Open Source Bureaucracy

It was an absolute treat to be invited to speak at DOUBLE MAJOR: a lecture series hosted by Carleton University Art Gallery (a hidden gem in Ottawa). I had a great time! The audience was very engaged and we had an excellent discussion afterwards. I recorded it live. The transcript & links are bel0w the video.

Open Source Bureaucracy


The technology exists to support a truly participatory democracy. However, as a society we have not yet realized this potential. Overcoming key social and cultural barriers could bring citizens and government officials together to solve some of the complex problems plaguing our society today.

I’ll show you a few examples of that technology, drawing from the open source movement.

Then I’ll share insights from my experience, and from the projects and writings of others.

My intention, by the end, is to convince you that government needs you to help solve pressing social problems. That is, when citizens engage in the efforts required to protect peoples’ rights, well-being and environment we achieve better outcomes.

I’ll speak from my perspective as a technocrat, not as a representative of government. And by ‘government’ I mean both the bureaucratic and the political sphere.

What kind of technocrat am I? The kind that builds websites that are easy for people to use. The one who wrote the policy mandating that government websites follow a user-centred design process to build websites that meet the needs of the people they’re intended to serve.

To help our colleagues meet this (and other) policies, the team with whom I work created open source software called the Web Experience Toolkit.

Open source is free to use, distribute, modify and study. Conversely, closed or proprietary source code is kept secret, is privately owned and it’s use is restricted by copyright licenses and trademarks. (source)

Open-source software tends to be developed in a public, collaborative manner, by communities of people with the skills and interest in a shared outcome. The Web Experience Toolkit is no different; it’s hosted on a website called GitHub, which is like Facebook for developers.

What’s awesome about open source is that you can re-use and build on other people’s work, which means you can work faster for cheaper.

Through application of open source licensing, the Web Experience Toolkit is licensed for commercial re-use so not only can it be used by anyone, it can be modified and sold to others.

This is a neat feature because it creates an opportunity for innovative business models to emerge, where open and closed systems interact.

Although it’s been recognized as the biggest, we’re certainly not the only government using open source to reduce costs and improve citizen engagement.

Open source is not just used in government; it’s used in every sector. Artist Kyle McDonald exhibited his facetracking machine built with open source code. Daito Manabe used the same open source software in his performance piece “Face Projection”. Hundreds of other artists have used this open source facetracking software to realize their own projects.

Inspired by the open source movement, other artists have released non-code assets from their work and encouraged other artists to re-mix them.

Here’s an example from Sara Blake – aka ZSO – a New York based illustrator and textile designer.

She released this photoshop file under an license similar to that used for open source code – and other artists did this, this and this.

So, although “open source” generally refers to software, the principles can be applied elsewhere.

This is the part of open source projects that’s so fascinating to me – the human perspective.

Since I’m business analyst who studied psychology, not a developer, my role on the project is to support its continued expansion. I don’t need to know much about code, but I need to know a lot about how people work together.

While experimenting with ways to reduce friction that would otherwise prevent people from participating in my own projects, I’ve followed similar work of other practitioners, academics and authors.

Early (government) open source projects were mostly websites that provided easier access to information, and helped citizens send feedback to the appropriate government offices.For example, fix my street is a website where people can notify city officials about potholes and graffiti.

It was developed in the UK by a non-profit organization, called MySociety, which was replicated throughout the world using the same open source code that MySociety made available on GitHub.

It wasn’t until the US Patent & Trademark Office created a website that opened up their entire process of reviewing patent applications in a project called Peer to Patent that the true opportunity of citizens working with government was demonstrated.

The impetus for doing so was a backlog of 700,000 patent applications.

In the first year alone, over 2000 citizen-reviewers joined the patent office reviewers. They helped surfacing “prior art” needed to decide if a patent should be granted, oftentimes from literature that the patent examiners wouldn’t have found otherwise. (Source)

Japan, Korea and Australia are now piloting similar programs.

With Peer to Patent we see that when we open up government processes, information, source code, and provide a direct connection to bureaucrats that results improve.

Beth Noveck, Obama’s deputy chief technology officer until 2011, Harvard and Yale law graduate created the Peer-to-Patent project.

