Notes on Civic Technology and Open Development Policy
10/10/15 Research # , , , ,

Pfeffer, Power and the Open Source Community: writing software as a political process

Pfeffer, Power and the Open Source Community: writing software as a political process

Managing with Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer presents a very detailed and comprehensive analysis of power in all its different forms. The author painstakingly reviews numerous sources of power, strategies and tools to employ power effectively. The central message of his “clinical diagnosis of power” (p. 300) is that power is a necessary condition for action. In fact, even the most brilliant ideas require power to be developed, diffused, and executed.

The book, although deeply rooted in the literature, has been accused of cynicism. Many of the “heroes” presented as examples – prominent individuals, smart enough to get power and keep it, at least for a while – seem to perceive power as a zero-sum game. In this view, every means to get power can always be justified by the ultimate goal of “getting things done,” a mantra repeated many times throughout the book.pfeffer

While this is probably true of the Machiavellian examples that Pfeffer included in the book, his relentless categorization of forms of power can also be read as a practical manual for the brilliant, honest member of an organization that just needs enough power for having his voice heard and make a change.

Indeed, the wide spectrum of categories of power represents a valid toolbox that can be applied to different situations and contexts. While the chapters of the book can be seen as different components or features of power to be activated or not depending on the specific case, the interaction between these elements is crucial to analyze real-life examples.

Here I would like to apply some of the most relevant elements of power to the case of the Open Source community, with the aim to show how Pfeffer’s points are valid even in a context that is sometimes perceived as unconditionally egalitarian, collaborative and open.


The Open Source community

Community is the key component of Open Source software (OSS) development. OSS is in fact based on the free access and redistribution of the underlying code, which each developer shares with the community of developers as a global collaborative effort towards the production of what was seen as a common [1].

Software developed as Open Source is widely adopted and its production model is so successful that some of the leading software companies in the world – including Microsoft – heavily invest in it. The model is based on a bottom-up structure, a non-coercive organization and a largely decentralized production [2]. OSS developers share a common culture (“hacker culture”) and ideology that, especially during the early days, has been called “Microsoft-phobia” [3]. This “alternative” view of software also derives from purely technical considerations, as commercial software is perceived as not totally reliable, and is consistent with the principles of self-production and user-driven innovation [4].


Entering the Community: Power Diagnosis and Allies

According to Pfeffer, the first step to get power is to diagnose “the relative power of the various participants and comprehend the patterns of interdependence” (p. 49). It’s important to define the relevant political sub-units, the existing social ties and reputational and representational indicators of each individual. Bergquist and Ljungberg [5] studied the case of a newbie (an inexperienced newcomer to OSS development) that wishes to enter the OSS community. They highlight the importance of studying the existing social interrelation and networks as well as community norms and values (p. 312).

In particular, to establish a sense of loyalty to the community, a newbie should understand the power relations in order to make allies. As Pfeffer points out, making allies is a crucial strategy to get power. Allies can be acquired thanks to obligations and favors. In the OSS community, the whole game is based on the “mutual interchange where one gift is given to another,” and a sort of interdependence is created between the giver and the receiver [5]. A complex network of givers and receivers then forms, in which the relations can be one-to-one but also one-to-many.   The search for allies takes place on the Internet through the shared on line tools of communication. There, conversations are not only public but also private, with gathering of alliances mainly through private conversations, followed by an alignment of the arguments in the public forum [6].


Reputation, Performance and Formal Authority

In “Managing with Power,” Pfeffer points out that formal authority, reputation and performance represent a key source of power and are interrelated.

Reputation, in terms of peer-recognition and prestige, is one the main driving factors that motivates OSS developers to work and share their products with the community [7]. In the first place, reputation derives essentially from performance. The quantity and quality of the code produced are easily recognizable thanks to the shared on line tools of production (such as the platform GitHub), as a signal of the quality of the individual programmer [2]. As Pfeffer highlights, this is a quite rare case in which performance can be measured in a quantitative way.

Once a developer obtains enough reputation, he also gets some sort of formal authority within a specific project through direct invitation. Sack, Détienne [8] studied the existing hierarchies among Python developers. Members’ levels span from the newbies at the bottom of the pyramid to Guido Van Rossum, the developer who founded the project Python.

Figure 1 – Sociotechnical stratification of roles in the Python project


Source: Sack et al. (2006)


Pfeffer maintains that formal authority “confers control over certain resources and the ability to take certain implied or specified actions.” In fact, high-level members of the OSS community have the power to control crucial resources.
First, they control the source code. In the case of the Python project, although the source code is stored in CVS files that can be read by any member, the write privileges are given only to a subset of developers, with evident asymmetries in power relations [5]. Second, high-level members of the community can monitor and sanction members behavior. For example, they can “ban” or “mute” a member due to “flaming discussions” or “trolling” [9]. Third, even though the discussion on software development is open to anyone, Sack, Détienne [8] found that some members – especially those with formal authority – can influence the discussions on specific topics and so have an impact on the decisions on product development.   The sequence of public messages in the Python forum and the links between them suggested that influencing people can deviate the course of a discussion and focus on specific arguments and line of work.


