality. Separate from the data portal, I also contributed to the process of evaluating legislation management systems, which serve both the City Clerk’s need for organization and citizen’s desire for access to legislative information.


Like most cities, city employees in Boston interact with citizens on a daily basis. I proposed augmenting the existing approaches with an online feedback portal. Similar to HUD’s Ideas in Action website, it would include forums dedicated to specific topics where citizen input is desired. Organizing participation through a central website could result in improved transparency, consistency, and satisfaction by citizens and city officials alike. Of course, the process of crafting plans and policies will always involve committees, meetings, hearings, and perhaps someday mechanisms like participatory budgeting. The online portal would serve as a low-committment and understandable starting point for more complex forms of citizen participation.


Finally, building on top of transparency and participation is the most complex form of citizen engagement, collaboration. I proposed several types:

  • Applications competitions or initiatives to encourage private developers to create citizen-facing apps that use city data.
  • Innovation, analysis and visualization challenges to encourage creativity to re-think existing processes, or explore complex datasets.
  • Formalizing a variety of ways to collaborate with academic researchers to produce reports, policy analysis, urban designs and plans, and other products at minimal cost to the city.


Of course, taking these steps will involve significant organizational and technical change for the city. My next post will summarize the technical options for implementing the two specific recommendations, the data portal and ideas website. However, like for the Federal government, open government isn’t about technology per se, but instead how it is used. In that spirit, my report concludes with a brief section on the theories of “targeted transparency” and participatory democracy. Although the product of a summer of discussions with city officials, this strategy is nothing more than a loosely theorized set of recommendations about how technology can achieve some modest goals of improving access to information and communication with the existing government. It does not consider whether it’s possible to re-imagine government in a more fundamental way. For that, I look forward to a lively discussion with Mitch Weiss on Thursday.


Read the report: Open Government Strategy for the City of Boston (pdf)

Other posts: Open Government Reading List, What Government Data Should Be Transparent?, What is Government 2.0?

Author: Rob Goodspeed