In her book, Wiki Government, she explains that “critics may suggest that there already exists an architecture of participation…Corporations participate through lobbyists and notice-and-comment rule making. Nongovernmental organizations funnel information to government through think tanks…and publications. Interest groups lobby…Others…participate in…advisory committees…

What is lacking, though, are effective ways for government to be responsive to the public, as opposed to corporate interests, large stakeholders, and interest groups…

Collaborative democracy is about making it easier for…people to find the areas where they want to work and contribute.” (Source: Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful, Brookings Institution Press, 2009)

Author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, best known perhaps for coining the terms “viral media” and “digital native, in his book “Open Source Democracy” asks “would happen if the ‘source code of our democratic systems was opened up to the people they are meant to serve?”

His answer? ‘An open source model for participatory, bottom-up and emergent policy will force us to confront the issues of our time.’ Read the white paper on Demos.

Solutions to problems don’t live inside institutions. They live inside people.

And no one institution, nation, group or generation contains all the people who have the knowledge, experience and wisdom required to solve these complex problems.

We’ll find solutions to emergent social issues by extending our conversations into art institutions, group homes, pubs, living rooms, labs, businesses, non-profits and non-governmental organizations, high schools, into rural areas, on the streets, on sheep farms and suburbs and slums — because experience, knowledge and wisdom are distributed — not centralized.

For this distributed decision-making to work, everyone needs access to high quality information – in it’s rawest form – in the right time and place – in easily accessible and user-friendly formats.

Some of that information has been collected or created by government institutions and, through initiatives like the Open Government Partnership, it is already being published on the Internet in re-usable formats with open source licenses. One of these formats is called open data.

Yes, the technology exists to support this ongoing dialogue that would enable people from many institutions to work together. And there are examples showing it’s possible and desirable.

So what is the final missing ingredient? Why aren’t we all embracing open source democracy and all its potential?


In Canada, trust in government is hovering below 50%. This year it was recorded by the Edelman Trust Barometer, an international survey, at 42%.

Globally, government is the least trusted institution compared to NGOs media and business for the third consecutive year. (Source)

I propose that we increase trust by increasing the direct interaction between people in various institutions.

In my experience, policy analysts in public institutions bringing together the disparate needs of citizens and businesses and lobbyists don’t have all the answers. And the decisions of government affect us all.

Specialists can be found anywhere – they’re professors and authors and PhD candidates and amateur hobbyists and business people.

As Rushkoff and Noveck say, governments need access to both the people they’re in place to serve, and the people with the knowledge and ideas to solve issues, wherever they may be.

Here’s a strange thought: What if government acted as a convener – as an organization that brings people together. As a curator. As a moderator.

This is what what Tim O’Reilly called “Government as a platform”.

This new model, connecting generalists to specialists, protectors of environmental rights with the writers of environmental policy, those who would come to an event such as this one and those who aren’t here tonight…

Well, to me, that would look like any other open source project – freely available and constantly improving.

To achieve this model of governance, we need to embrace this complexity and vulnerability to gain trust with each other.

We need to admit we don’t know the answer to a lot of tough questions.

We’ll need to acknowledge that the people who need government the most often don’t have access to the technology or the discussion. That those who do have access, are not necessarily representative of the demographics of Canadian society.

And because of this, we need empathy. We need compassion. We need humility.

We need to be honest, we need to listen, we need to show our vulnerabilities.

We need to move away from polarizing debate based on false dichotomies, binary opposition or such common defences as blaming and shaming.

Only then will we be able to use this technology, this openness – this new way of interacting – to have difficult conversations about what trade-offs we as a society are willing to make.

And on this note, I leave you with no answers, only questions ⏤

How would you prefer to engage with public decision-makers?

What would it take for you, your colleagues, friends or families to participate in this country’s democracy?

What would we, as technocrats, have to do to win back your trust and extend this conversation beyond tonight?

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About Laura

As a Business Analyst working for the Canadian federal government in Web usability, I have the opportunity to be a part of a growing movement of professionals implementing user-centered design principles.
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3 Responses to Open Source Bureaucracy

  1. @RobinKilroy says:

    Laura: Do you mind if I post this presentation on my blog, with appropriate credit to you? It’s such an important presentation…

  2. Laura says:

    Of course! Thanks.

  3. Pingback: Could Web content be made available like open source code is? | Really Clear Writing

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