Sarah Schacht

Sarah Schacht

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The View from Here: Open Government After a Decade

November 8, 2010 , , , , , , , , ,

In late July of 2010, I sat down to an interview with Jackie Wong, a freelance reporter from the Georgia Straight.  Over the next hour, I poured out my thoughts on open government and “open data” work, comparing initiatives in the US and Canada, and reflecting on the work I’ve done over the last 10 years.  I asked Jackie if I could get  a copy of the interview and she kindly provided it.

I’m posting it, in its entirety, here on the blog. I think that the interview shows how pragmatic I tend to be about open government work; I’m not the “gov 2.0” cheerleader most people think I am. Most people in “gov 2.0” have been doing this work for less than two years, with the length and depth of experience I have, I realize that opening governments is hard, frustrating, but doable work.

I made a few small edits (for grammar) to the interview and it’s clear that a few pieces of text were omitted by Ms. Wong.  Overall, though, it’s a great (but a long!) capture of my work and the state of open government initiatives.


I grew up in Whidbey Island, in Oak Harbour. So I grew up watching CTV on broadcast or whatever. I grew up on the island and I’ve been in Seattle, in addition to other jobs in politics in DC and New Hampshire and Vermont, Iowa, working on campaigns.

The beginning:
I’ve been researching and working and planning Knowledge as Power since 2000, really. But in the last several years, with my work at Knowledge as Power and increasingly, I was interacting with people from B.C, Oregon, Washington State, California, and I was noticing that I was the only mutual friend on Facebook. And around this time, I went to Web of Change up on Cortez Island in B.C. It’s at Hollyhock, this really amazing retreat centre in B.C.

Web of Change is a spectacular event that, over a course of a few days, brings together all these different minds around social change and use online technology to essentially do good. And there’s all these different practitioners that come from all these different areas, and really people form relationships. That ends up spurring these incredible projects., tcktcktck, a lot of the environmental movement’s online presence is really spurred by people directly involved with Web of Change.

So I saw David Hume at Web of Change this year, and I just thought, gosh, I’ve got to get all of these people I know together. I think of 15 to 20 people that I know needed to talk, that were working in parallel. Didn’t know each other existed, didn’t know they could possibly partner together, and here we were, all facing similar challenges. And I was trying to get legislative information out of municipalities, cities, states, provinces, and others were trying to make that information available, others were trying to face data challenges.

I know David Eaves from VanChangeCamp and mutual friends, and so I thought, you know, I’ll just get these people together at my grandparents’ beach house on Whidbey Island. That’s kind of a central point. I could house like 14, 15 people at the beach house. I’d just say to my mom and my brother, you know, you go somewhere for the weekend, and I’m going to have a mini Web of Change, a mini retreat for open government folks. But quickly, I couldn’t fit everyone in the beach house anymore. It grew and grew and grew. And there was an offer from the City of Seattle to host it there.

Open Gov West
We ended up having 280 people from around the region, and DC, and New York, and Alberta, and Edmonton. The Province of British Columbia sponsored. Corporations like Microsoft and Comcast and Ideascale sponsored. And it grew. I was really focused on making sure that no one monopolized the conversation, and that it was really diverse in each audience.
-Two keynotes: David Hume, Andrew Hoppen from New York State CIO
-Everything else: panels on major challenges in open government. How can government collaborate with non-traditional partners? By that, I mean partners that are not necessarily corporations. Because most of the time, if a government wants a new technology, they issue an RFP: a request for proposals, and that goes out to companies, and you know, I think it’s something in part that the open motion is trying to address in terms of open source technology on an even playing field.

Most governments can’t absorb, say, a group of highly talented, technically skilled citizens who are offering up their services or their code for free, just because they want to see that solution out there with their government. Governments don’t really have the rule making to absorb that kind of talent.

So we talked about that, open government standards, all these other things.

What can we do go open up a more diverse collaboration?

That philosophy really fits in with my work, with the Knowledge As Power services. The structure I have here is Knowledge As Power is a 501C3 based in the States, and Open Gov West was a project of Knowledge As Power. And the subsequent meetups, like the meetups we have here in Vancouver and Victoria, are projects of Knowledge As Power. And we have local organizers who are running it.