Location in the Communication Networks

“Managing with Power” includes a chapter on the role of communication networks and the individual position in the communication structure. According to Pfeffer, “People who are well placed in the communication network also tend to be central players in terms of power and influence.” Information and knowledge are therefore crucial sources of power, deriving, among other things, from social relations and connections.

In particular, network centrality can measure the degree of influence that an individual can exert over the structured tasks of a project. In the case of Python, Ducheneaut [10] looked at the evolution of the network position of the developer “Fred” from January to October 2002.


Figure 2 – Developer “Fred” position in the communication network of a Python project


Source: Ducheneaut (2005)


Fred is presented as a case of “successful socialization,” since he could manage to gain a central position in a specific project within the Python community in less than a year. At the beginning, although he has a strong background in Phython development deriving from professional experience in a software company, Fred does not know how the community works and starts asking questions. Then “By making connections with some of the project’s participants, Fred is trying to make the structure of this network more visible to himself […] discovering in the process which parts of the network relate to his work” [10]. Once he gets the reputation of a good “bug fixer,” his role in the communication network is more and more crucial as other members join the project. In October 2002, he has definitively acquired enough power to influence the group decisions as soon as Fred’s proposal to introduce a new software module is approved by the community.


In conclusion, the case of the OSS community shows that power dynamics matters in a context that sometimes is seen as the panacea of distributed collaboration. According to Bergquist and Ljungberg [5], “One easily gets the impression that the sharing of gifts in online communities creates a very friendly and altruistic atmosphere. And indeed it does, to some extent. But it does not mean that social stratification and struggles over power cease to exist.” In fact, developing software is inherently a political process.


  1. Benkler, Y., Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and “The Nature of the Firm”. The Yale Law Journal, 2002. 112(3): p. 369-446.
  2. Bonaccorsi, A. and C. Rossi, Why open source software can succeed. Research policy, 2003. 32(7): p. 1243-1258.
  3. Dalle, J.-M. and N. Jullien, Windows vs. Linux: some explorations into the economics of Free Software. Advances in Complex Systems, 2000. 3(01n04): p. 399-416.
  4. Von Hippel, E.A., Democratizing innovation. 2005: MIT Press.
  5. Bergquist, M. and J. Ljungberg, The power of gifts: organizing social relationships in open source communities. Information Systems Journal, 2001. 11(4): p. 305-320.
  6. Divitini, M., et al. Open source processes: no place for politics. in Proceedings of ICSE 2003 workshop on Open source. 2003.
  7. Greiner, M.E. Leadership behavior in virtual communities. in Proceedings of the 7th Annual Conference of the Southern Association for Information Systems. 2004. Citeseer.
  8. Sack, W., et al., A methodological framework for socio-cognitive analyses of collaborative design of open source software. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 2006. 15(2-3): p. 229-250.
  9. Markus, M.L., B. Manville, and C.E. Agres, What makes a virtual organization work: Lessons from the open-source world. Image, 2014.
  10. Ducheneaut, N., Socialization in an open source software community: A socio-technical analysis. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 2005. 14(4): p. 323-368.



Photo by Igal Koshevoy

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21/09/15 Open Policy

Notes on “Bureaucracy” by James Q. Wilson

Notes on “Bureaucracy” by James Q. Wilson

“Bureaucracy” by James Q. Wilson has the ambitious goal to present an analysis of “what government agencies do and why they do it.”   Far from providing an easy recipe on how public agencies should be managed, Wilson focuses his study on a description of goals, tasks, activities and internal and external actors having an impact on the organization.

In the following sections I will focus on three main points: a) the pivotal role of operators and its importance in the literature on information technology in the public sector, b) the constraints on managers’ actions and c) the opportunities deriving from a proactive, “open” strategy encouraging the interaction with the external environment.


Empowering operators

Wilson chooses to start his quest from close-range observation of the activities of the operators, i.e. the people responsible to “get the job done.” This unique perspective is probably the most interesting aspect of the whole study. Operators are analyzed right in the first section, which presents an in-depth review of the literature accompanied not only by a number of facts and concrete cases as examples of the main findings, but also by the development of new theoretical frameworks. The depth of the analysis is impressive, especially when compared to the other secbureaucracytions of the book, such as those dedicated to managers and executives.

In fact, the central role of operators defines Wilson’s particular viewpoint. Effective results can be achieved whenever a public agency is free to define its core task, gain the necessary endorsement (or tolerance, at least), and then gain enough autonomy to implement the right strategy. In this view, operators are crucial when it is time to carry out the core task of the agency. They produce (more or less) measurable output, directly influencing not only the culture, but also the overall effectiveness of the organization.

