Open sesame

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Open sesame

The open source method ‘seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches'. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty

‘Openness’ is the new magic word in politics – but should governments really be run like Wikipedia?

Nathaniel Tkacz is an assistant professor at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick. He co-edited Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader.

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January 2009 marked the first inauguration of President Barack Obama and, for some at least, the return of hope in an otherwise gloomy global political situation. But the same month was important for another reason, easily overlooked. It marked the beginning of what would become the Obama administration’s Open Government Initiative, outlined in a new ‘Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government’. According to the memorandum’s opening lines:
My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

To be sure, ideas of openness had been floating around for some time. Yet the initiative signaled that the open creed had now reached the upper echelons of US (and therefore world) politics. Roughly four years later, open politics is everywhere. We no longer blink when the latest Open Government Partnership or Open Government Data Initiative is announced. They form part of politics as we know it, and as we want it. To endorse a ‘closed’ politics today would be unthinkable.

For Obama, the new political openness meant cultivating three attributes: transparency, participation, and collaboration. What is immediately striking about these qualities is that they had all previously been used to characterise developments in the cultures of hackers and software geeks. Obama’s memorandum seemed to channel a definition of Web 2.0 proposed by the media entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly a few years earlier. In turn, they both sounded a lot like the programmer Eric S Raymond, writing in the 1990s on ‘Open Source’ software development. Indeed, this connection would be made explicit in the essay collection Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice (2010), edited by Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma and published by O’Reilly Media. Tim O’Reilly’s own contribution to the book draws directly from Raymond to ask: ‘How does government become an open platform that allows people inside and outside government to innovate?’

Instead, we might ask: how did we get to the point where it was a legitimate political objective to turn government into an open platform geared towards innovation?

In his book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (2008), the anthropologist Christopher M Kelty documented the emergence of openness in 1980s geek computer cultures. He looked in particular at the UNIX operating system and the TCP/IP protocol (the communications protocol of the internet). In this realm, openness was imagined in terms of open competition and open markets. But it was also conceived in a more technical way, one that might seem to run counter to the self-interested market ideal: it meant open standards, design specifications that could be shared and adapted by the wider community. All of these notions of openness were fraught with ambiguity, and there were vigorous disagreements about precisely how they related to each other. And yet, as Kelty was among the first to observe, despite such ambiguities, ‘everyone claims to be open’ and ‘everyone agrees that being open is the obvious thing to do’.

Openness started popping up everywhere to describe all kinds of online initiatives that drew inspiration from the ‘Wikipedia way’

What is known today as Open Source software emerged in the late 1990s, following a rift between the founder of the Free Software Movement (FSM), Richard Stallman, and a group of high-profile programmers including Eric S Raymond and Linus Torvalds (of the Linux operating system). The FSM was and is an unapologetically political campaign to foster the free distribution and development of code. The idea was that software should be treated as a common intellectual good, and the FSM developed special software licenses to encourage free access and collaboration. Raymond and Torvalds set up the Open Source Initiative to downplay these idealistic commitments. They chose instead to emphasise the superiority of openness as a method of innovation, stressing its ability to outcompete traditional forms of software development. They were, moreover, quite willing to let other people use ‘open code’ to create ‘closed outputs’ — that is, to turn them into commodities. Unsurprisingly, it was this commercially orientated version of openness, geared around innovation and efficiency, that caught on in governmental circles, not the overtly political FSM.

Raymond described the Open Source method of software development in a book titled The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1999). The ‘cathedral’ method represented traditional software development: individuals or small groups working in relative isolation to realise a grand, unified vision in the shape of a new software application. In contrast, the open source method ‘seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches … out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles’. It is no coincidence, of course, that a bazaar is really just an exotic term for a market. Openness was imagined as a new organisational form, one that resembled a market insofar as it championed decentralisation and competition. Of course, it lacked the feedback mechanism of pricing, which, for leading economists such as Friedrich Hayek, was the key to how markets were able to ‘self-organise’.

