by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 5 February 2019
Seamus Kraft cofounded The OpenGov Foundation as a way to encourage better lines of communication and engagement between citizens and elected representatives. His work is focussed on bringing an old - some would say archaic - institution up to speed and fit for purpose for the 21st century, and encouraging collaborative and open governance at every suitable level.
His Fellowship between 2014 and 2017 aimed to bring in key changes from the ground up to transform the relationship between citizens and government at local level. While his Madison project eventually ran aground after much election turmoil in 2016, The OpenGov Foundation have since established new ideas and continue to work on programmes delivering open innovation and, hopefully, culture change into higher echelons of federal government.
We spoke to Seamus about his Fellowship experience and how things have been going since. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Shuttleworth Foundation: Hi Seamus. Thanks for giving up your time to reflect on your Fellowship experience. What originally inspired you to start The OpenGov Foundation?
Seamus Kraft: I would say I was inspired uninspirationally! It came about because we didn’t have the tools to do our job. I was working in the House of Representatives, charged as a staffer with communicating on the Internet, not just with getting our messages out, but also to involve the people we served in day to day.
But the connectivity of engagement between government and people is very low. It’s inefficient, dissatisfying to all involved and everyone pays the price. But we have something right in front of us that’s really good at facilitating communications at scale - the open internet.
So that’s where we started. How do we leverage modern communications technology and the open Internet to improve the communication between Congress and the public, with the goal of delivering better outcomes for both sides of the conversation? That was the genesis of The OpenGov Foundation.
How did you get started?
Our birth moment was a series of really controversial, highly visible legislative processes around Internet freedom and intellectual property rights, specifically our opposition to two bills for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the House of Representatives Protect IP Act (PIPA).
These were terrible bills that would threaten the open Internet and give the justice department the ability to seize domains - without recourse. And if someone posted a karaoke video of copyrighted music, that would have made sites like YouTube accountable. It would have screwed up the whole open internet.
So we built a tool called Madison that opened up the legislative process on the Internet, in real time, for anyone to view and participate in directly. You could post a bill or piece of legislation or rule online, and just like you can do track changes in Google Docs or Word, you can do the same thing - but within the policymaking process.
On the backside it was the folks who were sponsoring that policy in government who were engaging with you directly, but in that targeted fashion, making it way more useful for both parties.
What led you to the Foundation?
By the time we had heard about the Shuttleworth Foundation, we got Madison out of Congress and into The Open Gov Foundation. We were working in six or seven local governments, to implement this software and help them do open annotation on policy documents.
That’s as far as we got, and we were really trying to figure out this open annotation thing which at that point was very nascent. It was just two of us - me and one other dev - and we ran into some serious massive technical barriers. We had just discovered this tech called the Annotator project, and an organisation that was centered around maintaining it, called Hypothes.is.
Dan Whaley’s project?
Yes, unbeknown to us at the time Dan Whaley was a Shuttleworth Fellow - and even more unbeknown to us Annotator itself had been started by Rufus Pollock, way back in the early days of the Foundation. It was one of his babies. Dan picked up that ball and ran with it - and we were picking it up for a third time, bringing it into the realm of government policy and government.
I didn’t figure all this out until the second year of my Fellowship. Rufus was there, he told us, and it blew my mind. It illustrates the beauty of the open internet and the beauty of what the Foundation puts out into the world. The humility behind that chain of events is striking…and very Shuttleworth.
What were you working on specifically during your Fellowship?
You can only open up policy documents by hand for so long. At that time I was using PDF docs, taking the text from them, cleaning them up by hand, and doing one document at a time. But legislators do hundreds of policy documents with tens of thousands of changes to them.
Multiply that impact on tens of tens of thousands of individuals, businesses and stakeholder groups across the whole United States and at some point doing this by hand isn’t going to work.
So, we looked at how we could create an open legal document production environment, so the people whose job it is to produce and maintain our laws and legislations, and rules and regulations, are doing open legal data from the start.
The theory of change was that if we put those tools in the hands of the people that need them inside city governments, people could access, understand and be heard on policies that impact their communities, their states, their countries or themselves. We wanted the process to become infinitely easier and involve far less friction.
It’s also about breaking down the barriers of legalese and discoverability. Right now you need to be a lawyer or a lobbyist type to just understand what this stuff is saying. All of those things are solvable if you have open data running underneath.
And how far did you get over the three-year Fellowship?
The project went very, very well, up until the 2016 election. By the third year we had established a unique - if not one of a kind - public private partnership with the Chicago City council.
We needed someone to be first to use an open data producing system and Chicago raised their hand, the city clerk brought us in and she became our chief partner. She was awesome and really engaged, so we were embedded for about a year and built about a quarter of the system.
But after the election she went from Chicago to the State of Illinois - into state office - to tackle the budget issues at the top drawer. We lost our chief sponsor and all of our working partners, which killed the project.
What about her replacement?
The person coming in afterwards said: ‘I know what this is, I love it and this is the future. But I’m hiring my staff, so come back in 6-8 months time.’ For us, that would have meant going out of business. We couldn’t wait around that long.
I think in parallel the other thing that killed it was the way we were being funded. The OpenGov Foundation was mostly grant funded, and the new political climate caused the entire civic/tech nonprofit world to dry up completely or redirect itself to far less neutral, less nonpartisan ends.