This bottom-up approach to the organization is consistent with the Human Relations / Human Resources organizational theories (see for example Roethlisberger & Dickson 2003), which consider operators as a valuable source of knowledge and new ideas for the management. In his final “modest suggestions” (p. 369), Wilson takes this appreciation of operators’ inputs a step further by maintaining “authority should be placed at the lowest level at which all essential elements of information are available” (p. 372). This view is similar to the High Performance Management theory, which is driven by the idea that lower-level employees should actually take decisions (Lawler 1986, p. 192).

Moreover, this particular focus is consistent with the subsequent evolution of network technology through the 1990s and 2000s, and in particular the opportunities offered by the Internet. In her seminal work on “virtual administration,” Jane Fountain points out that computer-based information processing enables what is described as empowerment of workers (Fountain 2001). Information systems allow for new forms of information distribution within organizations, so that the executive’s knowledge, once centralized at the highest level of the command chain, can be embedded in the system itself and made available to all the members of the organization for them to take autonomous decisions. Network-based decision-support systems “give clerks low in the hierarchy the ability to make more decisions because the rules (or standards) they are to follow are embedded in software rather than decision-maker” (Fountain 2001, p. 35).

I developed a similar decision-support system myself as my very first job in 2002. The goal was then to embed the procurement office manager’s knowledge into a new tool that buyers had to use in order to evaluate their vendors and make decisions about price and quantity of the goods the organization needed. Lower-ranked buyers put all relevant data about the vendor and its offer into the “expert system,” and then obtained a score for each vendor and its offer, based on the manager’s information, knowledge and experience. The aim of the procurement manager was to ensure faster, decentralized decisions by the members of this team, while maintaining high standards in terms of accuracy and predicted value for the organization. Wilson uses an example regarding buyers and computers in his Chapter “Innovation” (p. 223). It is a good example of how similar technology can be used to obtain opposite results, i.e. to centralize decision-making. In his example, the digitalization of the inventory control of the organization placed the power of taking decisions “in the hands of central managers and staff officers.” At the time when I started my project of developing the expert system for vendor evaluation, the inventory was already “computerized,” since every transaction and item available was traced through the central information system. The effort I describe here had the purpose of addressing the potential threat of centralization, which was seen as inefficient and slow compared to distributed decision-making.


A system-structural view focused on constraints

The view adopted in the book has much in common with the system-structural perspective described by Astley and Van de Ven as an organizational behavior “shaped by a series of impersonal mechanisms that act as external constraints on actors” (p. 248). In this view, managers react to external inputs and adapt the organization in order to cope with a very complex environment.

The number and complexity of constraints described in the book is in fact extraordinary. Perhaps the main constraint is that the managers cannot decide how to acquire and allocate the factors of production. For example, managers are not free to acquire goods and services as they like. According to Wilson, this leads to strong incentives to worry more about the constraints themselves than about tasks, that is, more about formal processes which are “known, immediate and defined by the law,” and less on outcomes, which are “uncertain, delayed and controversial” (p. 131).

While some of these constraints are concrete, well-depicted and objective, others are probably overrated by Wilson’s reasoning. For example, a manager has the opportunity to write tender invitations in ways that can allow her to be very specific about the product or service she needs.   During the process of developing the tender invitation, she can list the characteristics of the items with extraordinary detail, thus giving very precise indications about the characteristics of the vendor and the products. Wilson’s example on this issue is about the acquisition of computers. In my experience, mangers do not lack the possibility to acquire good computers through formal and “Weberian” procedures; what they often lack is technical knowledge to assess the organization’s needs and the consequent technical specifications of products and services.


Opportunities from the external environment

According to Wilson, autonomy is crucial for the organization to complete the task. In his view, autonomy “lowers the cost of organizational maintenance” since it “minimizes the role of external stakeholders” (p. 181). Autonomy is the condition through which the organization is protected by external forces and so is free to pursue its core tasks. The external environment, in contrast, is mainly seen – again – as a constraint. First, the operators are constrained by the external environment as one of the circumstances of their everyday work, which Wilson calls “situational imperative.” Second, economic interests may “capture” the operators and therefore influence the accomplishment of the task. Third, the “context,” as described in the book, is a source of endless limitations on administrative autonomy, as the Congress, presidents and courts try to “control” or even “dominate” what agencies do.

While this perspective is consistent with the system-structural paradigm, other views can be considered in order to account for the opportunities the external environment can generate in order to enhance not only the public organization’s accountability and openness, but also its efficiency and effectiveness.
The strategic-choice view gives a more proactive role to the management body, able to consider both internal bodies and external environment to “embody the meanings of action of people in charge”; in fact, strategic-choice “extends to the organization’s environment,” which “is not to be viewed as a set of intractable constraints” (Astley & Van de Ven 1983, p. 248). Within this general view, many contributions can be found on the opportunity for the management to take advantage of external networks of institutions. In his work published in 1985, Granovetter maintains that economic action is embedded in ongoing structures and relations, and such embeddedness affects institutions. Since then, subsequent research has developed the concept of network relations. Agranoff and McGuire define collaborative management as “the process of facilitating and operating in multi-organizational arrangements to solve problems that cannot be solved, or solved easily, by single organizations” (2004, p. 4).