Many of Raymond’s insights — ‘release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity’ and ‘given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow’ (which he dubbed Linus’s Law) — broke out of the world of software development to become the buzz phrases of Web 2.0. The new web was about encouraging participation and collaboration. With its ethos of ‘anyone can edit’, Wikipedia came to replace Linux (and software in general) as the new paragon of openness. In the words of the encyclopedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, ‘Wikipedia’s success to date is entirely a function of our open community’.

During the rise of Web 2.0, openness started popping up everywhere to describe all kinds of online initiatives that drew inspiration from the ‘Wikipedia way’ — Open Access, Open Data Commons, the Open Everything initiative, the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Open Courseware Consortium, and more recently the rise of MOOCs (massive, open online courses) are but a few developments understood explicitly in these terms. As Jonathan Rosenberg, senior vice president of product management at Google declared on their official blog, in a 2009 post titled ‘The meaning of open’:
Open will win. It will win on the internet and will then cascade across many walks of life: the future of government is transparency. The future of commerce is information symmetry. The future of culture is freedom. The future of science and medicine is collaboration. The future of entertainment is participation. Each of these futures depends on an open internet.

As early as 2003, the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff published a short monograph titled Open Source Democracy. Such a democracy, he wrote, would ‘require us to dig deep into the very code of our legislative processes, and then rebirth it in the new context of our networked reality’. The results would be unpredictable:
(L)ike literacy, the open source ethos and process are hard if not impossible to control once they are unleashed. Once people are invited to participate in, say, the coding of a software program, they begin to question just how much of the rest of the world is open for discussion.

That’s a heady prospect, and as openness’s star continued to rise, not even radical Marxists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri could resist the lure. ‘One approach to understanding the democracy of the multitude,’ they wrote in Multitude (2004), ‘is as an open-source society, that is, a society whose source code is revealed so that we can work collaboratively to solve its bugs and create new, better social programs’. At the other end of the political spectrum, the British conservative MP Douglas Carswell invoked openness in a 2009 blog post titled: ‘Open the party; open source politics is coming’. And in the US, the Tea Party movement described the collaborative production of their infamous ‘Contract from America’ thus: ‘Hundreds of thousands of people voted for their favorite principles online to create the Contract as an open-sourced platform’.

If openness truly is something that we all agree upon, it must be a rather vacuous political ideal. Indeed, it might be best to think about it as an empty signifier, one whose very function and appeal rests precisely on its ultimate vacuity. This, in fact, is close to the way in which the philosopher Karl Popper originally conceived the ‘open society’ during the Second World War. And yet we were already meant to be living in just such a society, long before this latest round of ‘opening’ ever got started. What’s going on?

In The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Popper rewrote the history of political philosophy around the new master categories of open and closed. His book was a defence of capitalism as compared with the alternatives of the day, and it took the form of an argument about knowledge. Closed societies were ones based on unchallengeable truths, so-called laws of history or destiny. Open societies were ones in which totalising knowledge was necessarily impossible. Plato, Hegel and Marx were the primary philosophical targets, and Communism and Fascism were the outcomes of their closed mode of thought.

The merits of Popper’s argument matter less than its overall structure. He went to great lengths to describe closed thought and closed societies, so much so that it might have been more honest simply to call the book ‘Enemies of the Open Society’. But this focus on the closed was unavoidable. To write a positive description of openness, to state its truths, would have been to close it. Popper was well aware of this, and so whenever he does makes suggestions about what constitutes openness, they are always qualified with caveats — such characteristics are always temporary, or could just as easily be otherwise.

It is not a politics geared towards specific changes, but towards change in general

As a critique of totalitarian knowledge and politics, his argument works quite well. Nevertheless, the fact that it can’t specify an alternative should give us pause. That applies especially now that we find ourselves trying to make our Popperian open society even more open. Apparently, aspects of 20th-century capitalism were ‘closed’ after all: proprietary software, with its inaccessible source code; hierarchical editorial structures where only the privileged few ‘can edit’; university courses where only the paying have access; governments that aren’t collaborative, participative, transparent, and so on. This new push for openness oddly works both as a critique and affirmation of Popper’s ideal. It is a call for change that unwittingly reinstates the same conceptual architecture.

