Some comments on the invitation to take Open Gov out of the hands of technologists

Last week at ForumPA in Italy, Andrea Di Maio gave a talk on “Open Government: The Reality Behind the Myth”. He left the conference disappointed for the lack of attendees and the somewhat nasty reaction to criticism:

Although the session was in parallel with four of five others and was being streamed live, I was still disappointed with the low attendance

I believe that a good part of the explanation here is waaay simpler than one may think, and has nothing to do with self-proclaimed technologists, culture and so on.

Di Maio’s talk was scheduled on May 17th at 10am. I wanted to be there. However, as many other people, first I had to fight with the idiotic road system around the Fair and the Fiumicino airport, which creates much useless traffic used as excuse to build more useless roads or bridges. Then I and many others were stuck in a line to enter the parking lot for about 30 minutes. Let’s look at the core issues now.

As you know by now, I didn’t listen to Di Maio’s keynote. I also haven’t had time at all to listen to the whole talk via Internet. Here, I am only commenting the post, which is the only thing that most people would see anyway. If the complete talk is closer to my conclusions below than it seems from the post, I’m happy! This said:

[instead of] “open by default” I call for “open for a reason”

A good part of the need to push for “open by default” is that Italy is the only western nation that does not have a Freedom of Information Act. We’re still at the stage of having “open by default” recognized as a theoretical right. Maybe that, rather than an actual belief that really everything can become open the moment we ask for it, is the reason for insisting on that concept.

I’ve written myself that software is too important to leave it to programmers. While I would not include the person who talked with Di Maio in the category, it is also true that Italy does have its share of “self-appointed gurus” jumping over foreign trends just for the fun of it. Still, reading the title of that post, and statements like:

It would be great if technologists took a back seat in all his, leaving the front seat to people who know the business problems that need to be solved

sounds to me a bit too much like “never mind that “elite”, we are the real, one elite that is worth listening to”. The feeling becomes even stronger when reading:

For such a transformation to take place, for government to really operate in an “open by default” fashion, civil servants at all levels need to see what’s in it for them

For many of the current civil servants in Italy there is little or nothing to gain in “open by default”, or “open for a reason”. Often, or almost always when it comes to certain classes of jobs, this isn’t the fault of the public employees doing those jobs. Still, there’s nothing to gain for many current Italian civil servants from “open whatever”. At all levels.

Certain italian top bureaucrats or politicians of today wouldn’t last one minute in such an environment. At the other end of the scale there are many desk employees whose only function and meaning is either to keep something secret so it is necessary to ask them to see it, or to create paper only to shuffle it around from office to office. If we were to wait for civil servants at all levels to see what’s in it, we would wait forever. I agree that technologists shouldn’t have the front seat all for themselves, but many of the italian ones “shout” also out of frustration because nobody answers.

Apart from that, what I get from that post is the message that “open”, regardless of the right way to do it, is something to manage in a closed circle anyway (in this case, of business experts and government). As far as I’m concerned, changin one elite with another doesn’t solve much. I’d rewrite the last quote I made as follows:

For such a transformation to take place, for government to really operate in an “open by default” fashion, citizens at all levels need to see what’s in it for them

I and many others advocating Open Government in Italy are well aware that, even if we haven’t found yet the best way to do it, this (not getting exclusive rights to consulting gigs and so on) is what needs to be done.