But with the KAP, getting more voices in, I’d done a lot of research between 2000 and 2005 on what makes social movements where policy, advocacy work? I was lucky to take some of the first classes on internet and society at the University of Washington. UW had the first school of internet studies in the world. It’s been absorbed into the Information School of UW. I had the benefit of getting to research all of this, and I took an unpaid internship in congress, just to research how the congress, from the inside, manages citizen communications. And the answer is: poorly.


It’s not their fault and it’s not citizens’ fault, really. If citizens feel like their government isn’t listening to them, I would bargain that 80 per cent of the reason is that their communication is trapped in an antiquated document management system, or an antiquated email system. There are certain tools and techniques that citizens and advocacy organizations can be using to make their communications effective.

Most of it doesn’t actually cost too much money. I’m trying to promote, through Knowledge As Power, some of those standards that I’ve been researching and creating to make those communications more effective.

I went to work on the Dean campaign in 2003. Howard Dean, he ran for president in 2003/2004. Came back, did some more school in the summer of 2005, and ended up working for Congressman Jay Inslee.

I spent my free time in DC asking legislative staffers in the house and senate out to coffee or drinks so I could pick their brains about how they’re managing communications, what they saw as successful or not. It was essentially snowball sampling of congressional staffers. They preferred drinks, so I ended up going to a lot of happy hours with staff and just doing more and more research.

I wish I had collated all of it, but it became just kind of my personal degree program.

Major barriers:
They break down into a few different categories with patterns that I see in terms of challenges. I want to stress that many of these are sort of legacy challenges, but I have a feeling that the public or the press sometimes feel like government is just blockading this open government-type stuff, when really they’re faced with several challenges that are not unique to them. So few governments talk about these challenges. They really feel like this is their problem, like, “oh, this is my city’s problem, and really because it’s my city’s problem, and I’m the IT staffer, this is my problem, this is my failure.” And it’s not, because it’s so common.

First off is that when we talk about data and open data, I think it’s kind of a misnomer. I think we should really be talking about open information. Because data is, in the scheme of things, relatively easy for governments to open up. And I’m not going to say it’s a cakewalk. But essentially, they’ve got data sitting on a server or database somewhere, and they’ve just got figure out how to make sure that information is securely put on an outside database or web service. But when you’re talking about documents — the lifeblood of government — documents usually begin in a Word format, and pretty much every government has spent a lot of money and time finding, building, or buying technology to help them take Word documents and put them somewhere, in some other format.

So when you see a scanned PDF of a printout, that’s trying to get over the Word document problem. So they can’t right now, in one easy step, jump from Word document to XML, a computer-readable format of the information, which makes the information more accessible.

A good example of government documents made available in XML, in a computer-readable format, is the Washington State Legislature. The legislative service centre has created a web service that they’ve had since 2007. They’ve said they’re willing to share that with other governments, so I’m currently working on coordinating cities across the region. And we’re at a really early stage  conversations, so I don’t know where this is going to be when your article comes out, so you may want to check back with me.

I talked to David about it today, but basically, there just seems to be interest in Vancouver, Seattle, King County, surrounding the county, reps in Oregon, in building a shared open-source solution for automating the transfer of Word format to a computer-readable format.

You’ve got clerks who are doing a good job. Typical clerks have been at their job 15-20 years, and will still likely be in that job for another five to 15 years. Clerks are really well-respected, they’re well-liked. They have a lot of autonomy on how their work is executed. And they’ve typically had to relearn how to create for two, threee, four different documentation management and publication systems in their career, and they’ve finally found one that’s working, and I can’t blame them for wanting to keep their work simple and clear cut. At the same time, I recognize that the current system they have, the one that was probably implemented sometime around 2001, 2000, just isn’t meeting the modern needs of citizens in terms of having more flexible access to government documentation.

So I really think the solution is in creating a simple, shared software amongst governments that’s open source and allows clerical staff to easily and quickly have the documents automatically tagged in XML. I don’t think any solution in opening up government can be really created unless it is simple, elegant, and cost-effective for the governments to implement.

And that means not a lot of retraining. Not a lot of disruption to their processes. I think the other challenge that’s there, so I guess the first challenge is the Word document process, how it doesn’t lead to computer-readable information that well.

The second is it’s difficult to overcome the internal processes, and how important they are to the work culture.

