Organizing An Open Data Program

Last week I gave a Forrester webinar on open data in government. The premise was that while big data is changing business, open data is changing the business of government. Open data provides not only greater transparency through access to information, it also improves government decision-making and operations, enables new forms of constituent engagement, facilitates new services delivery, opens new avenues for economic development, and gives rise to new government processes. The presentation explored the evolution of the open data movement, providing examples of the government transformation it has enabled and best practices for launching an open data initiative gleaned from the early adopters.

There were a couple of great questions that came in via chat as we were ending the webinar. And, I wanted to make sure I addressed them.

Who should or could be the business owner of Open Data Initiatives?

What are good practices with regard to this organizational question?

My upcoming report on open data provides a few relevant recommendations:

  • Build the right team to manage and promote the initiative. The CIO of Honolulu picked a millennial as a deputy with clear marching orders: Keep me informed and don’t break the law. The new deputy was the father of the Code for America program in the city, ran the hackathon, and an unconference to gather input from the developer community. Ghent also needed new blood and knew that it needed to have civil servants willing to engage with the community, open to young people and developers. Engagement is a two-way street. They also forged strong ties with local university students to extend their team. 
  • Ensure sustainability by establishing a strong stakeholder community. The data is only as valuable as the results it helps the city achieve — whether those results are optimized operations, better targeted programs, better academic research, or better informed citizens. Internal departments who benefit from the data will advocate on behalf of the program as will developers and entrepreneurs who create new services using the data and citizens who consume the new sources of information. Academics also have a strong interest in data to support their research. The stronger the stakeholder community, the more sustainable the program.
  • Align closely with the agenda of executive leadership. In most of the marquee open data cities, the IT department and open data program managers work closely with the Mayor’s Office. In Boston there is a Director of Constituent Engagement who drives outreach around open data. “The mayor doesn’t care about data; he cares about people.” That changed the way IT thought about the open data program shifting from “I play with data” to “I tell a story.” Stories are about the interaction between people and government. Aligning agendas further ensures sustainability of the program.

To answer the questions directly, where I've seen the most success is when the business owners are in the mayor's office. Chicago brought in a Chief Data Officer who reported directly to the mayor and was responsible for the use of data across the city — in decision-making, in citizen engagement, etc. As mentioned above, Boston has a model where the business counterpart to the "data scientist" (who runs the open data program from the IT side) reports into the Mayor's office as the Director of Constituent Engagement. In San Francisco, the business owner is the Chief Innovation Officer. The position needs to be at a cross-departmental level and ideally one that reports into the executive (mayor) in order to have the visibility and sponsorship that the program needs to succeed. 

As for the rest of the organization, it is important to have stakeholders within the departments. In San Francisco, a recent city law created data managers within each of the city departments to ensure alignment with their open data program. In other cities, the departmental role is less formal, and even voluntary. The open data organization itself doesn’t need to be extensive. The key to a successful program is demonstrating the value of data so that both the city administration and citizens support the program.

Thanks to all who attended the webinar. It is available for replay for those who did not.