Does this latest rise of openness have any distinctive political content of its own? To begin with, we should note that it is a politics modelled after a highly idealised version of software development. It aims to be collaborative, which really means it aims to function as a ‘babbling bazaar’, reinventing the activities of government as competition between members ‘inside and out’. Participation adds numbers to the collaboration game and transparency is necessary for genuine competition. Thus the goal of open politics is not fairness, better working conditions or some other recognisable political desire, but innovation through competition. That is, it is not a politics geared towards specific changes, but towards change in general.

With its bugs, programs, sources and platforms, it’s also no exaggeration to say that the new open politics is entirely enmeshed in computational metaphors. Our technical environments have always structured our thinking, so the mere fact that software-inspired politics reeks of technological determinism may be no reason to write it off. Yet politics modelled after bazaar-style software development looks, at best, like a new twist in the continuing march of market principles into government. And there’s no reason to think that computational metaphors add much to the mix. Quite the reverse: it might be that we need new political metaphors to understand what’s going on in these supposedly exemplary software practices. As it turns out, open source development doesn’t quite function as a bazaar: Nikolai Bezroukov observed as early as 1999 that it is more like a special type of academic research.

Wikipedia equally has its ‘issues’, the most obvious being its staggering gender gap (in 2011 the New York Times found that just 13 per cent of the encyclopedia’s contributors are women), but anyone bothering to scrape the surface will see all kinds of political processes and controversies: project forks, article deletions, blocked and suspended users, a body of rules and regulations, flame wars and trolling. These are the messy realities we need to consider if we really want to extract political lessons from software and web cultures.

On the other hand, if all we care about is openness itself, we’re in luck: the realpolitik of any form of organisation will always supply material for further opening. Welcome to the rise and rise of open politics.

Read more essays on data & information, political philosophy and politics & government


  • Grant Abbott

    We have "flame wars and trolling" in government as it is. Our Congress are nothing but a bunch of trolls fighting over fake crisis. Great read though, some good points.

  • duncanfwalker

    It is good to see somebody questioning open government - I'm a supporter but it does seem to be one of those issues that has an almost worrying lack of opposition. Is no one against it because we all interpret it in the way that we want or because it doesn't result in any meaningful change?

    In the list "project forks, article deletions, blocked and suspended users, a body of rules and regulations, flame wars and trolling" at least half of these "messy realities" are more than that. These are problems happen in the real world however we organise ourselves. Forking doesn't happen because of the technology, it happens because of people. It seems to me that in this technology-inspired openness the only change is that we have names for these problems and the systems (like forking, article deletions, blocked users and regulations) to manage them. Perhaps that's the point - like all of these things openness is a tool and so, whatever its affordances, seems value neutral and is difficult to argue against.

  • KCB

    Popper was also anti-utopian. Change should be away from what doesn't work, problem by problem. Not toward some ideal that can be defined ahead of time. He defined Democracy as a government in which the politicians can be removed/replaced without violence. The idea of limiting the damage any politician or administration can do is more important than realizing some long term vision because we can't know ahead of time that any comprehensive vision would work.

    The more comprehensive the vision or plan, the more it needs to be open.

  • Andrew G. Gibson

    I wonder about the tension between this "open" ideal, and the benefits of a democratic republic, which the US, and Ireland (my own country) were founded on. There is an element of focus/leadership/expertise which should be present in a democratic republic, but confusion with the chimera of total democracy leads people to believe that we can vote on everything, all the time, simply because we appear to have the technology which allows this. The analogy with Wikipedia is misleading given that those engaged with its "openness" are a self-selecting cohort of enthusiasts and (one hopes) experts. The obvious objection to my saying this is that I seem to be advocating technocracy, but I this does not follow. I do think, however, that if openness is to be adopted as the new master-trope of our 21st century democratic discourse, then we should at least make sure it is not as simplistic as those metaphors which have fallen out of fashion.

  • Tim O’Reilly

    I'm a bit surprised to learn that my ideas of "government as a platform" are descended from Eric Raymond's ideas about Linux, since: a) Eric is a noted libertarian with disdain for government b) Eric's focus on Linux was on its software development methodology. From the start, I was the open source activist focused on the power of platforms, arguing the role for the architecture of Unix and the Internet in powering the open source movement.