An example of such complex network relations is multi-level governance. This model has been formulated as a system in which the responsibility for policy elaboration and implementation is distributed among different levels of government (Hooghe 1996), with a key role played by sub-national governments throughout all the policy-making process. In particular, multi-level governance is now widely adopted all over the world as a means to overcome the current economic crisis (OECD 2011).  Cohesion Policy of the European Union is based on this model (Hooghe & Marks 2001, Barca 2009). European regions are responsible for programming and implementing the policy, but in a context in which European, national, and local institutions actively participate in defining policy goals, monitoring the progress and evaluating the results. While Wilson would have “protected” the work of operators from external, divergent inputs, in fact the effectiveness of Cohesion Policy highly depends on the capacity of the operators at different agencies (operating at different tiers of government) to work together toward a common, and more ambitious, goal. For example, the work of operators at an Italian regional government is very much influenced by what operators at the European Commission or at the Italian government do. Regional officers are embedded in a diverse network composed of representatives of at least three different “Directorates General” of the European Commission, national auditors and policy-makers, local officials from provinces and municipalities that are in charge of programs implementation and professionals from different branches of national and regional government that have a role in specific phases of the process (national ministries and independent agencies, regional departments, evaluation task forces).


In conclusion, the three aspects that I considered here show not only Wilson’s accuracy in presenting, starting from the bottom-up, the work of public organizations (“what people do”), but also his view of public administration as a closed system.



Agranoff, R., & McGuire, M. (2004). Collaborative public management: New strategies for local governments. Georgetown University Press.

Astley, W. G., & Van de Ven, A. H. (1983). Central perspectives and debates in organization theory. Administrative science quarterly, 245-273.

Barca F., (2009) An Agenda for a Reformed Cohesion Policy. A place-based approach to meeting European Union challenges and expectations, Independent Report prepared at the request of Danuta Hübner, Commissioner for Regional Policy.

Fountain, J. E. (2004). Building the virtual state: Information technology and institutional change. Brookings Institution Press.

Granovetter, M. (1985). Economic action and social structure: the problem of embeddedness. American journal of sociology, 481-510.

Hooghe, L., & Marks, G. (2001). Multi-level governance and European integration. Rowman & Littlefield Pub Inc.

Hooghe, L. (1996). Cohesion policy and European integration: building multi-level governance. Oxford University Press.

Lawler III, E. E. (1986). High-Involvement Management. Participative Strategies for Improving Organizational Performance. Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.

OECD (2011). Making the Most of Public Investment in a Tight Fiscal Environment: Multi-level Governance Lessons from the Crisis. OECD Publishing.

Roethlisberger, F. J., & Dickson, W. J. (2003). Management and the Worker (Vol. 5). Psychology Press.

Wilson, J.Q. (2000). Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It. New York: Basic Books.

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13/09/15 Open Policy

At the origins of Open Goverment

At the origins of Open Goverment

As a European from “the continent”, I am particularly interested in the origins of the American “obsession” for government accountability and distrust in “the bureaucracy”. So I started reading some articles and books from the huge Public Administration literature, thanks to a class on this subject at the State University of New York at Albany. Here you can find just a note to myself (and to Public Administration geeks!). I really hope my understanding and reasoning will evolve over time, as I keep on reading :)

Woodrow Wilson mentions the European attitude towards Public Administration and politics when he cites quite rudely “a German professor of political science saying to his countrymen, ‘Please try to have an opinion about national affairs’” (Wilson 1887, p. 24).

In the US, public opinion seems to have (or have had) a different character. The fact that “the State” was not explicitly mentioned by the framers of the American Constitution represents for many the proof that “the bureaucracy” is something “somewhat illegitimate” (Rourke 1987, p. 232).  The origins of the US “stateless” Constitution are not only historical – i.e. the hostility to the English establishment – but also cultural, such as the influence of the Ancient Roman Republic (Stillman 1990, p. 157) and the civic virtues of heroes like Cincinnatus who, after his service as consul and dictator, retired as a farmer avoiding any compromise with power. The same view is reflected in the Jeffersonian tradition, focused on bottom-up government and limited apparatus (Kettl 2002, p. 34).

While the uneasy reconciliation of Republican values with the stateless origin of the American Nation was made thanks to “the expedient of locating sovereignty in the whole people” (Caldwell 1976, p. 478), according to scholars like Norton Long and John Rohr one of the sources of legitimation of Public Administration is the opportunities that it opens for the citizens to be involved in the decision making and in the work of government (Rourke 1987, p. 230).  It is not by chance that the recent paradigms of Open Government, Open Government Data (see for example Dawes et al. 2004) and collaboration in public services provision (see for example Noveck 2009) have all originated in the US, emphasizing the contribution of citizens and civil society to achieve goals of transparency and effectiveness of public policy.

