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Does Open Government Mean Audit is a Civic Duty


May 10, 2012

Doug Hadden, VP Products

Alex Howard, Radar‘s Government 2.0 Correspondent for 
O’Reilly Media, asked some compelling questions in a recent article: Citizen Audit: Which federal agencies have published open government plans 2.0 online. It’s a bit spooky because I posted: Citizen Audit Use Cases and Public Financial Management a few days earlier. Alex was looking at transparency commitments in the US federal government while I was focused on general use cases. Nevertheless, both articles ask us whether open data makes citizen audit a civic duty.

Citizen Audit Approaches

Open data enables citizens to determine whether governments are meeting objectives. For example, Alex Howard built a spreadsheet showing which US Federal Agencies are publishing open government plans meeting the requirements of the Office of Management and Budget. My use cases focused on compliance, fraud and performance audits by citizens and civil society.

Open Data and Civil Involvement

Elections provide sporadic and light democratic involvement. Open data enables more substantial involvement between elections. It enables a virtual agora of civic discourse. And, open data informs this discourse with evidence and facts. Rather than opinion. And punditry. If we were to consider McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects to analyze open government:

  • Enhances: Information access and insight – introduces data journalism
  • Obsolesces: Dogmatic approaches and partisanship – particularly as practiced in talk radio or television
  • Retrieves: Political agora, decisions made by the Iroquois, the New England direct democracy model etc.
  • Reverses: Information overload

Marshall McLuhan Tetrad: Retrieves and Reverses

McLuhan Tetrad: Wikipedia

Insight about the future effects of a medium are best discovered through the retrieval and reversing phenomena. (Enhances and obsolesces tends to be easy to understand but provides little insight into the ultimate effects of any medium).

Open data will increase data available to citizens. This could create  information overload. Many observers, like Andrea di Maio suggest that the problem is not so much the volume as the usability of open data.The effect may mean that those citizens with interest or those with expertise may provide significant value to improving government programs. This might dis-intermediate traditional media and move from a broadcast model of political discourse to a 1-on-1 model.

Cognitive Surplus and Civil Duty

The fundamental difference between open government and traditional broadcast is that government operates in-network rather than out of network. It changes the social contract: transparency becomes a government mandate and citizen participation a civic duty. We can no longer complain about the lack of government effectiveness if we are part of the “network”.

It’s unclear whether tapping into the cognitive surplus of experts will be sufficient for citizen audit. Perhaps information accessibility through visualization while overcoming the digital divide will be necessary to fully tap the “wisdom of citizens.”

There are signs of the internet as virtual political agora. Participatory budgeting is a significant phenomena. In my view, open government will extend participatory budgeting to on-line collaboration. Outcomes from budgets will be analyzed by civil society to improve follow-on budgets. Therefore, citizen audit will become performance-centric. Value-based. And, a civic duty.



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Doug Hadden

Doug Hadden

Executive Vice President, Innovation at FreeBalance
Doug is responsible for identifying new global markets, new technologies and trends, and new and enhanced internal processes. Doug leads a cross-functional international team that is responsible for developing product prototypes and innovative go-to-market strategies.

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