    That aside, you're absolutely right that the ideas of open government are rooted in lessons from the technology industry. Platforms like the web and even the iPhone have profited hugely from their openness. The web beat competing platforms like AOL and MSN because it was more open - yes, more free-market-like. The iPhone was revolutionary not just as a device, but as a platform, with the introduction of the iPhone app store.

    But there's a lesson here that isn't noticed often enough. The first version of the iPhone didn't have an App Store. It was introduced after hackers jailbroke their phones in order to add applications. Apple had the wisdom to support and channel this move rather than trying to shut it down entirely. Thus, Apple ended up with hundreds of thousands of applications rather than the dozens they'd originally developed themselves. (This is much the same path that Google took when Greg Sadetsky decoded the format of Google Maps and created the first of many Google Maps mashups. Similarly, Amazon consulted their hackers, bringing them in for a private conference prior to the formal rollout of Amazon Web Services.)

    Note that Apple, Google, and Amazon are hardly "all open" - but they are companies that have learned how to deploy openness and participation strategically to build better services for their customers. Similarly, government can harness openness and participation to build better services for citizens.

    I took this narrative to government because I saw hackers like Carl Malamud, Tom Steinberg, Adrian Holovaty, Aaron Swartz, and organizations like mySociety and the Sunlight Foundation trying to open up government data from the outside. I wanted to support forward-thinking people in government to recognize that this was a good thing - that users trying to add new features to what the government provided was a sign of pent-up demand. This is a side of open government that has little to do with the process of making new laws, but everything to do with how government services are delivered.

    Much of what people take to be "open government" accepts the notion that government is a kind of vending machine into which we put taxes in order to get out services, and limits our participation to shaking the vending machine in new ways when we don't like the prices or the offerings. That's not to say that more public engagement in government via social media is a bad thing - but it isn't where the most important action is.

    My point is that there's another part of the open government movement that is about creating new citizen facing services based on data and services that the public has already paid for. If government can take a lesson from Apple, Google, and Amazon, it might just be that by thinking like a platform provider, it can harness the power of society to develop new services on the foundation it creates.

    The notion of platforms provides a way of thinking about the role of government that steers a middle way between the "less government" mantra of the right and the "more government" mantra of the left. At its best, government is a platform for society. For example, government builds roads, and even makes rules for how they can be used, but it doesn't dictate where the cars go, and generally builds roads to follow where people want to go, rather than the other way around.

    We also have great examples of how government can do hard things that the private sector won't touch. For example, reading George Dyson's book _Turing's Cathedral_, it becomes clear just how much of modern computing was the product of government funding - and also how the decision to put that work into the public domain kickstarted the private industry that went on to create the modern computer landscape. It wasn't just the Internet that started this way, it was the digital computing itself.

    But it's important to understand that the government doesn't just provide tech R&D funding. In areas like weather prediction and geospatial data, government provides basic infrastructure that private industry builds on. Our weather industry is built on government data. When you follow electronic maps and directions on your phone or in your car, you are using government data.

    One thing that distresses me about this discussion is the notion that somehow, if open government doesn't solve every problem, or creates new problems as it solves others, it is a failed movement. The world doesn't go forward in a straight line! The "open" democracy experiment of 1776 is still ongoing; we're trying to figure out how to use technology to adapt it to the 21st century and a country with a hundredfold greater population.

    Openness is always on a spectrum. Open source advocates like Eric Raymond acknowledged this from the first; "Homesteading the Noosphere", his second essay on open source (after "The Cathedral and the Bazaar") focused on how property rights were expressed in open source communities, and how the idea of ownership of projects was still maintained even in the face of free and open source software licenses.)

    Yes, there are problems with the notion of open government. But it is a vibrant area of experimentation with notable successes. Nonprofits like Code for America are building civic applications that are simple, beautiful, and easy to use, which transform the citizen experience working with city government. The Madison project has, for the first time, allowed citizens direct input into Federal legislation - a number of those citizen suggestions made it directly into the Open Act. The Presidential Innovation Fellows program at the White House is creating practical new tools like the SBA's RFP-EZ, designed to make it easier for small businesses to bid on government contracts. The Government Digital Service in the UK has created a model for how government can mine user searches - in the same way that companies like Google and Netflix do - to build government websites around what citizens are looking for rather than how bureaucratic departments are organized.