In the “early voices” of the public administration science (Shafritz & Hyde 2012) the role of Public Administration as a way to reinforce democratic institutions and facilitate collaboration with the external environment seems to be not fully developed. For example, the works by Weber, Addams or Gulick are mainly focused on the internal issues regarding the functioning of the public administration machine. Wilson seems to negatively describe public opinion as something that (unfortunately?) comes with democracy, and that must be “educated” (…or manipulated?) by policy-makers (p. 21).
Lately, the Public Administration literature has taken into account the representativeness of public administration. The work by Kaufman shows that representativeness can be improved thanks to decentralization as the enabler of an “effective popular participation in government” (p. 266), even though this effort will not be maintained over time (p. 272).

The works by Wilson, Weber, Addams, Gulick, Kaufman are included in the anthology Shafritz, J. & Hyde, A. (2011). Classics of Public Administration (7th edition). Cenage Learning.

Caldwell, L. (1976). Novus ordo seclorum: The heritage of American public administration. Public Administration Review, 36(5), 476-488.

Dawes, S., Pardo, T.A., Cresswell, A.M. (2004). Designing electronic government information access programs: A holistic approach. Government Information Quarterly 21, 3–23.

Kettl, D. (2002). Administrative Traditions. In The transformation of governance: Public administration for 21st century America (pp. 26-49). Baltimore, M.D.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Noveck, B.S. (2009). Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful. Brookings Institution Press, 2009.

Rourke, F. (1987). Bureaucracy in the American constitutional order. Political Science Quarterly, 102(2), 217-232.

Stillman, R. (1990). The peculiar stateless origins of American public administration and consequences for government today. Public Administration Review, 50(2), 156-167.

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02/04/15 Open Policy # ,

(Open) Government <> (Open Government) Ecosystem

(Open) Government <> (Open Government) Ecosystem

Back in 2011, I wrote a post for this blog on the results of a workshop on the Open Government research agenda hosted by the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there. But somehow – albeit at a distance – it has shaped my interests so profoundly that now, after 4 years, I find myself working at CTG and dealing with the same interests and research topics.

Coincidentally, a couple of weeks ago I was asked to share my opinion on how to improve the Open Government ecosystem based on a paper that is reporting on the conclusions of the same, enlightening workshop.  Here are just my 2 cents on some of the fundamental ways in which governments should change.

img_28761. Focus on the long-term vision, not just on quick-wins. Changes in the open government ecosystem require long time. Government organizations are complex and removing the constraints to innovation requires special efforts.  The temptation is strong for leaders with short-term mandates to focus on the “easy part”, which generates immediate benefit from the point of view of political communication, but yields only short-term, unsustainable results (unfortunately, this is the history of most of the digital governance efforts in Italy).

2. But also commit to get things done. The vision itself is often not enough. The implementation of general principles and the execution of commitments are crucial.  What is the reason behind the decision of a Country to be part of the Open Government Partnership? Diplomatic relations, hype, emulation, or real willingness to change? Why President Obama announced a brand new in 2014 and after almost a year the website has less functionalities than the older version?

3. Improve legibility and accountability, not just add a dataset to the open data portal.  Open data are sometimes seen as a panacea. While releasing government data in a useful way will enable new, unexpected uses in the open government ecosystem, open data are a means to an end, not an end in itself.  Open data don’t automatically imply transparency or accountability.  So a government cannot say “I am transparent, all my data are on line!”. Open data are a very powerful tool to improve transparency and accountability, for example, when data are “legible”, i.e. when it’s possible to track back the chain of responsibility behind that public action (a service, an infrastructure, a policy, etc.).  It’s a highly risky challenge that government organization should take.

4. Change the way to communicate.  Sometimes communication in public administrations is really old-fashioned.  Some public “communication officers”, for example, still debate in their conferences about “branding”, “products”, and “techniques to avoid difficult questions from the journalists” (true!!). This sounds like marketing principles during the ’80s!
An evolution is necessary from a unidirectional model (government > citizens) to a multi-directional dialogue. This enables new forms of collaboration between the citizens and the government.  For example, solving problems together and having the citizens telling this story would be a great form of communication.

5. Get involved with local communities. The paper refers to intentionality as one of the main factors shaping the Open Government Ecosystem. Just releasing open data is not enough. Governments should put in place proactive actions to stimulate the demand of their data. People and communities that are interested in a specific topic (e.g. NGOs, associations, unions…) probably ignore the very existence of that dataset that was just released. And, if they don’t, they probably don’t know what are the best way to analyze it, match it with other information, use it as a way to improve a given program or policy. So improving the “demand-side” of data publication (and related capabilities) is a brand new activity that the government should consider.  [In the photo: the 2015 Hackathon of the Italian Open Data community Spaghetti Open Data]




6. (Not just IT) Change the organization.  Processing external feedback coming form the ecosystem is a totally new business for a public organization. This requires a transformation of processes and internal structure.
Some Open Government initiatives are just “special projects”. They have no “manager”, no “office”, no “department”. When nothing at the organizational level really changes, even processing the feedback can be difficult and can hardly be efficiently sent to the organizational units responsible for that particular program/policy.