Third is that with past governments, I’ve noticed this trend, and it’s not always, but I’ve noticed a trend of IT staff tend to be held within departments, and not a general IT staff that serves across departments. And when cuts, as they often do, come down the pike to offices and departments— you know, they’re told, you have to make a 10 per cent cut, you have to make an eight per cent cut — an agency will look around at where they can cut, and they’ll say, I don’t really understand what the IT staff do. Or they may say, you know what, we can postpone these IT improvements that IT managers are clamoring for. We can postpone funding of training, these sort of things. So I think we see, often, the IT staff within our governments, aren’t supported with the type of budgets we would expect.

And so their skills, their hardware, their software, fall behind. Or, alternately, governments and their agencies or departments become highly dependent on having that technology or skill set elsewhere. And so then they become dependent on the vendor. And the vendor may not have as much incentive to introduce new modernization or making that information computer-readable.

So one of the things I’m working on right now, and hopefully I’ll have a paper out by the time the story comes out, is this proposal for governments, once we get over this economic crisis, to look at placing one per cent funds for IT. So every department has to allocate a one per cent for IT that is not cut into.

In Seattle, we have funds that come from specific taxes. It’s a one per cent for arts, so whatever agency you go to, whatever office you go to, there is beautiful, rich public art, and I think that IT is such a vital infrastructure piece. And people just forget about it. Except that we’re all becoming so tied in to technology. I mean, how many times a week do you hear people say, oh, I wish I could this and get this information from my government. I wish I could pay my parking ticket here on my iPhone. And the truth is, there’s just not the funding for it.

I really think that this sounds really clumsy, but I really think IT staff in government are sort of going to become the belles of the government ball in the next five, 10 years, because citizens, I think, will be clamouring for more information, more tools, more access, and ultimately, I think citizens need to realize that funding gets routed to the places citizens support. And citizens say hey, I use that service, it’s important to me in my community. You know, nobody shows up when the general IT staff are facing a budget cut and are pleading their case in front of council. But they come to human services, they come to the adoption groups. All of these human services, you have a pool of people who show up at your budget meeting and say how much it means to them. Nobody shows up for the IT folks! And they should if they value those services.

And then I think the final challenge is that most of the policies in place for government expenditures and for IT don’t allow collaboration across governments, across non-traditional partners, like I described before, or allow them to use even free things. Sometimes because of staffing policy, sometimes because of security-type policies, sometimes because they simply haven’t written a policy for that kind of collaboration. So they don’t know what they should do, and now they’re talking to lawyers, and lawyers are like, ah, this is dangerous! And lawyers are there to find risk, which is understandable, but it just complicates things even more because the policies aren’t there to leverage the expertise, resources, and just plain good will out there.

I think we’re still in the early days of citizen interest in data and application. So we kind of see it at these entry-level applications like EveryBlock and Fix My Street, and SecretFix. Fix the Pothole, Darn It! applications. And those have met with some success, but they don’t tend to be well tied-in to the actual processes of government. So we’ve seen a lot of these early applications. I wouldn’t quite say adversarial, but they’re not tuned in with the perhaps older-style processing, with information and concerns.

So you see things like a lot of advocacy pushes. Advocacy organizations are really engaged in kind of a technology arms-race amongst other advocacy organizations and government. So they’re buying really expensive pieces of advocacy technology just to send form letters through to legislators or parliamentarians. And those form letters and petitions, which are the most common communications in the US, are actually the least effective forms of communication. So you’ve got citizens, who are doing things like tweeting to congress. Not every congress member is on twitter, and one of the services that will send your tweets on to your congressperson, you know how they send it? They print out your tweets, hard copy them, and mail them to congress. Sending a letter or package to congress takes six weeks to be eradicated. So you’re taking a short form, context-driven quick communication, and delaying it for six to eight weeks. Which is about the time it takes to pass something.

So you have tools that are not matching up with the reality of internal systems, or form letters where you send 50,000 form letters. A congressional staffer in charge of that topic area is just going to read one. Because if they’re 50,000 form letters all saying the same thing, what is the point of reading 50,000 letters that all say the same thing?