    Government as a platform is beginning to kickstart a startup ecosystem. The HHS "Datapalooza" events are building a startup ecosystem around government health data. Startups like Brightscope, Mindmixer,, Learnsprout, Aunt Bertha, Revelstone, and Measured Voice, Captricity, Textizen, Civic Industries, and Amplify Labs are building a rich ecosystem of civic and govtech applications.

    I like KCB's point about Popper, about the process of experimentation, "change away from what doesn't work, problem by problem." Incidentally, this is exactly the lean startup approach being embraced by Silicon Valley startups, and now being explored by government as well.

    • Anna

      Civic Industries? URL?

  • oliverdamian

    Government policy should be treated like falsifiable theories open to intense evidence-based scrutiny and critique of its citizens. Only those policies that can hold up to this scrutiny and show evidence that it is still working should remain. The rest should be amended, evolved or if this is not possible terminated. Open government should provide the platform where citizens can show evidence for or against a government policy that is outside the lobbying Congress industry which had been gamed by vested interests often against the welfare of the nation as a whole.

    • Barry Kort

      In the field of Medicine, every proposed treatment or cure has to be carefully studied and reviewed to ensure that it has demonstrated therapeutic value, and does not inadvertently spread, exacerbate, or even cause the malady it sets out to treat. In the medical literature, a treatment is called “iatrogenic” if it is counter-productive to the primary objective of curing disease.

      The fields of Government and Law do not employ such safeguards, and as a result a substantial fraction of our public policies and practices, operating under the color of law, turn out to be iatrogenic — ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst.

      Alan Simpson, the retired Senator from Wyoming, spent some three decades in Congress, during which time he helped craft and enact a great deal of legislation. But after he retired, he remarked that during his tenure in Washington politics, he discovered a law, the way a scientist would discover a natural law. Simpson said he discovered the Law of Unintended Consequences, meaning that the actual outcome of legislation, passed in good faith with an expectation of curing one of society’s ills, frequently turned out to have unanticipated, unexpected, and undesirable consequences. In science, if one is relying on a theoretical model, and the actual outcome of an experiment does not jibe with that predicted by the model, one is obliged to discard the model as unreliable.

      Our governmental systems are rife with unreliable models which give rise to unwise practices, many of which are ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst. We have built governmental systems that lack viable safeguards against iatrogenic treatments of many of our most problematic social ills.

  • Barry Kort

    Wikipedia’s self-governance model is so anachronistic, it predates fundamental concepts introduced by the first historic designers of the Rule of Law.

    See "The Governance Model of Wikipedia" ...

  • Andrew Ecclestone

    "you're absolutely right that the ideas of open government are rooted in lessons from the technology industry" - Tim O'Reilly, comment above.

    And this is one of the fundamental problems in this field of discourse in a nutshell.

    The ideas of open government are *not* rooted in lessons from the technology. The technology industry, and lazy politicians who love the conjunction of sexy new technology and a term as apparently ambiguous as 'community', have co-opted what we have previously understood 'open government' to mean, by taking the meaning of openness used in the open source software field (as this article documents) and applying it to ideas about people's ability to access government-held information.

    In fact the term 'open government' significantly pre-dates this, as the examples below will show.

    The March 1979 UK government discussion document (a 'green paper') on increasing citizens' ability to access information held by public authorities was entitled 'Open Government' (its reference number is Cm 7520/1979).

    The July 1993 UK policy proposal (a 'white paper') for increasing citizens' ability to access information held by public authorities was entitled 'Open Government' (its reference number is Cm 2290/1993, and you can find it online here [pdf]:

    Note: both these publications pre-date Raymond's book 'The Cathedral and the Bazaar'.