7. Not just IT… but IT matters, a lot. So many Open Government websites and mobile apps fail because they are simply not usable, not “sexy”, not interesting. They are not fast enough, easy enough to scale up and involve a critical mass of interested users.  Also, the design of these tools has a lot to improve.  Many public consultations fail as well because their websites are poorly designed. Public engagement initiatives could find new opportunities for improvement at the intersection between art, civic design, technology and government action.

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05/03/15 Open Policy # , , , ,

A Question of Trust

A Question of Trust

This week Prof Maria Wimmer is visiting the Center for Technology in Government. Earlier today she presented an interesting theoretical trust model for e-participation.
Trust is indeed a central issue in participation in general, and e-participation in particular.


Please be vulnerable

Following the definition of trust of Mayer Davis Schoorman 1995, we as citizens are asked to “be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action”.  Why should we perceive that it is worth to take the risk of “being vulnerable”? What are the perceived benefits?

It’s useful to see the generation of trust as a self-reinforcing cycle. Trust can be seen as:

  • a condition for participation
  • a component of the process of participation
  • an outcome of participation

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 11.17.28 AM


If the outcome of participation is positive, then more and more people will be wanting to participate.  But having a positive outcome means, for example, that the feedbacks that government collects are used to actually change policy decisions. It’s more or less the opposite of what most governments are doing now, that is lunching fancy “on line consultation platforms” and then doing almost nothing with the feedback collected.


When e-participation (and trust) is up to “Funky Citizens”

The model from Maria Wimmer and her colleagues is primarily focused on a scenario in which citizens, groups and stakeholders interact directly with the government through IT tools.  She mentioned some examples such as the federal on line consultation platforms in Germany and the participatory budgeting tools in Cologne and Berlin. In all these cases, the only feedback “that counts” is the one submitted to the official platforms.  According to Prof Wimmer, other groups and citizens associations in Germany collect feedback on the same issues as well, but it not considered unless it is submitted through the official channels.


wimmer   2015-03-05 11.34.22


However, other cases from different countries show that e-participation can be effectively realized by civil society organizations combining off-line and on-line tools.  They can act as intermediaries in the whole e-participation process.  Just two examples:

  1. BaniPierduti in Romania is an amazing example of a team of citizens calling themselves “Funky Citizens” that developed a participatory budget platform and are now stimulating citizen participation from the bottom-up at train stations and on the streets.  All the feedback collected then is delivered to the Ministry of Finance thanks to an old law (never actually used until now!) that allow citizens or NGO to ask for public debate on the national budget.
  2. Monithon in Italy is focused on public spending. An informal group of citizens is collecting evidence on how EU-funded projects are progressing and what results are delivering. Some monithon local communities have started a permanent dialogue with local public administrations to improve and speed up the projects.


Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 2.52.05 PM


Where does trust come from?

In both examples, direct contact with real people and in-person interaction is a central feature in order to engender trust.  It’s not hard to figure out that it’s easier to trust a “Funky Citizen” than a federal on line platform.  In addition, in the case of Monithon, the Monithon “brand” is also more trusted by the managing authorities of EU funding than other independent associations. This is because the initiative is connected with the governmental open data portal OpenCoesione, which provides the data on the projects to be monitored by the Monithon community and often participates in joint initiatives with it.

So the geography of e-participation is indeed very complicated.  Numerous and different actors are involved, different governance models are being experimented, including sometimes “meso-level” actions and programs trying to close a little bit the distance between the government and its stakeholders.
But the question still stands: is the government willing to “play the game of e-partecipation”? The results of e-participation will generate enough impact to reinforce the virtuous cycle that Prof Wimmer presented today?



The source of the figure is Scherer, S. and Wimmer, M.A. (2014). Trust in e-participation: literature review and emerging research needs. ICEGOV ’14 Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance.

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18/11/14 Civic Technology , Open Policy # , , , ,

Open Government Meets Journalism: Should A Public Administration Actively Involve Data Journalists?

Open Government Meets Journalism: Should A Public Administration Actively Involve Data Journalists?

According to a brutal definition, Data Journalism is “Journalism with Data“. Even though this data can come from a variety of sources, Open Government Data is seen as a gold mine. A data journalist could be interested, for example, in tracking crimes through local crime data or discovering specific episodes of corruption and misuse of public funding thanks to the data on public spending.

Now let’s see this from the perspective of the government. As more and more public sector organizations are venturing in the world of Open Government, the actual (re)use of their own Open Data is a measure of success of their strategy.  And there is no doubt that Data Journalism is one of the best examples of re-use of Open government Data that can create public value.