We’ve created tools to help individuals easily track legislation and communicate with their lawmakers, and when their communication goes through Knowledge As Power, it essentially tags that communication in such a way that your email goes to the correct legislator for your bill, it’s formatted in a way that you can quickly and easily search for communications on that bill topic and your perspective on the bill, and so it allows them much easier, organizing their workflow and communicating back or understanding what you’re saying. We also have tips on the website that are just like, here’s actually how to write a letter. Make it two paragraphs or less, put your address on it, use your real name, use your real email address that you’ll respond to, don’t advocate on everything. Find a few issues that are really core to you or your community that you care about, and if you care about it that much, you’re probably going to be an expert on it. We have all of these tips on the website, on

I think in terms of open data, the real power is in making data and government documents relevant to certain need cases that citizens have. So if you want to watch legislation in your city council, the documents within a council environment, say there’s a bill on parks, and you’re concerned about your neighbourhood park, you could look up the name of your local park, link to Knowledge As Power, others, and within the bill, it would have links on certain terms. So you would see your park, and it would link to parks and pertinent information. Or you could go back to that bill and see laws that were passed that were suggested for amendments. Right now, you’d have to go to like two or three different databases just to find the kind of legislation, past laws, budget information. You could link all of that with one document.

I think that there’s a lot of opportunities for governments to engage better with citizens in that it’s not about “roman crowd technology”, where you comment and you’re up or down on something. But government being able to do like kind of a direct call to a neighbourhood or an affected group, and say, we would like your input on this, we’re going to do a town hall, we’re going to upload the video, we’re going to add documentation. If you could, place some notes on things. I had so many legislators tell me that the most effective communications they had with citizens were not necessarily advocacy-type communications or complaints, but where a citizen brought a suggestion and they were like, we didn’t even know of that problem, and we didn’t even know that solution existed.

A council member from King County mentioned to me that they were creating a new law regarding boating on Lake Washington. And apparently, they had some horrendous boat crashes and stuff. Describing the states that a boat could be in during an accident. A citizen wrote in and said, you should really add not only in the water or on land, but mid air.

I think the other big opportunity is that I think there will be more people who are sort of like open data tinkerers. It used to be the guy in his shed, working on his HAM radio equipment. And now I think that there will be guys and women in communities who tinker with data that’s relevant to their neighbourhood, or the area of their city, and create some custom apps that really help people in their immediate community. I think that is incredibly powerful.

You know, there’s been a lot of concentration on data or what does this mean on a federal level, we’ve got to get the feds opening this up. But I think that while that’s all important, there’s certainly a lot of power in people who are really tied to place, creating solutions based on this data that government just wouldn’t have the time or even the know to create that resource.

I think it would be great if I could be walking around my neighbourhood and have alerts pop up from an app and just say, oh, by the way, this will be remodeled these days, or parking will be closed, or all of these things that would make my life so much smoother. But we’re just early days.

I think Canada and Vancouver and BC are incredibly promising places in terms of open government and open information. And that’s because I think you have such talented, thoughtful, people here, both inside and outside of government. And some of these people are relatively young. They’re in their mid-twenties to early forties. And it’s not typical for a lot of those folks to be elected in Canada to office. But I think a lot of the progress that comes in terms of open government efforts, really comes through people being elected who support this type of work.

And every time I come up to Vancouver or BC, Canada, I meet these people who are tremendously capable, but would never consider running for office. And I find that so sad, that Canada has this wealth of leadership and talent, and doesn’t seem to appreciate that this new generation of leaders really make a huge difference now. So I hate it when I hear these brilliant people I know say, I should really wait til I’m 52. I’m just like, the problems you’re concerned about aren’t going to be any better when you’re 52! And in the States and here, I totally stay out of politics. I mean, I don’t do any advocacy anymore, I run a 51C3, but I’m just looking around and I’m like, it’s so sad. So hopeful and so sad at the same time to see all of these amazing people, and they’re doing great work, but at the same time, in order to really realize that vision which I think so many people have, you need leadership.

Making change, making improvements, it takes risks, and it takes some courage. And I think those are the only two missing elements. But I would still say that leadership here in B.C., the ones that currently are in, it’s clear to me that they’re getting it. But I just want more of those type of people working across the region.

-Standards conference, October 26, Portland, Oregon, with representatives from governments, and open government organizations

-Open Gov BC focused on municipalities and the province and open government, led by Donna Horne, will be November 10th.

-Open Gov West: In Vancouver, Victoria

There’s global organizers who do Open Gov West stuff.

Jeanie Wong is the local organizer (Vancouver), open gov west.


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