Toward a Research Agenda on Opening Governance

By the members of the MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance

A New Paradigm: Opening Governance

Society is confronted by a number of increasingly complex problems — inequality, climate change, access to affordable healthcare — that often seem intractable. Existing societal institutions, including government agencies, corporations and NGOs, have repeatedly proven themselves unable to tackle these problems in their current composition. Unsurprisingly, trust in existing institutions is at an all-time low.

At the same time, advances in technology and sciences offer a unique opportunity to redesign and reinvent our institutions. Increased access to data may radically transform how we identify problems and measure progress. Our capacity to connect with citizens could greatly increase the knowledge and expertise available to solve big public problems. We are witnessing, in effect, the birth of a new paradigm of governance — labeled “open governance” — where institutions share and leverage data, pursue collaborative problem-solving, and partner with citizens to make better decisions. All of these developments offer a potential solution to the crisis of trust and legitimacy confronting existing institutions.

But for the promise of open governance, we actually know very little about its true impact, and about the conditions and contingencies required for institutional innovation to really work. Even less is known about the capabilities that institutions must develop in order to be able to take advantage of new technologies and innovative practices. The lack of evidence is holding back positive change. It is limiting our ability to improve people’s lives.

The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance seeks to address these shortcomings. Convened and organized by the GovLab, and made possible by a three-year, $5 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Network seeks to build an empirical foundation that will help us understand how democratic institutions are being (and should be) redesigned, and how this in turn influences governance. At its broadest level, the Network seeks to create a new science of institutional innovation.

In what follows, we outline a research agenda and a set of deliverables for the coming years that can deepen our understanding of “open governance.” More specifically the below seeks:

  • to frame and contextualize the areas of common focus among the members;
  • to guide the targeted advancement of Network activities;
  • to catalyze opportunities for further collaboration and knowledge exchange between Network members and those working in the field at large.

A core objective of the Network is to conduct research based on, and that has relevance for, real-world institutions. Any research that is solely undertaken in the lab, far from the actual happenings the Network seeks to influence and study, is deemed to be insufficient. As such, the Network is actively developing flexible, scalable methodologies to help analyze the impact of opening governance. In the spirit of interdisciplinarity and openness that defines the Network, these methodologies are being developed collaboratively with partners from diverse disciplines.

The below seeks to provide a framework for those outside the Network — including those who would not necessarily characterize their research as falling under the banner of opening governance — to undertake empirical, agile research into the redesign and innovation of governance processes and the solving of public problems.

Open Governance = Collaborative and Data Driven Governance

The Network has identified two lines of research that, taken together, can radically transform our understanding of how to open governance most effectively, and represent a new science of open governance:

  1. Collaborative Governance –Explores how governing institutions can open themselves to diverse participation and a wider range of expertise so as to improve decision-making.
  2. Data-Driven Governance –Explores how governing institutions can leverage quantitative evidence (including big, open and small data) to improve decision-making.

In what follows, we describe in detail these two focus areas, including strategies for operationalizing them in the short term, as well for creating synergies to inform the creation of a new science of open governance.

I. Collaborative Governance

Central Themes: Collective Intelligence, Cross-Institutional Collaboration, Expert Networking, Incentives for Co-creation and Participation, Citizen Science, Open Innovation


When institutions open themselves to diverse participation and better coordinate efforts with other stakeholders, governing decisions are more effective and legitimate.


Participation can manifest in a number of ways: we participate explicitly in our democracy by voting, by mobilizing around political and social issues; and implicitly by volunteering in our communities and perhaps by responding to the occasional opinion poll. Citizens also participate in our collective life by, for example, adding or editing articles on Wikipedia, writing hotel reviews on Tripadvisor, restaurant reviews on Yelp, or book recommendations on Goodreads. Similarly, citizens can participate in difficult and specialized projects — e.g., transcribing the works of Jeremy Bentham or ancient Egyptian papyri — that contribute to our collective intelligence and knowledge.

Yet even as we have made it easy to participate in these various ways, there exist only limited avenues for citizens to share their know-how with government or help build governance institutions. In some cities, citizens can draw attention to civic problems like potholes or a lack of public services. But for the most part, we have no systematic way to engage the expertise, experience, and passion of people who want to help solve public problems — whether those problems are as global as the prospect of a flu pandemic or climate change, or as local as the need to improve trash collection and build bicycle lanes.

To date, crowdsourcing has been seen as a vehicle for amateur participation rather than as an effective and legitimate way to engage those with deep expertise and wide experience. But there is an emerging realization that people have, and more importantly that they are willing to share, expert knowledge. Expert crowdsourcing can help identify who knows what, and what kind of experts provide the most reliable and relevant contributions to address different kinds of problems and questions. In addition, and unlike the information glut that often results from traditional crowdsourcing, the tapping of distributed expertise can serve as something of a filtering mechanism, helping to curate more reliable, specific and useful information for decision-making.