It’s fascinating to see how many public administrations around the world are now aiming to actively involve data journalists in their Open Government programs.  From my experience, this collaboration has taken three different forms so far:

  1. [SOFT] The staff of an Open Government program participates in “data journalism hackathons” or other events organized by journalists. The government employees offer their knowledge about the data and the data journalists find a story worth telling.
    This is what happened, for example, during the hackathon of the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. Representatives of some Italian Ministries first presented their data to the journalists and then stayed all day to answer their questions and work with them.
  2. [MEDIUM] The government offers “training sessions” to journalists. Sometimes the data are difficult to understand because a specific jargon is used or the policy is so complex that at least a basic knowledge of some technical aspects is essential. The events are held on the government premises and are aimed at providing the journalists with the “right tools” to analyze the data (how to create a map or an interactive graph) and to interpret it.
    For example, the European Commission recently organized a “school” for journalists focused on EU funds.
  3. [HARD] The government hires data journalists. A data journalist working for the government can assume the role of communication officer and create visualizations and articles based on the government’s communication strategy. This is the case of the French portal that recently added an “infographics” section (“les infographies et videos”) and is now looking for data journalists to create eye-catchy visualizations and content.
    But journalists can also have different roles, especially when working for specific Open Government initiatives. For example, a data journalist is part of the team of OpenCoesione School, a special project that involves high school students in the development of an investigation on the use of public funding through open data.


In the last few days I noticed a couple of interesting tweets on this.

An initial reaction to the “Medium scenario” (government training journalists) takes into consideration the principle of independence. In a tweet, the civil servant and public policy expert Tito Bianchi said:

However, an evidence-based debate in the press is possible only if the data are not misinterpreted, and working with the sources of information is a key part of the game. In addition, journalists may have limited quantitative skills to analyze the data or limited knowledge of the technicalities of a specific public policy.  

As for the “Hard scenario” (government hiring journalists), the experienced data journalists Nicolas Kayser-Bril commented on the French case with these words:

Nonetheless, he added that this could be an option if the agencies that are hiring are “independent, state-financed authorities that can scrutinize gov’t action, such as ombudsman, transparency authorities, courts of auditors”.


Do you think that a public agency should proactively involve data journalists? In which forms? Are there some “special cases”?
Under what conditions should a journalist accept to collaborate with an Open Government program?



Photo by Ahmad Hammoud

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12/11/14 Open Policy # , ,

A (long) list of the risks of Open Government

A (long) list of the risks of Open Government

Open Knowledge has recently published its Report on the Open Knowledge Festival 2014 in Berlin.  One of the most interesting workshops was called “Can Open Data Go Wrong“, “a safe and private conversation space for all those who wish to share their experiences of open data snafus, ranging from hilarious to perilous, with the goal of transparently learning from our failures”. You can find the Etherpad of the session and the podcast including an interview with the organizers Mushon Zer-Aviv and Tin Geber.

Here I would like to start to write down a list of potential risks of Open Government and citizen participation. I know it’s a long list, but I will start from some basic items from a discussion we had yesterday in the “Government Information Strategy and Management” class at the Rockefeller College, State University of New York.

From the point of view of a senator of a OECD Country:

  • Media are more interested in my personal expenses than in tracking the real use and impact of public money
  • Trust in government decreases at a point that Democracy fails
  • Only the “usual suspects” participate in the consultation I promote
  • Very limited public value from OpenGov initiatives

From the point of view of the CIO of a public agency:

  • Open Data are misinterpreted
  • Infomediaries are not ready to understand my data and no “ecosystem” is created
  • Few people are (re)using my data
  • No “new Facebook” is created thanks to the last app contest I launched
  • I don’t have the money / tools / skills to process external input
  • Cases of real collaboration with citizens are very limited (other examples after Peer-to-Patent?)
  • I have no real collaboration with other agencies on data standards and interoperability, no data created “as ready to be published”
  • No money to spend on OpenGov

From the point of view of an Open Government advocate:

  • Some data are there, but are not really relevant. Transparency is only on trivial issues
  • Open Data are available but data are poor quality, aggregated, difficult to understand
  • Open Data are altered, manipulated
  • Open data as a “gift” from the government, not a right of the citizen
  • We scraped Open Government Data and created interactive visualizations but nothing happened, because:
    • people don’t know that our tool is available
    • people are not interested
    • people cannot interpret the data
  • Open Government tools empower who is already empowered
  • Government is not listening, game over.


Any other points to add?


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10/10/14 Digital Government , Research

Regional Governments and ICT policy coordination

Many regional governments in Italy have tried to solve the problem of coordinating different levels of government and different local ICT policies through the creation of ad-hoc public companies. These companies are owned by the regional government itself or by a consortium of local actors, and have the goal to ensure more flexibility and specific capacity in providing advanced services to provinces and municipalities. This raises questions about their actual efficiency and effectiveness.

