In November 1959, for TV Guide Magazine, John F. Kennedy wrote about television as 'a force that has changed the political scene'. He had recently experienced the first televised Presidential debates, against Richard M. Nixon, and realised that things would never be the same again. But not even he foresaw that 50 years later, that same communication technology would still be rewriting the rules of politics and government, continuing to open up yet more aspects of political life - not least by bringing the workings of parliaments around the world into our homes.
But if you regard the phenomenon that is government, and the practice of politics within that, as social systems by which human groups (like nations, municipalities, companies, or even golf clubs) organise and regulate themselves, then it is clear that communication between people in the group is the crucial factor enabling them to work. So any technology that can change the nature and pattern of communication opens up new possibilities for the conduct of those activities.
Set in that context, the potential impact of the internet as a communication technology - open, two- and multi-way, accessible to many, cheap and easy, as compared to television - is immense. Many have ventured to make predictions. At one extreme are the 'cyber-utopians', predicting mass engagement and democratic participation. At the other extreme are the 'cyber-pessimists', who see only chaos and the breakdown of essential moderating processes.
But what we have seen in reality so far fits the pattern of adoption of almost any new technology: those with competitions to win (wars, elections, market share), or money to make (retailers, pornographers, fraudsters), are quickest to grasp its potential. So in politics and government, it has been parties and candidates fighting elections, and elected representatives and ministers defending their positions, who have led in the use of the internet.
The institutions of government however, and public bodies in general, do not typically have those motivators for early adoption. Their tasks demand equitable and repeatable processes, defined in law or regulation. Their scope and capacity for unilateral change is limited. The individuals within them are subsumed by their institutional roles. But progressively it becomes apparent to all how a technology might be brought in to support their core functions, and we get, for example, governments' administrative transactions carried out over the web.
Sometimes though we can get a step change. When a political will aligns in time and place with a technological capability, something transformative can happen. So it is with the Openness of Government. The ability of internet-based technologies suddenly to make available data and information previously held within the confines of government institutions and - much more importantly - make it usable, has in the recent past coincided with a political will to make government more transparent and accountable. Well, in a few countries around the world anyway.
This edition of the Journal of ePractice takes its - and Europe's - first considered look at this emerging phenomenon arising from the coincidence of politics, government and technology. We have three themes. First, what is happening, and how do we make sense of it? Second, what are some of the technical things that need attention to really make this work? Third, what policy issues arise when we look at how citizens interact with it?
In our first article, Noor Huijboom and Tijs van den Broek offer you an overview of the (as yet short) history of open data policies and their implementation in a number of countries. Then Luigi Reggi reports on a pilot of a measurement framework for benchmarking governments' efforts to make data available. The results from that pilot show low scores all round for the use of linked data and open document formats, which leads us nicely to our next group of papers.
'Linked data' is the hot topic in this field, offering astounding potential, and Mike Thacker introduces us to what it is all about and why it is crucial to the openness of government, taking us to the leading edge of current practice. Dimitra Anastasiou then takes a detailed look at the role of open standards in a multi-lingual semantic web context.
Following this we have an overview of the policy issues in this area from David Broster, Gianluca Misuraca and Margherita Bacigalupo. Their review of the Lifting-Off Towards Open Government Conference organised by the Belgian presidency of the EU Council in December 2010 sets out the current policy framework for Open Government in Europe and provides an analysis of the key policy challenges and possible directions.
Surfacing an often-overlooked policy issue, Bjorn Lundell's article uses a survey of ICT procurement practice in Sweden to investigate how hidden burdens on citizens seeking to enjoy open government can be built in unwittingly at the tender specification stage of administrations' IT purchases. Then, taking the perspective of the citizen on ICT-enabled open government to the next level, Paul Nash presents a challenge to the prevailing policy approach to the still-large proportion of Europeans who do not use the internet, prompting us to look beyond IT skills as the solution for those for whom they are not an answer to the problems they have in life.
It is common to say that things move faster than they did in the 1950s and 1960s. But it is still a good bet that we have not packed the equivalent of 50 years of television's evolving impact into three or five years, or even the ten to 15 years we have been discussing e-Government and e-Democracy. We can be sure that the articles here in this Journal are at much the same point as JFK was: reflecting on the first experiences, but knowing that much more - unknowable - lies in wait.