    A previous attempt at defining 'open government' - at least in the British context - was made by two UK academics, Michael Hunt and Richard Chapman, in "Open Government in a Theoretical and Practical Context". They write:

    "transparency and openness are not quite the same things. Transparency in the contexts described is used primarily for the purposes of accountability whereas the purpose of openness is more than this. It is intended to provide the opportunity for individuals to participate in the policy process and to utilize information for that purpose."

    The first chapter of Hunt and Chapman's book is available online here [pdf]:

    Further details of the book are here:

    I would extend the definition provided by Hunt and Chapman to include citizen participation in service design and delivery, participation in forms of decision taking (deliberative decision making such as citizens juries and participative budgeting) and in helping to define the parameters by which policies and services are evaluated; in other words participation in government accountability too.

    Mr O'Reilly - and Mr Tkacz - may also find it helpful to read an article written by the Executive Director of Global Integrity, Nathaniel Heller, in which he also attempts a definition of 'open government' which goes way beyond this reductionist idea of a platform or as a synonym for 'open data':

    Finally, if you really want to see how far this different understanding of 'open government' reached in the UK, you only need to watch the first episode of 'Yes Minister', which aired in February 1980.

    • nate tkacz

      Thank you Andrew - I am aware of this history, and of the longer history of openness in political thought, from Popper to Henri Bergson. My point, though, is that the current uptake in government is a version of openness drawn from software cultures. I'm not so interested in looking for other versions of openness and more interested in examining the version that everyone is adopting.

      • Andrew Ecclestone

        Hi Nate, I am glad to hear you are aware of this history of the term 'open government'. I agree that it looks as though the current uptake in government is a version of openness drawn from software cultures. However, I'm disappointed that you're not "interested in looking for other versions of openness", as I think it's that shift in meaning and intent that is vitally important to analyse.

        Who benefits from that shift from traditional understandings of open government to ones drawn from software cultures? What is their motivation?

        Was the shift accidental on the part of people rooted in open source software, but deliberate on the part of those in government (or active in politics) that would prefer a meaning that is more market-oriented than aiming at participative/deliberative political activity?

        As the neo-liberal economic model collapsed in 2007, are those desperate not to let go of the benefits it has brought them now clothing themselves in 'open', and the market-based platform interpretation of the word, in order to disguise their preference for continuing an economic model that has brought about the ruination of millions and the planet? Or do we have a politically naive software culture that is being co-opted by the politcally savvy?

        In the UK, the current Prime Minister has said:

        “real freedom of information is the money that goes in and the results that come out. Making government more transparent is the best thing. We spend an age - fortunately not me, but the system seems to - on dealing with FOI requests that are all about processes, but what the public, the country and Parliament need to know is how much money are you spending, is it being spent well and what are the results…
        I think that publication of information is better than the discovery process, which I think furs up the arteries [of government].”

        (David Cameron, House of Commons, Liaison Committee, 6 March 2012)

        And Cameron's minister for 'open government', Francis Maude, has said "I'd like to make Freedom of Information redundant, by pushing out so much [open] data that people won't have to ask for it,"


        In this context, it becomes vitally important to understand why those in power have adopted O'Reilly's idea of government as a platform (the UK government explicitly states that its key motivation for open access to government datasets is to stimulate economic growth), where they retain the power to choose which datasets to "push out", compared to an idea of open government that has Freedom of Information laws at its heart, where the power is transferred to the citizen and an independent dispute arbitration enforcement mechanism (the Information Commissioner and courts in the UK, Australia and many other parts of the world, the courts in the USA, an Ombudsman in New Zealand and Scandinavia).

        So, if you only look at "the version that everyone is adopting", aren't you at significant risk of missing that this is still a field of discourse where the semantics are still being contested, of not understanding motivations for adopting a particular version, of not recognising that the desired outcomes of those promoting one version of 'open government' are quite different from those arguging for another (more historically rooted) version of 'opent government'?

