All-ish” may be better than all in. Remember the dot-com era excitement around digital government at the turn of the century? Speechwriters (and even a bill or two dropped in the legislative hopper) used the phrase “everything ‘e’ by 2003.” It rhymed and got at the important idea that e-government was more than an alternative service delivery mechanism.

But defining the goal as everything turned out to be a mistake. It set the jurisdictions that used the phrase up for failure if even one thing was left offline. It also removed the need for prioritization. And it confused intent, which a fair reading suggests was to make e-government the default for public information and services.

Fast-forward a decade to see that open data advocates and practitioners may have been prevented by circumstance from making the same mistake.

As Government Technology reported last fall, New York City committed itself anew to the nontrivial task of creating a public inventory of government-held information and releasing dozens of additional “high-value” data sets on a revamped open data portal. At the Sunlight Foundation, the nonpartisan government transparency group, Policy Analyst Rebecca Williams lauded the city as “the first U.S. government [to have] completed a comprehensive data set inventory.” Coining the term “all-ish,” her critique focuses on legislative limits that stop disclosure short of everything.

New York state is on a parallel track, “bringing the people back into government …” as Gov. Andrew Cuomo describes it, through the state open data portal at data.ny.gov.

The New York experience became a model for Washington state, where the Legislature took up a bill this session to expand its open data portal and the organizational infrastructure behind it. Executive branch agencies complained about the cost and complexity of publishing their data, winning them a reprieve in amendments that would extend the compliance timelines — giving them 15 months, rather than 180 days to file a compliance plan — and giving them a potentially sweeping exemption around the preparation and publishing of data “which would impose undue financial, operative or administrative burden on the agency.”

Does it include everything? No. Is it the new default? Yes. It’s a distinction with an important difference.

A year ago, the Obama administration issued an executive order “making open and machine-readable the new default for government information.” A bumper-sticker-length version of that same language — “Set the default to open” — is the cornerstone of Sunlight’s 32-point plan for sound and sustainable open data policy for government. Those five words define the goal, the tactic for getting there and a mindset for governing. The other 31 points boil down to four behaviors for those on this journey:

  • Being purposeful enough to build on existing public disclosure laws (with exemptions continually tested for their contribution to the public interest) while safeguarding sensitive information; surface public information — including bulk data — online through a designated data portal;
  • Being particular and peculiar enough to maintain a public, comprehensive list of all information holdings and processes to ensure data quality;
  • Being confident enough to appoint an oversight authority (that may or not include you) and to knock down barriers to accessing and reusing information held by government;
  • Being bold enough to mandate things that matter — the capture of specific new information, publishing metadata, use of open formats, setting ambitious timelines, use of electronic filing, and the use of and future reviews of the policy itself in light of ongoing changes in the “art of open.”

There’s one more bit of good news that distinguishes this all-ish open data era from the earlier e-government era. There’s no year that I know that rhymes with “open.” Take that, speechwriters.

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer