$750,000 Invested to Pioneer Open Lawmaking Tools for Citizens

New funding is expected to bring easy-to-use open-government tools to cities and states.

by / November 13, 2014
OpenGov Executive Director Seamus Kraft. Flickr/Daniel X O'Neil

With $750,000 in additional funding, the OpenGov Foundation plans to expand its footprint into the world of lawmaking tools for citizens and governments.

The Washington, D.C.-based organization reports the new investment comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a civic tech philanthropy that, in July of 2013, funded the nonprofit with $200,000 to develop its Project Madison, an interactive platform that lets citizens opine on proposed and current legislation. The refill of capital is slated to fine-tune Madison further while extending a runway to launch new government partnerships for the group’s AmericaDecoded program, a campaign that liberates laws from publishing copyright for citizen access.

While it affects many, few know of copyright’s pervasive influence on law accessibility across the U.S. State departments and federal agencies — the primary users of the tactic — often employ copyright as a cost-cutting measure to publish and distribute legal codes and regulatory standards. Though this benefits publishers, who can sell online and printed copies for hundreds of dollars, and governments, that can defer editing and annotating costs, it creates paywalls that can lock citizens out.

OpenGov, and its AmericaDecoded program, is one of the few groups that fight the practice through lobbying, and by editing and annotating laws themselves with their own open-source software. With the two years' worth of capital — $300,000 for the first year and $450,000 for the second — OpenGov intends to grow its 10 participating states and cities, and to release a second version of Madison, dubbed Madison 2.0.

"What we're going to be doing with the funding is extend and build upon what we've already been doing,” said Seamus Kraft, OpenGov’s executive director. "Over the next two years, I want to see, in some shape or form, one or hopefully more communities — whether that's a state or a city — adopt an open, citizen-engaged, user-friendly way of producing legislation and policy.”

Growth of digital technologies such as the group’s open source software likely will be a hallmark in the coming two years, but Kraft said culture change in government will remain a top priority and key metric for success. OpenGov views its tangible achievements — such as technology deployments and government partnerships — as byproducts of an unbiased “if-it-doesn’t-work-let’s-fix-it” shift in thought. Kraft said that this culture change, admittedly vague in application, has nevertheless acted as a precedent and catalyst for all of the organization’s major victories. As a founding member of the Free Law Founders (FLF), a national coalition of government officials, policy experts and civic technologists, OpenGov has fostered this mindset as it's collaborated with FLF open law and legislative process initiatives and campaigns.

"My major ambition for the next two years is the same ambition as when we started this great journey of the OpenGov foundation, which is kicking the keys [to open law] over to government,” Kraft said. “This requires a readiness and a willingness to help change the culture.”

Leadership to direct this ingenuity is another reason for the funding. John Bracken, Knight’s vice president of media innovation, said the refresh in capital was a vote of confidence in Kraft, as well as the organization’s ability to move the needle.

“One of the things that we've noticed in this space of open government — and civic technology in general — is that it's largely been aspirational,” Bracken said. “And one of the things we've seen with the OpenGov foundation is that they've really been a leader in new types of relationships outside of people already committed to open government."

Such relationships include cities that have participated in America Decoded like San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and the states of Maryland and Virginia. But also, relationships extend to vendors in the space like Municode, a codifier and repository of freely accessible city municipal codes, and American Legal, a codifier working with both states and cities.

Beyond the two years' worth of funding, Kraft says the foundation is investigating a mixed portfolio of funding sources for sustainability. Grants are apt to be part of the equation, and OpenGov has dabbled in paid services and direct crowdsourced donations. Kraft added that even software-as-a-service might be considered, yet was doubtful about such a prospect due to the organization’s fundamental commitment to keeping its technologies open source — or free of use — to governments.

"We're here to help in a long term sense, and that is not going to change” Kraft said. “Whatever we can do to help citizens and cities, we'll do it."

Watch the video of the $750,000 investment announcement below:

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.