Of course, catalyzing effective collaborations requires more than simply finding the right people to participate. In many cases, interested, expert individuals and organizations are already working toward solutions to big public problems; many of these experts are known. The issue we need to address is not a lack of expertise, but a lack of meaningful strategies and pathways for distributed and diverse experts to co-create solutions. Technology enables collective action in civil society, for example by helping individuals route around bureaucratic logjams. Efforts to make governance more collaborative and participatory can look to the countless civic groups already using new communication and information-sharing tools to promote political action, mobilize an opposition movement or spur community activism. Giving individuals and groups the ability to collaboratively participate in the functioning of governance and co-create solutions could serve to amplify impacts and enable more fluid and coordinated efforts.

Research Network Actions

We are only at the early stages of recognizing this power of collaboration, and of learning how to harness it. We believe that this is one of the most important tasks confronting the Network as it seeks to extend its research and better understand the mechanisms of open governance. In order to deepen our understanding of collaborative governance, we propose four main categories of activity:

1. Mapping the field of Collaborative Governance Research: To inform ongoing and newly developed research projects associated with collaborative governance, the Network will articulate and map collective governance themes. As part of this mapping exercise, we will ask several key research questions, including:

  • Does targeted, smarter crowdsourcing (or expert networking) yields higher quality participation than open-call crowdsourcing? Is a hybrid of the two most effective in some cases?
  • What kinds of incentives best catalyze participation?
  • How can different actors in the same space best be encouraged to collaborate? How can experts working in separate disciplines develop a common vocabulary to enable knowledge sharing and undertake collaborative work?
  • How can new, technology-enabled opportunities for initiating change be communicated to engineers and others capable of acting on those opportunities?
  • How can institutions be re-designed to become more collaborative?
  • What are the ethical implications of fostering collaborative governance, particularly in the form of public-private partnerships?

2. Joint action research projects: The research questions will be addressed (and answered) through a core set of collaborative action research projects. Several of these have in fact already been initiated, and have already begun to yield insights. These include:

  • Collective Intelligence in Healthcare — an ethnographic inquiry into the healthcare needs and habits among patients in the UK.
  • Data Science Expert Network –a platform for collecting and making searchable the skills, experiences and interests of data scientists so that they may be used to create new opportunities for participation in efforts to address public problems.
  • DCENT — a Europe-wide project creating privacy-aware tools and applications for direct democracy and economic empowerment.
  • Distributed Internet Governance — the exploration of tools and techniques for improving Internet governance and, subsequently, informing the development of a roadmap for 21st Century distributed global governance.
  • Fostering Collaboration Between Fire Departments — developing pathways for distributed fire departments to share knowledge and better coordinate responses to emergencies.
  • Harvard Ether Dome Challenge — a prize-backed challenge undertaken at Massachusetts General Hospital seeking to determine the optimal incentives for participation in crowdsourcing projects.
  • Open Government Network of Innovators — the development and study of an expert network connecting government innovators around the world to enable knowledge sharing and targeted requests for information.
  • Smarter Crowdsourcing at the FDA — testing the effectiveness of expert networking in the staffing of regulatory review panels of medical devices.

3. Building a curriculum for collaborative governance: An important objective of the research network involves translating research findings into training materials and interactive courses to educate the next generation of game changers. For this part of our research, we will work in collaboration with a number of existing institutions and organizations, including:

  • Center for Policy Informatics: a translational research hub at Arizona State University that advances the study, teaching, and practice of the nebulous field of policy informatics to address complex public policy and administration problems.
  • Nesta: an innovation charity with a mission to help people and organizations bring great ideas to life.
  • MIT Media Lab: actively promoting a unique, antidisciplinary culture, the MIT Media Lab creates disruptive technologies that happen at the edges, pioneering such areas as wearable computing, tangible interfaces, and affective computing.

4. Interdisciplinary convenings and knowledge exchange: The Network will also seek to bring together experts from diverse fields and disciplines to share findings and actionable insights for research into and the fostering of collaborative governance. A number of convenings and meetings have already been planned. These include:

  • Academy of Management 2015 Annual Meeting organized under “Opening Governance” theme (Will take place August 7–11, 2015 in Vancouver)
  • Collaboration with the Social Labs Community to share best practices and develop new initiatives with those working on the front line of governance innovation (First meeting will take place in July 2015 at Nesta, UK).

2. Data-Driven Governance

Central Themes: Big Data, Open Data, Small Data, User-Centered Design


When governing institutions leverage data to inform decision-making they are more legitimate and effective, and when institutions open data to the public, new public value is created.


