Watchdogs, code monkeys, and budget hawks: The many species of Gov 2.0

At the recent Gov 2.0a Conference, the tech-savvy and public-minded came together to discuss ways to bring the latest technology into government.  Gov 2.0 is a term you will likely hear again.  It represents a number of intersecting (and sometimes contradictory) trends involving new technology, public data, and open government.

To its biggest boosters, Gov 2.0 has the potential to revolutionize the relationship between citizens and government. Yet substantial obstacles and disagreements remain.

Traditional open government advocates, most prominently represented in our state by Freedom of Information Oklahoma, approach technology primarily as a way to hold government accountable. For this camp, government data is a window into how public officials are doing their jobs.

In some ways, new technology presents a challenge for this group. Open records and open meeting laws are spottily enforced even in normal circumstances, and increasing digitization of records adds another wrinkle.

The letter of the law requires records be provided in whatever form they exist, and today the form matters much more than it used to when records were all on paper and ink. Though they may include the same information, a database is better than a stack of copies, and a spreadsheet is more valuable than a PDF. Despite this, some officials still insist on providing records in less useful formats.

At the same time, technology is creating brand new kinds of records with unclear implications for the law. For example, a debate erupted at the Gov 2.0a Conference over how to treat text messages between municipal workers. As written records, the law says they should be archived and made available for open records requests. On the other hand, these may be casual exchanges between co-workers that otherwise would have happened in person or on the phone, where they were not typically recorded. As texting becomes increasingly common, many public employees will not even consider the public records aspect, much less expect their texts to be pored over by the media.

It’s not just an issue for public employees. Technology is creating new records on all of our daily activities, and we will continue to grapple with tensions between transparency and privacy.

Besides government watchdogs, Gov 2.0 attracts another kind of reformer. Coming from the open source technology world, this group sees open data as a resource with numerous applications and proven commercial potential. Government data is already the lifeblood of multi-billion dollar GPS and weather forecasting industries. With rising health care costs still a pressing problem, new applications may help us reduce medical costs and more efficiently improve our health.

Some use government data to make a profit, while others do it simply to help. For example, the Oklahoma Crisis Mappers are a team of volunteers who have been collaborating with municipal employees and first responders to map out Oklahoma severe weather events. Beginning with the Christmas Eve blizzard in 2009, they have compiled maps showing road conditions, areas to avoid, where to find food and shelter, and requests for aid during the many natural disasters that hit Oklahoma.

At their most idealistic, Gov 2.0 proponents predict a shift to a much more participatory democracy. They want government to be a collaborative platform, with freely shared information connecting public employees, elected officials, and citizens in joint efforts to solve public problems. For example, the company SeeClickFix has created a simple phone app for people to report non-emergency issues — such as pot holes, graffiti, or a lack of recycling bins — and then track the municipality’s response.

Oklahoma is making some efforts to this goal, particularly with its open data page at Gov. Fallin (who was the keynote speaker at Gov 2.0a) is also pushing for IT consolidation, which could both help make government operations more efficient and collect useful datasets for easier public release.

Fallin’s plan has run into some trouble, with the legislature unwilling to approve a $100 million bond to fund IT consolidation this year. That points to another conflict with the Gov 2.0 world. Any attempts to modernize government technology must navigate state politics. The governor attempted to sell IT consolidation as a way to reduce budget cuts next year. However, it may be unrealistic to expect immediate savings, as any move to better technology will have transition costs. While reformers can reasonably promise a good return on investment, we still need to make the investment.

That’s hard to do in the context of an ongoing budget crisis. Yet the issue brings together people across party and ideological lines, including good government watchdogs, technology entrepreneurs, progressives who want government to be more effective, and conservatives who want it to do more with less. The menagerie of Gov 2.0 advocates gives reason for hope.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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