And you cannot get more neutral or nonpartisan than building the infrastructure of lawmaking. Everybody uses it, everybody needs it, but it lost whatever sex appeal it had to the funding community, just as my Fellowship was ending.
That’s how it went. But we got further than anyone else had and because we did everything in the open, it’s there for the picking up and running with in the future, whether it’s us or somebody else. There’s still that need, right?
Every government is running its processes in a paper based format, in inefficient systems, and the public still doesn’t get the access or understanding they deserve. So that’s a melancholy pause to the project.
I remember Jesse von Doom - an awesome Shuttleworth Fellow - put it beautifully when he stepped away from his Cash Music project. He said: ‘If you are doing openness the right way, the Shuttleworth Foundation way, there is no end - there are only pauses or handoffs.” We’re definitely in a pause.
What did you get out of the Fellowship on a personal level?
I can’t throw any superlative or adjective at you that would accurately or come even close to describing what Shuttleworth Foundation has meant to me. The team gave me and my team support when no one else did - or would - through incredibly trying times. That experience was worth more than any funding or support that they gave us financially.
But more than that, they helped me really develop a strategy of openness in one of - if not the - most closed aspects of our existence, which is government. Government runs on paper, it’s secretive, it’s behind the times. It’s all about accumulating power and information for self-interested outcomes.
Every direction points to the opposite of openness. And there’s a hybrid approach there. You can’t immediately put everything on the Internet because government would stop running.
There has to be - and there is - a happy medium between delivering on the rights of the public which skew hard towards openness, transparency and access, with enough privacy to facilitate frank deliberation and the day to day workings of government.
The Foundation really got that and helped me every step of the way to develop that theory of change and go out and implement it. It’s remarkable. I can’t believe they exist and that they found me, and I had the opportunity to learn and grow with them for three years.
What advice would you give future Fellows?
One of the hardest parts of the Shuttleworth Fellowship experience is that we are all ahead of the world in a lot of ways. And that really grinds you down sometimes. It’s so easy to get lost in that feeling of waking up every morning, and being righteous and angry and incomplete.
Because the the key part of accomplishing your Fellowship project and its ultimate aims is in the hands of Father Time. That can really take a lot out of you. It’s only from the Foundation’s cup, overflowing with encouragement and energy and enthusiasm and support, that it’s even possible to make a dent that we can make in one, two or three-year long Fellowships.
The parallel there is that you can light a fire with anger, but anger isn’t something that ultimately changes the world. It’s really hard to reach the world if you’re angry. Martin Luther King - and I’m not equating any of this to MLK by any stretch of the imagination! - he must have had more anger and frustration in his pinky toe than I have had in my whole life with the injustices he lived through in one day.
But he realised that channeling that into compassion and justice and reaching people through compassion and justice was the right way to do it. Ultimately, it’s the way to succeed. Compare that to the Malcolm X anger approach, which is of limited scope and duration, and flames out before you succeed.
So, how is life at OpenGov now, and what have you been doing since the Fellowship? What’s next?
As you can imagine, life is pretty hard working on the Rebel Alliance, light side of the Force. There is a headwind - that’s the easiest way to answer it - and those headwinds are enormous.
But in a different way I find it validating and energising. What the Foundation enabled me to do is to really refashion the critical infrastructure of representative democracy - not just in the United States but any free society. That’s a journey of a generation, and frankly, a journey that’s never over.
But after the craziness subsides - and it will - someone’s got to be there the day after tomorrow, ready to have the ship of state run efficiently and openly. And that’s what we are working on still with Article One Technologies.
It draws - literally, legally and projectwise - directly from the Fellowship project work. The problem is that unless there’s an easy way for government and those it serves to communicate at scale - we call it meaningful engagement - the outcomes are never going to be sufficient. This toxic cycle of disengagement and distrust is only going to spiral and get worse.
We are solving that problem with Article One and specifically looking at telephonic and voice engagement, SMS, voicemails, daytime calls and text-based comms using the House of Representatives as the alpha market.
I think it’s got legs, in a pretty significant fashion. We’re trying to pry open government and increase its efficiency and quality of connection and communication to individual citizens who have zero power, zero money, zero voice and are totally disenfranchised.
If you call a member of congress and its off-hours/office closed, you get sent to the voicemail box. But if you are in the House of Representatives your voice box messages are artificially capped at 150 messages. That can fill up in a matter of seconds, on a busy day. Article One negates this communications black hole effect, which is one of the main drivers of distrust and disengagement.
You know, if you call Amazon and tell them your package hasn’t turned up, you get a real person on the phone within an hour. And in the grand scheme of things, that package isn’t as important as your healthcare or benefits. But if Amazon can do it, why can’t government?
It’s going to take a while. Let’s say a Member of Congress represents 750,000 individuals, and a fraction will communicate with them once over a year. Well, that’s going to take a decade to build up the trust and repeated, high-quality, satisfying discrete communications and turn it into true political capital.
Good luck - you’ll be busy! - and thanks for speaking to us. Do you have any final thoughts?
Only that what I just articulated…I’m damn well sure I couldn’t wake up every morning and do it without the preparation the Shuttleworth Foundation gave me.
It gave me the direct theory of change we are applying to our work today, that we developed with heavy Foundation support and mentorship during my years as a Fellow. I can’t believe I get paid - very little at the moment - to work on the problem I want to work on. And I wouldn’t if it wasn’t for Shuttleworth - I wouldn’t be here, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.