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Open Government Change We Can Believe In

Last summer, I was facing the imminent end of my appointment in the Obama administration. With six months until the inauguration of a new president, I needed to figure out the next step in my career, while trying to maintain the feeling that I was doing something that matters. For me, no job has been more professionally nor personally rewarding than that of public service. We have made significant progress in improving government technology, but there is so much more work that needs to be done.

When I was presented with the opportunity to join Acquia, and expand their global public sector strategy, I saw a chance to stay on the front lines of the incredible revolution that has been unfolding in government technology over the last decade. It was an opportunity to continue my career path, and personal passion to promote the use of open source technology to make civic institutions better.

Elections bring change, and with that comes uncertainty. Government bureaucracies are not built for change. Embedded within them is an inherent inertia to maintain the status quo. It is a feature, not a bug in the system, meant to project stability and invoke public confidence that things are working as expected. In the technology world however, this approach is a recipe for certain failure.

The movement towards open source and open government is less a partisan issue and more a rejection of the limitations represented by proprietary software. People often look at the Obama administration as the harbinger of this open source government movement. In fact, the Open Government Directive of 2009 was not the beginning, but rather a validation of a generation of work, dating back to Richard Stallman’s GNU Project in 1983. It applied the fundamental beliefs of the open source software world to the operations of public sector institutions.

Reading the Open Government Directive, I am reminded by how important the prescient words were to get the public sector past the adoption tipping point for open source technology.

“The three principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration form the cornerstone of an open government. Transparency promotes accountability by providing the public with information about what the Government is doing. Participation allows members of the public to contribute ideas and expertise so that their government can make policies with the benefit of information that is widely dispersed in society. Collaboration improves the effectiveness of Government by encouraging partnerships and cooperation within the Federal Government, across levels of government, and between the Government and private institutions.”

These three principles of transparency, participation and collaboration are also at the heart of open source software, and in my mind there is no greater form of civic participation than contributing to open source platforms. While running digital technology for the White House, I would regularly reference that over 800 independent developers were regularly contributing to the dozens of modules required to run WhiteHouse.gov. That is the power of open source.

From the Open Data movement in the United Kingdom (that began around the same time as the US Open Government Directive), to the launch of the U.S. citizen petition portal“We the People,” it is completely clear to me that the rise of open source, open APIs, and cloud computing in the public sector will continue to thrive and expand in a way that absolutely transcends political movements or ideologies.

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At the White House and the Department of State, I had the honor and privilege of leading change from the inside. We pushed hard every single day to modernize processes, technology, and culture. It was not without major frustrations, some turbulence, and a chorus of “no’s” on a regular basis. But it is imperative we continue to make government more open, more responsive, and improve the experience of its citizens have in all of their interactions with the institutions that govern them.

The focus on improving this experience is why I believe strongly in Acquia’s role in transforming the public sector. In partnership with the incredible Drupal community, Acquia has been instrumental in demonstrating and delivering the value of open source, from national to local governments, from the U.S. to Australia, the City of Boston to the State of New York.

In this next phase of my career, I will be focused on helping from the outside. There are clear political divisions in this country and in the world. But, what unites us all is the firm belief in the need to continuously improve the experience of government. We will continue working to achieve that mission, and that is change we can believe in.

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