We are living in an era defined by an unprecedented flow of information. Institutions generate, collect and compile vast amounts of digitized data, often through the efforts and actions of citizens. Add to this flood of new digital data the large stock of already existing data, and it is clear that the challenge of governing in a complex environment does not stem from a lack of information. Rather, the challenge lies in converting data into usable information, and in applying knowledge to the interpretation of that information.

The surfeit of data has led to three concurrent developments, each of which is providing opportunities to improve the functioning of governance and the lives of citizens:

  • Big data: the large-scale collection, storage and analysis of huge, often aggregated datasets;
  • Small data: information on the activity of an individual, collected by a business or institution and made accessible to that individual; and
  • Open data: the release of data — often government data — to the public, in formats that enable easy access and re-use.

Across each of these three streams, data is enabling institutions, entrepreneurs and individuals to make evidence-based decisions. Just as data, in its various forms, is impacting public life, it is also enabling a more strategic approach to the design of products and services. As businesses and institutions use data to gain a greater understanding of the public’s interests, desires and tendencies, they are growing increasingly capable of crafting their offerings, at an early stage, in a manner that is most likely to address the actual needs of the public. In other words, the evolving notion of user-centered design is emerging alongside (and often being driven by) a desire for more evidence-based decision-making.

Research Network Actions

1. Mapping the field of Data-Driven Governance Research: Although the use of data to inform decision-making across sectors is growing, there exists little understanding of the conditions under which data-driven decision-making is most effective, particularly in the governance context. To inform ongoing and newly developed research projects associated with data-driven governance, the Network will articulate and map a number of data-driven governance themes and research questions. These include:

  • What types of information and information-rich applications yield improved citizen decision-making?
  • What types of information contributed by a citizen or community are most useful in developing and optimizing public services, and how can that information be made actionable?
  • How can data be analyzed for or by governing institutions to uncover new opportunities for change?
  • How can distributed governance stakeholders better coordinate to improve outcomes?

2. Joint action research projects: As with the collaborative governance strand, a core focus here will be to convert research questions into actionable projects and initiatives. Some of the projects we have already launched in 2014 include:

  • Big Data and Open Governance in Healthcare — leveraging data to determine optimal interventions for improving health outcomes in India and create new pathways for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to increase access to life-saving drugs around the world.
  • Crosscloud — a set of protocols and tools focused on giving Internet users greater control over their personal data.
  • Digitally-Enabled Distributed Ethnography — fostering human-centered public innovation through a greater understanding of both citizens and people working in the public sector.
  • Quantified Communities — drawing on citizen input and data to prioritize strategic investments in infrastructure, housing and business development in Arizona.
  • Open Data, Networks, and Entrepreneurship — the mapping of an emerging ecosystem of open data businesses, including collaborators, competitors and business perceptions of how they fit within the open data community and the larger startup environment.
  • See Something, Tweet Something (Designing Governance to Combat Sexual Violence) — leveraging social media data to improve the reporting of and response to sexual violence in India and Arizona.
  • Small Data Derived Behavioral Insights to Mold and Sustain Healthy Household Choices — providing individuals with data regarding the choices they make at the grocery store to inform more healthy decisionmaking.

3. Building a curriculum for data-driven governance: Although training options abound for those seeking to gain data science skills, there is a dearth of options available for those specifically interested in gaining the data skills necessary to improve decision-making in the governance context and/or to make the most of data released by governing institutions. To develop course offerings, we will work in collaboration with data-focused institutions, including:

  • Center for Urban Science and Progress: a unique public-private research center that uses New York City as its laboratory and classroom to help cities around the world become more productive, livable, equitable and resilient.
  • Harvard Berkman Center: a research center with the mission to explore and understand cyberspace; to study its development, dynamics, norms, and standards; and to assess the need or lack thereof for laws and sanctions
  • MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory: the largest research laboratory at MIT, which studies three key focus areas: artificial intelligence, systems and theory.

4. Interdisciplinary convenings and knowledge exchange: Just as the Network is comprises a mix of technologists and social scientists, the Network is seeking to bring together those with theoretical insights and those with the technological skills to share knowledge and create new data-driven innovations, such as through:

  • Political Science and Computer Science Convenings to develop a common language and new efforts to improve governance (The first convening will take place in April 2015 at George Washington University)

III. A New Science of Governance Innovation

Bringing together the Collaborative and Data-Driven Governance streams to yield new insights into Opening Governance as whole and to develop a new science of governance innovation. To date, the contours of open governance have not been clear, and its study has been largely ad hoc rather than scientific. By defining the two core strands of open governance and developing empirical, systematic means for studying them individually and collectively, the field can be pushed forward into a more rigorous and well-defined area of scientific study.