Yes, we'll survive
Apparently, open government is dying. So declares a column from Vivek Wadhwa in yesterday's Washington Post:
Vivek Kundra’s resignation last week from his post as the nation’s Chief Information Officer is an ominous event.
Kundra’s goal was to set government data free via an expansive Internet effort called Data.gov, and encourage innovation with government-collected data through the Open Government Initiative. He had hoped to slash tens of billions of dollars from the government information technology (I.T.) budget by democratizing who and which types of companies can deliver I.T. solutions to the government. The most radical part of his program was to make public data available to entrepreneurs, allowing them to build new applications that solved problems for the government and their communities.
The program was off to a great start, with hundreds of thousands of data sets becoming available, and entrepreneurs building thousands of innovative applications. Then the ill-considered race to slash the Federal deficit started. The Obama Administration agreed to cut e-government initiative funding from $35 million to $8 million. Never mind that Kundra’s programs had already saved taxpayers $3 billion over the past two years.
Not surprisingly, Kundra resigned. Why preside over a portfolio of shuttered initiatives? In a phone interview, Kundra acknowledged that he is worried about the program’s funding, but told me that he believes that the open data initiative has so much momentum that it is unstoppable, echoing the sentiment issued in his formal statement that he is “confident progress will continue.”
The observation is understandable, if wrong. For all the smarts and individual experience involved, the Gov 2.0/open gov movement remains relatively new to politics, at least compared to other causes that measure their tenure in decades. I've noticed, since 2009, the worrying impression that open government depends on a narrow political window, specifically around the Obama administration's directives and appointments.
An alliance between sympathetic government officials and technologists has remained a hallmark of the Gov 2.0 push since Carl Malamud's work opening up the SEC in 1993. Advocates understandably place a lot of emphasis on that relationship, and I remember the focus at the first Gov 2.0 conference on getting "top people" from the federal government on board.
Kundra's appointment as the nation's first CIO was a big deal for these advocates, and they've invested a lot of effort in rightly defending the programs he's shepherded from shortsighted cuts. He's had an impressive record of accomplishments and his resignation at a time when the early momentum of the federal open government movement is being sorely tested can be disheartening.
Still, I figured something like this would happen, if not with a resignation, with some other setback.
Here, for me, is the rub in Wadhwa's analysis:
But, with Kundra gone, I am not optimistic about the program. Whenever a program loses its key evangelist, it normally dies. The Open Government Initiative is likely to suffer a slow, inevitable death.
Capable evangelists certainly help, but history and experience both teach a very different lesson. Any political cause (and open government is one) throwing all its chips on one person will fail.
Look, we have politics not because we agree, but because we don't. On many things, we won't ever. To many involved, open government is a cause. I respect that and, on many levels, I agree.
But it will never be that way to everyone. For some people it will just be a bargaining chip, one interest among many or something thoroughly expendable when cutting times come.
Securing open government in the face of that requires a succession of leaders, multiple organizations and enough constituencies on board that even those who don't personally care have to take their combined influence into account.
Budget cuts, setbacks and resignations are all part of politics. Every cause suffers them, and the ones that endure do so because they can take the damage and keep on going. The ability to do so depends not on a single person but on the depth of support and the strength of advocates to carry on.
Is that staying power there? That's a good question. The rebuttals to Wadhwa's piece (here's a good one) started cropping up almost as soon as it was published. While still far from a political third rail, open government has certainly expanded, on some fronts, since I began writing on it.
But Kundra's resignation is a good time to look at how open government can grow more resilient in the political fray.