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The Context


The Context

The Context

Today’s society is characterized by a set of complex problems – such as inequality, climate change and affordable access to healthcare – that are seemingly intractable. People have looked to traditional societal institutions – like government agencies and advocacy groups – to tackle these problems, and they have become frustrated by the inability of these institutions to act effectively and legitimately. Unsurprisingly, trust in existing institutions is at an all-time low.

Advances in technology together with new scientific insights on collaboration and decision-making provide for a unique opportunity to redesign our democratic institutions and make them more legitimate and effective. Seizing on this opportunity, leaders and citizens are increasingly collaborating to solve society’s biggest problems. This emerging paradigm is often called “opening governance.”  From prize-backed challenges to spur open innovation, to open data portals that provide programmable government-held information to the business community, to participatory budgeting projects – adopted by 1500 cities around the world – that give citizens direct control over the allocation of a portion of discretionary public funds. This shift from top-down, closed government to decentralized, open and smarter governance may be the major social innovation of the 21st century.

Yet we still know very little about what kinds of innovation work, when, why, and under what conditions. Work on diverse participation, collaboration and complex problem solving has been hampered by a lack of interaction and coordination across traditional disciplinary boundaries. The need for innovation is widely recognized, but meaningful change requires experts in fields as diverse as law, social psychology and computer science to work together instead of within disciplinary siloes.


The Opportunity

The Opportunity

The Opportunity

Convened and organized by the GovLab, and made possible by a three-year 5 million USD grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance works to develop the blueprints for more effective and legitimate democratic institutions to the end of improving people’s lives. A core group of twelve members (listed below) is complemented by an advisory network of academics, technologists, and current and former government officials. Through both face-to-face and online collaboration, the Network is focused on assessing existing innovations in governing and experimenting with new practices and, eventually new norms, for how our institutions make decisions at the local, national, and international level.

The Network’s Kick-Off Meeting was held in New York City on January 20-21, 2014. You can view the meeting agenda here.

The goal of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance is to build an empirical foundation and fundamental understanding of how the redesign of democratic institutions influences effectiveness and legitimacy in governance, to the end of improving people’s lives.


In seeking to accomplish this goal, the Network tests a core research hypothesis:

When governments and institutions open themselves to diverse participation, pursue collaborative problem-solving, and partner with citizens to make decisions and perform the functions of governance, they are more effective and legitimate.

The Network’s efforts to test its hypothesis and move closer to achieving its goals are built around agile and empirical experiments with institutional partners such as governments and NGOs. Experiments are designed to apply and test the latest advances in technology as well as new scientific insights on collaboration and decision-making to improve real world decision-making in the public interest. This action research is complemented by theoretical writing and compelling storytelling designed to articulate and demonstrate clearly and concretely how we might govern better than we do today.

From prize-backed challenges to spur creative thinking to the use of expert networks to get the smartest people focused on a problem no matter where they work, this shift from top-down, closed and professional government to decentralized, open and smarter governance may be the major social innovation of the 21st century.

The MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance is the ideal crucible for accelerating the transition from closed and centralized to open and collaborative institutions of governance in a way that is scientifically sound and yields new insights to inform future efforts, always with an eye toward real-world impacts.
— Professor Beth Simone Noveck, Network Chair and author of Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger and Cities More Powerful.

Lines of Inquiry

Lines of Inquiry

Lines of Inquiry

The Network’s governance innovation efforts are focused on three new paradigms for broader and deeper collaboration with citizens that have the potential to make governance more effective and legitimate. While these different approaches to opening governance are often used in combination, we view each of these as a new model of governance:

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Smarter Governance – Getting Knowledge In: Institutions seek input from lay and expert citizens to inform how they make decisions.

Example: An international governance body enlists a global network of scientists to inform its strategies on climate change.


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Open Data Governance – Pushing Data Out: Institutions publish the data they collect so that citizens can analyze and use this information to detect and solve problems.