A paper with Chiara Assunta Ricci provides a brief overview of recent e-government policies of the Italian regions with a focus on the coordination models between local actors. In particular, the role of regional information technology (IT) public companies is explored through a cluster analysis based on evidence from an ad hoc survey. Advantages and disadvantages of the different coordination models are discussed. In particular, two composite indices are employed: (i) an index of the intensity of coordination at the regional level; (ii) an index of effectiveness of IT policies, measured as the level of advancement of municipalities in the use of ICTs. The two indices are then compared with the coordination models adopted. Preliminary results show a positive correlation between the two indices, while the presence of an IT public company does not appear to significantly affect either the IT performance nor the level of coordination.

Here is an earlier (full) version of the paper (in Italian), presented at the XXXIII Annual Scientific Conference of the Italian Regional Science Association (AISRe), Rome, Italy.
Here is the final version published in Economia e Politica Industriale – Journal of Industrial and Business Economics.


IT companies owned by regional government in Italy (x = dimension; y= no. of activities / topic covered)

Untitled 2

Italian Regions (x = ICT policy coordination index; y = effectiveness of ICT policy index; “No IH” = Regions not owing any IT company; clusters = see previous graph)

fig 3 colori



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09/02/14 Research

Do EU regional digital strategies need more balance?

Here is the abstract of my paper “Are EU regional digital strategies evidence-based? An analysis of the allocation of 2007–13 Structural Funds” with Sergio Scicchitano, which was published yesterday in Telecommunications Policy.

The ambitious goals of the European “Digital Agenda” need active involvement by regional innovation systems. Effective regional “digital strategies” should be both consistent with the European framework and based on available evidence on the needs and opportunities of local contexts. Such evidence should be used to balance the different components of the Information Society development (e.g. eServices vs. infrastructures; ICT supply and demand), so as to ensure that they can all unleash their full potential. Therefore, EU regions should spend more money to overcome regional weaknesses than to improve existing assets. In this paper we explore the different strategies of the EU's lagging regions through the analysis of the allocation of 2007–13 Structural Funds. Then, we verify whether such strategies respond to territorial conditions by comparing strategic choices made with the actual characteristics of local contexts. Results show that EU regions tend to invest more resources in those aspects in which they already demonstrate good relative performances. Possible causes of this unbalanced strategic approach are discussed, including the lack of sound analysis of the regional context and the path dependence of policy choices.

You can download an earlier (full) version of the paper, presented at the Regional Innovation and Competitiveness Policy Workshop, UK-Innovation Research Centre – University of Cambridge in 2012.

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04/04/13 Research

Open Data strategies are finally converging – EU regions and the data on cohesion policy

EU Regions and national agencies managing EU Structural Funds are forced by a common Regulation to publish at least a minimum set of information on the projects and recipients that are funded with public money. This data is crucial to fight corruption and, more importantly, understand how the money is being used and what kind of results the policy has achieved.


While some Regions haven’t released much more information than the name of the beneficiary and the total value of the project, more and more public authorities in Europe are taking current regulations as an opportunity to manage EU funds more transparently.
Two years ago I blogged about three different open data strategies that public authorities were pursuing back in 2010.

  1. The first implied the release of high-quality data in machine-readable format
  2. The second was focused on data visualization and interactive search in order to include non-technically oriented citizens in open data re-use and understanding
  3. The third was about NOT being open. Little detail, little quality, lots of PDFs.

New data collected in October 2012 on the availability and quality of open data on EU Cohesion Policy tell quite a different story. From October 2010 to October 2012 the strategies have evolved, leaving room for more speculation about what kind of supply of policy data we can expect for the future. More precisely, data suggests that the two proactive strategies have become one.

According to a nonlinear multivariate analysis of 8 indicators on the openness and transparency of 434 Operational Programmes in Europe, it is not easy to clearly distinguish a strategy based on re-usable formats and detailed information from a strategy focused on letting users browse through data and diagrams.

For example, in 2010 a machine-readable format was associated with highly detailed financial data on project implementation or with proper metadata and projects’ description, while the presence of a map or of advanced search capabilities was likely where data were presented directly in a HTML page. Now the two formats are highly correlated. This implies that some national or regional portals – just like Italy’s national portal OpenCoesione – now let the users both download the data in bulk and surf through the data right on the website.

Obviously, this is good news for researchers, data journalists and ordinary citizens. Data providers seem to be more aware that the usefulness and stewardship principles are complementary. Most public agencies, though, keep following the same strategy of NOT being open and offer data in PDF with little information.
The variables showed in the two graphs below relate to:
• the format (PDF, XLS or CSV, HTML)
• the way the data is presented (GEO = maps & graphs; RIC = search functions)
• the datail of the content (CONT) and the financial data in particular (FIN). The variable QUAL represents data quality features such as the presence of metadata, english version of the fields, update frequency.

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A citizen monitoring marathon of the development projects financed by the European Union