Open Government and the Web Discussed in New Book

My clients include private-sector businesses and non-profit organizations. My company has chosen not to take on government work because, frankly, the paperwork is not worth the hassle. But I’ve participated in local government as a citizen, and I appreciate the access provided by the web, although it’s sometimes disheartening to see how little some agencies have taken advantage of the technologies that we in business take for granted.

O’Reilly Media was kind enough to provide me with a copy of its new book, “Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice,” edited by Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma. It’s available in print and as an e-book and is an interesting compilation of essays discussing the problems and successes that governments and citizens face as they struggle to catch up with the openness that we’ve come to expect in the era of social media, crowdsourcing and user-generated content. The snooze-inducing subtitle is actually taken from President Obama’s memorandum on transparency and open government, reprinted as an appendix to the book.

What do the authors mean by “open government?” As Tim O’Reilly puts it in one of the opening chapters:

[G]overnment is, at bottom, a mechanism for collective action. We band together, make laws, pay taxes, and build the institutions of government to manage problems that are too large for us individually and whose solution is in our common interest. Government 2.0… is the use of technology — especially the collaborative technologies at the heart of Web 2.0 — to better solve collective problems at a city, state, national, and international level.

Some of “Open Government,” especially its earlier chapters, will probably be of more interest to policy wonks than to most web workers. But later in the book, readers are presented with detailed case studies of web sites that are improving interaction between citizens and their government. In these chapters, I found some really good ideas (and some cautionary tales) that I think many web workers will find interesting and thought-provoking. I found the story of the state of Utah’s web presence of particular interest, as it leverages its own resources by taking advantage of social media and user-generated content sites.

This book will be of particular interest to those working in and with the public sector, but much of its content will be enlightening to anyone who cares about public participation in all levels of government.

How do you think that governments can improve their accessibility using web tools?