Example: A national government releases hospital infection records, enabling developers to create a hospital safety search engine that allows parents to make an informed decision about where to take their sick child.

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Shared Governance – Distributing Responsibility: Institutions delegate responsibility to citizens, or empower citizens to develop solutions themselves.

Example: Legislatures from New York City to Seville, Spain to Porto Alegre, Brazil, are experimenting with handing control over millions of dollars of budgetary spending to citizens instead of professional politicians and officials.





To help accomplish its work, the Network undertakes three sets of activities:

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Opening Governance Research Network Activities

Develop and mobilize an interdisciplinary network, hold regular convening to deepen and collaborate on the Network’s research agenda, and refine understanding of the emerging transformation of governance

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Opening Governance Living Labs

Leverage the core Research Network, policy makers and technologists to conduct action research experiments in real world institutions in order to build on research findings, test what works in practice and catalyze others to pursue related initiatives;

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Opening Governance Observatory

Share learnings from both empirical work and theoretical reflection across disciplinary perspectives, as well as identify policy and legal barriers that hamper the re-design of governance.




Photo credit: Dirección General de Información y Gobierno Abierto




The MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance comprises:



Beth Simone Noveck

New York University / Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“The next great superpower is going to be the one who can successfully combine the hierarchy of institution … with the diversity and the pulsating life and the chaos and the excitement of networks.”

Faculty Members:


Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Massachusetts Institute of Technology / University of Southampton

“The Web as I envisaged it, we have not seen it yet. The future is still so much bigger than the past.”




Erik Johnston

Arizona State University / Center for Policy Informatics

“There is a democratic surplus waiting to be spent by people hesitating to participate because 1) they are unaware of how many other people share their cares regarding their communities 2) they are unsure about the best first step or 3) they do not realize how important their skills, expertise, and experiences are to finding innovative solutions.”



Henry Farrell

George Washington University

“Even under realistic accounts of how people argue, democratic argument can transform private vices (confirmation bias) into public virtues (the preservation of cognitive diversity).”



Sheena S. Iyengar

Columbia Business School / Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business

“In reality, many choices are between things that are not that much different. The value of choice depends on our ability to perceive differences between the options.”


Karim Lakhani

Harvard Business School

“Open source software really showed the way in how innovation can be democratized. Many R&D executives now realize that there is a tremendous amount of knowledge outside their own organizations. The challenge is to find a way to access this knowledge and engage the minds of many people in the problem solving process.”


Anita McGahan

University of Toronto / Harvard University / Massachusetts General Hospital

“[We need to] do what society needs us to do, which is deliver prosperity for everyone.”




Sonal Shah

Georgetown UniversityBeeck Center

"We need to invest in research that helps us assess the best models and demonstrates that they are actually having an impact. 


Institutional Members


Geoff Mulgan

National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts

“One of the lessons of history is that even the deepest crises can be moments of opportunity. They bring ideas from the margins into the mainstream.”



Thomas Prehn


Scaling culture change is more important than specific projects


Lee Rainie

Pew Research Center

“Social relations are changing in a pretty big way. We are moving in a gradual form, but now accelerated by technology, from a social system that was built around small, tight-knit groups and big, bureaucratic hierarchies, to a new system that’s built around more loose-knit, more dispersed networks.

Associate Members:


Justin Longo

University of Regina

“Advancing technology and changing norms are influencing interactions within the walls of governments, having an impact on procedural and administrative efficiencies and providing a platform for the sharing of knowledge and facilitating collaboration amongst public servants.”


Hollie Russon-Gilman

Georgetown University / Beeck Center

"Sometimes we are scared to open processes up to everyday people because they're too messy or they're too complicated. People can understand complex issues if you just take the time to explain them."

Chief of Research:


Stefaan G. Verhulst

New York University 

“We have new tools of collaboration and new social scientific insights for how to put them to good use, to source new and better ideas whether from data or from people. But we lack institutions that can quickly discover, recognize, implement and scale innovative solutions to these, and other, problems.”



Network Coordinator: