“For of those to whom much is given, much is required.” – President John F. Kennedy, May 1963
These words have inspired many, including Seamus Kraft, Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation. Seamus grew up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the American Navy in a state with roots that predate the United States of America. He describes it as a place where the principles that govern free society are palpable–they are in the air, where the community is still governed directly by citizens through a town meeting. Seamus’ family raised him to understand that the most important thing he can do with his life is to meaningfully serve others. All of this has led Seamus to develop a passion for service, which is why he works every day to help people live their best lives.
The OpenGov Foundation (OGF) works to bridge the gap between citizens and government, and build the tools that power lawmaking for a modern democracy. Seamus and his team are working on the front lines of the open government movement. Through development of software, events, and coalitions, they aim to create governments that are more accessible and responsive. Seamus’ motivation to launch OpenGov, and his progress since then, are grounded in that same sense of service and can-do attitude he learned back in Massachusetts. As a result, The OGF is flourishing despite challenges along the way.
The backstory: a government newbie shakes things up
Prior to founding The OGF, Seamus worked in various roles at the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Commerce before joining the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, serving as committee’s Director of Digital Strategy and Press Secretary under then-Chairman Darrell Issa.
In this position, Seamus created the committee’s digital presence, which became so influential that it acted as the seed for the first version of the Madison online public policymaking software at KeepTheWebOPEN.com, launched in December 2011 to give citizens the ability to weigh in on controversial Internet-harming anti-piracy legislation. And more than 100,000 Americans used it…in just one day. “The launch of KeepTheWebOPEN and Madison went better than our wildest dreams,” Seamus recalls with excitement. “I was 26 years old, and had created something that actually worked. We realized we needed to create a nonprofit foundation that could rapidly expand access to more digital tools.”
Creating a digital government, one step at a time
Seamus spent nights, weekends and vacation days standing up operations for The OGF. They officially launched in January of 2013—four years after Seamus started his job with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “I want to underscore that we just did what we felt was right.” Seamus told me. “We do what we do at OpenGov because we’re helping to build the infrastructure necessary for public service and civic engagement in a tech-savvy world.”
More than three years later, OpenGov has multiple programs supporting its mission to bridge the gap between citizens and government. Its flagship project, Madison, is a platform that enables lawmakers to easily share legislation so citizens can leave comments and suggest improvements. But this progress didn’t come without challenges. Beyond budgeting, compliance, and even fundraising, Seamus found promoting culture change to be the biggest hurdle. “The hardest thing, and this is my heartfelt answer, is changing very set-in-stone behaviors and expectations. In this digital era, how do we adapt as citizens and lawmakers of the U.S.? How do you prepare and encourage people to actually engage in the lawmaking process?”
Recently, Seamus and his team ran an initiative in Chicago called Envision Chicago. They used open source software to build a platform called chicagocode.org/envision. Using the platform, citizens are able to access Chicago legal information in a friendly, technologically modern way. In its pilot phase, Chicago students are using the platform to get connected with, and provide feedback on, Chicago legislation. What’s more, lawmakers are learning to get comfortable with engaging citizens digitally. It’s just one city, in one of 50 states, but it shows what is possible when digital tech and government get along.
Words for the World: Take Action
Put simply, Seamus wants you to care. To raise your hand and say that you want to support the transformation of government into something better.
“Every legislature in the world is still paper-based. Every citizen has a stake in that legislature upgrading to the digital world. In doing so, we improve the way we solve our problems.”
So, if you’re from the U.S. and want to see OpenGov help your local government transform, let them know by posting on Twitter (sample tweet below) or calling Seamus directly: (760) 659-0631.
- @FoundOpenGov, I want to build an inclusive [your home]. Can we do it? #Digital #OpenGov #OpenData
Not from the U.S.? Share this post on social media. Start a conversation about digital government in your country.