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Aaron Swartz tragedy underscores real hurdles to open government

The Internet is figuratively ablaze with a mixture of sorrow, anger and some extremism following the suicide of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old Internet activist who helped develop the RSS specification and the social news site Reddit, and who was charged with stealing millions of scholarly papers and other documents from MIT’s network. 


Aaron Swartz couldn't appreciate difficulties in getting anything done in #opengov. Tweet this.

"It is a bunch of Pollyanna nonsense that pretends people can 'hack' government as easily as they hack a website." Tweet this.

In fact, O’Reilly Media just released a free ebook entitled “Open Government” in honor of Swartz.  For those outside of government, that ebook’s proposals may sound nice, but for those inside of government it is a bunch of Pollyanna nonsense that pretends people can “hack” government as easily as they hack a website. 


Do you know how large the federal government is, how many organizations and people you are actually talking about, and how hard people fight for their rice bowls? There are things citizens should do to transform government but it will not come from a collaborative website or a virtual petition on

I will not rehash the case against Aaron Swartz and his tragic decision here, as there are many good accounts of it on the Internet. Instead, I want to add the perspective of a technologist who joined the government and learned a few things about “the system.” 

Specifically, I believe there is an inherent mismatch between young people who desire immediate, radical change and government’s slow, cautious, cover-your-behind mentality. In a nutshell, the government, or its pejorative, “the system,” could not adapt fast enough for Swartz, who campaigned against Internet censorship and who did write a chapter on transparency in the “Open Government” book. In turn, Swartz probably did not understand, nor appreciate, the difficulties in getting anything done in the government. 

The government has a huge legacy of laws, rules, policy and procedures that cannot be cast aside for expedience, and those layers of bureaucratic “cruft” often include the government’s IT systems and policies. On the other hand, the government needs to better embrace its innovators and the change they wish to bring.

The young “hacktivists” believe in being agile, adaptive and having a “just do it” attitude, while the government develops Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems in MUMPS,  the Next Generation Air Traffic control system (NextGen) in Ada, and pays lip service to potentially transformative technology like (a.k.a., open data) that Aaron Swartz was so passionate about. 

As someone who wrote major sections of the CONOPS (concept of operations) and assisted agencies in their original submissions, I learned that the essence of transparency is not the website — it is inculcating the website into the information production process throughout the entire organization. And that is where it falls apart. There is no money and no will for true, in-depth change on that front. You can publish all the ebooks you want, but until you understand the difficulties and driving forces inside government organizations, regular and repeatable transparency is just wishful thinking.

So, what can the government do to bridge this gap?

  • Support your innovators. Innovation takes risk, and leadership must allow managers to try new things and even fail without losing their careers. The bottom line is that when you see things getting done in government you can always point to a key leader, with “top cover,” who is the driving force.
  • Be willing to jettison poor performers, bad systems and out-dated technology. The use of MUMPS (which dates to the 1960s) and Ada (which dates to the late ‘70s, though it has been updated) is both a failure of leadership and a testament to inertia. When I graduated from NYU they were big proponents of Ada with the GNAT compiler, but I still wouldn’t recommend it as a strategic technology choice. 
  • Move faster! Yes, the young are impatient, but government is bloated, bureaucratic and stuffed with too many meetings, too many review boards and far too many sign-offs to satisfy our citizens’ demand for change.

We can bridge the gap between the young, brash activists and the government’s slow, creaky wheels of a cautious, lawyerly bureaucracy. The answer lies in the uncomfortable middle-ground where leadership balances the tension between innovations and “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”  So, let’s not forget Aaron Swartz, AND let's not crucify the prosecutors. Instead, learn to bridge this divide… and fast!

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Reader Comments

Thu, Jan 31, 2013 Mark Horowitz DC

I find it ironic that the author would say the ideas of Swartz, et al., were "a bunch of Pollyanna nonsense", and yet, his alternative is to encourage government to "Support your innovators; Be willing to jettison poor performers, bad systems and out-dated technology; Move faster!".

Tue, Jan 29, 2013 Jerry Brito

If the author had bothered to read the chapter in the book written by Aaron Swartz he would have seen that Swartz agreed with many of the author's conclusions--although Swartz employed better logic to get there.

Mon, Jan 28, 2013 Alex Howard Washington, DC

Dear Mr. Daconta - While the points you make in the latter portion of your column are well-made and offer useful insights on culture drawn from your experience, your second paragraph manages to be both misleading and insulting. "Open Government" was first published in print and in multiple digital formats, as an ebook, in 2010. O'Reilly Media released it for free in 2013 in honor of Aaron Swartz, who, as you note, was a contributor. Other contributors include the former CIO of Seattle, a former CIA analyst, the former director of the White House Open Government Initiative, and the former digital director of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. All of them have experience working within government, including huge federal agencies. Other contributors have worked for decades making the public domain more open and holding government accountable in civil society. Dismissing their work and words as "Pollyanna nonsense" suggests to me that must either have not read the book or believe that open government includes people outside of it. I could be wrong, but I also found your comment about "publishing all the ebooks you want" dismissive of the role of books and ideas in public discourse and policy. On a different and perhaps more important note, you also appear to be somewhat ignorant of the man whose death you've chosen to peg a column on. You write that "probably did not understand, nor appreciate, the difficulties in getting anything done in the government." If you examine the body of his work, his focus, his writing and his erudition, I believe it would be nearly impossible to come to that conclusion. Matthew Stoller recalled Swartz' politics here: Respectfully, Alex Howard Washington Correspondent, O'Reilly Media

Thu, Jan 24, 2013 Tom

Michael, I agree with the basic tenets of your article. I think what Aaron Swartz did was an act of civil disobedience (Thoreau) who took actions based on what he thought were his rights and duties as an individual in relation to his government...but he paid the ultimate price for these views. Today's leaders in government do need to embrace technology innovation and the millenial generation (not necessarily the same) who seek more government openness. Some do, but not enough. I worked for a Nimitz Carrier Group Admiral who believed in this partnership and accomplished something never achieved before with our subsurface fleet. He needed a solution to achieve mission success in months, not THE SOLUTION after the fact that comes from an antiquated, dreadfully slow acquistion process.

Thu, Jan 24, 2013 Mike (article author) United States

Thanks everyone for the feedback! John, you are correct that security concerns deserve special and thought-out attention and I would agree that we cannot curtail that process for expediency; however, there are many, many areas of government where security is not a concern and where we can move faster. - Mike

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