        • nate tkacz

          Hi Andrew -- Yes, I agree with all of your points. Comparing different versions and the strategic uptake of one over others is important. When I said 'I'm not so interested in these others', it because my interest lies more with how ideas from software and network cultures are entering other areas of life. That is, I arrived at openness through software (and through Wikipedia) and these are the developments I am trying to understand. I hope someone is doing the work that you suggest. That said, I outline what I think is a core issue for _all_ uses of openness in a longer (academic) article, which is the basis for the shorter aeon piece (

  • Andrew Ecclestone

    A further point on older understandings of 'open government': the 1981 report of the Committee on Official Information (known as the Danks Committee, after its chairman Sir Alan Danks) was entitled 'Towards Open Government'. It set out proposals for New Zealand's freedom of information law, enacted in 1982 as the Official Information Act.

    More information here from the New Zealand encylopedia:

    and Google books reproduction of Norman Marsh's book 'Public Access to Government-held Information' here:

  • nate tkacz

    I want to begin by thanking Tim O’Reilly for replying and clarifying his vision of open government. For those interested, O’Reilly’s vision is articulated in further detail in the book on open government that I mention near the beginning of the essay. I want to pick up on some aspects of this vision below, but first I want to clarify that thinking critically about openness as a category of political thought and action is not to reject everything done in the name of openness offhand. Not at all. It means that we do not embrace openness without scrutiny, without looking closely at its ‘models’, its histories, at the actual stuff that is going on in its name, and without considering how it functions in relation to other kinds of politics. It means that we can point to its weakness, its inconsistencies and ambiguities and importantly, that we might very well decide to frame this recent computational turn in government in different terms.

    As much as I am in support of the some of the initiatives O’Reilly mentions, I take issue with several aspects of his overall vision of open government. To begin, O’Reilly writes of his surprise ‘to learn that [his] ideas of “government as a platform” are descended from Eric Raymond’s ideas about Linux’ since Raymond is a ‘noted libertarian with disdain for government’ and since his ‘focus on Linux was on its software development methodology’. Instead, O’Reilly writes that he ‘was the open source activist focused on the power of platforms’, not Raymond. I agree with O’Reilly’s depiction of Raymond as a libertarian and I also agree that Raymond’s focus was the Linux method of software development and not on government. That is my point exactly. Raymond’s writings about open source software development became a key reference point for other people writing about other things, O’Reilly included.

    As far as being ‘surprised’ that his (O’Reilly’s) ideas on government as a platform are descended from Raymond’s, I’m not sure how else one could interpret the following passages, in which, after describing the existing model of government as a ‘vending machine’, he writes:

    "What if, instead of a vending machine, we thought of government as the manager of a marketplace? In The Cathedral & the Bazaar, Eric Raymond uses the image of a bazaar to contrast the collaborative development model of open source software with traditional software development, but the analogy is equally applicable to government."

    "In the technology world, the equivalent of a thriving bazaar is a successful platform."

    "This is the right way to frame the question of Government 2.0. How does government become an open platform that allows people inside and outside government to innovate?" (Open Government, p.13)

    It seems pretty clear that ‘government as an open platform’ is derived explicitly from Raymond’s writing about software development. Given that this is the case, and given that Raymond has a ‘disdain for government’, don’t we have good grounds to be suspicious about the rise of open government? Isn’t the conception of government as ‘the manager of a marketplace’ entirely consistent with the neoliberal rationale? And isn’t the reality of the neoliberal paradigm quite different to the intellectual justification for a market based society as put forward by Hayek and others in the Mont Perelin Society? It is important to have lively debates about the concepts that come to justify political action, and part of my concern about openness is that this discussion hasn’t taken place. Indeed, there is something about openness that makes such a critical discussion very difficult.

    There is also more than a little bit of ambiguity around the notion of ‘platform’. If a platform is a bazaar, then it is a market. For Raymond, it seems clear that Linux itself, including all its various subcomponents, is like a bazaar (a market). But O’Reilly comes to describe the 'platform' more as the initial conditions from which a market emerges -- ‘the architecture’, in his terms. Moreover, most of the time the vision of government as open platform seems to apply to one particular section of government: government services which lend themselves to software solutions. Consider:

    "Note that Apple, Google, and Amazon are hardly "all open" - but they are companies that have learned how to deploy openness and participation strategically to build better services for their customers. Similarly, government can harness openness and participation to build better services for citizens."


    "This is a side of open government that has little to do with the process of making new laws, but everything to do with how government services are delivered."

    Here it reads as if government can be a mix of open and closed (or at least open and ‘less open’) and can, in certain circumstances, deploy strategic forms of openness in order to harness the productive energies of user-producer-citizens to provide better services. However, in O’Reilly’s longer essay in Open Government he writes,

    "government programs must be designed from the outset not as a fixed set of specifications, but as open-ended platforms that allow for extensi‐ bility and revision by the marketplace. Platform thinking is an antidote to the complete specifications that currently dominate the government approach not only to IT but to programs of all kinds." (p.37)


    "it is worth noting that the idea of government as a platform applies to every aspect of the government’s role in society." (p.13)

    So there is a double usage going on; one specific, the other general. One that acknowledges a strategic use of openness, the other which desires to remodel all of government in this fashion. For O’Reilly, this difference isn’t too important because he sees the strategic use of openness at the level of specific government services as model for the (future) whole. It’s one thing to remodel a couple of services after the App Store, but it’s another thing to reimagine ‘every aspect of the government’s role in society’ in this fashion.

    Not everyone is inspired by Apple’s business model; even their ‘strategic use of openness’ is hard for many to swallow. Let’s not forget that the App Store has a history of disallowing certain apps to enter the Store when it suits them (and lets not also forget about the underlying ‘material conditions’ which make the App Store possible). The far end of this vision feels a lot like Snow Crash.

    Finally, O’Reilly largely plays down the political conditions of those platforms from which he takes inspiration. Obviously, Apple, Google, the Web and the Internet are all very different kinds of platform. So much so, that I don’t think it makes much sense to stress their similarities over their differences. But even if we take the most ideal platform ‘architecture’, which is commonly considered to be Wikipedia, we see all kinds of situations that give us cause for concern.

    In a section in Open Government titled, ‘Everyone Has Something to Offer’, O’Reilly writes:

    "Wikipedia, which invariably makes a central appearance in every reference to crowd‐ sourcing, plays the different opinions of the crowd against each other in more explicit ways. On relatively uncontroversial articles, contributors are expected to discuss their differences and reach consensus. This process is aided by a rarely cited technical trait of web pages: because they present no artificial space limitations, there can always be room for another point of view. On controversial topics, Wikipedia has over the years devel‐ oped more formal mechanisms, but the impetus for change still wells up from the grass‐ roots." (p.29)

    Here the market is seen to function as intended, playing the ‘crowd against one another’ to produce the best outcome with the help of the ‘technical trait of web pages’. The fact that it is ‘a crowd’ suggests that the platform is very open – a genuine market of ideas. O’Reilly acknowledges that sometimes the ‘crowd’ cannot achieve consensus, and more formal mechanisms for deciding between contributions have developed, but this isn’t dwelt upon. What’s most important is the ‘grassroots impetus for change’.

    There are two things about this vision of the ideal platform that I find troubling: It is not an accurate vision of Wikipedia specifically or of crowdsourcing in general. Wikipedia is full of people who game the rules to their advantage. Articles don’t reflect the best outcome for all society, but for an (admittedly large) group who hold a specific enlightenment-derived conception of knowledge (in other words, the market always serves some better than others). Contributions are dominated by white dudes, who create knowledge for all (the market favours some more than others). As for the crowd, this dimension has always been overrated and doesn’t really capture the dynamics of how a contribution actually sticks (which is less to do with market logics than strategic rule following). Of the 18-million registered users, only 135,000 are considered ‘active’ and this only means that they have made at least one contribution over the last month (from Wikipedia:Statistics). The core group of highly active editors is much smaller. The crowd turns out to be a slightly larger group of experts (with a small army of bots). There is nothing wrong with this reality for Wikipedia, but it does pose a few challenges for the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ argument and by extension our investment in open government. The point I am making is that these projects from which open government draws inspiration have their own political dimensions that we are still trying to get our head around. Importing these models also means importing some of their political and organisational dimensions. We are kidding ourselves if we think that these platforms are some kind of ideal marketplaces, and even if they were, that this would somehow solve the problems of government.