Open Data political judo: Rahm Emanuel and Chicago politics

Open Data political judo: Rahm Emanuel and Chicago politics

Chicago has now joined the list of major American cities publishing official data from its services on the web for the public to scrutinize and use. Embracing the transparency agenda is laudable in its own right. The city is bravely committed to opening up itself to public scrutiny from armchair auditors. The hope is that this openness will engage the public, lead to greater savings and efficiencies, and most importantly improve the service delivery from the city’s systems. However, there are challenges that need to be overcome both political and organisational.


At a deeper level, it shows the challenges for any major city that seeks to embrace this new agenda. A critical point is to have committed leadership, like Rahm Emanuel, pushing for this action. Chicago appears to have learned the lessons from Austin, the open data projects are being led from the political leadership, and they appear to have full political support.


The deepest level, which for me is the most interesting, is whether Rahm can use this open data as political judo to weaken the powers that be, the old guard, and deliver the results needed to sustain his supporters and move the project forward. Can Emanuel succeed? The challenges will not be within the project, but the political battles created by and around the project. In particular, the challenge of data quality because it reflects one of the major venues for politicized data.


As a more than casual observer of political strategy, I find it noteworthy to see that the Mayor is seizing upon open data as a cornerstone for his administration. What that allows him to do is use the transparency agenda to his advantage both organizationally and systematically. Who after all can be against transparency?


On first view, the Mayor has an advantage, because he will have the public on his side. The open data allows him to use the public against the Alderman and the political machinery that opposes his aims. So long as the public support, embrace, and use the open data in the way conducive to the Mayor, then he can use it to shape the local political landscape to reward his friends, and hinder his opponents. Most importantly, he needs to have tangible successes to sway the lukewarm supporters who may agree in voice but not in action until they see which way the political landscape is moving.


In a sense, Emanuel is like a new Prince taking over a principality. As Machiavelli warned in Book 6 of the Prince:

And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them. (


One hopes his CTO and his main lieutenants in this endeavour have learned the lessons from Austin’s first dabbling in political decision-making through social media. The project on transport planning is worth considering for the underlying political elements within it.

The full paper can be found here:

The deeper political challenge will be for the innovators to grapple with the problem of data quality. Chicago city works were legendary for the ghost payrolls. Mike Royko was well known for his writings on this topic and one wonders if the times have changed sufficiently for open data movement to challenge this culture. The system may give information but the innovators may spend so much time trying to keep what is working running that they will lack the energy or political clout (after all data quality starts to cut into political patronage) to root out the politically corrupt practices that create flawed or suspect data quality.


One notes with interest that Baltimore’s Citi stat system reduced sickness absence rates dramatically and led to huge savings. In part, one would surmise, from the fact that it was being recorded, checked, and opened to wider scrutiny. What was particularly important is that it was open to scrutiny from areas that would not be under political persuasion or influence. Even the press may be encouraged or seduce to look differently at such stories if offered alternative opportunities.

What has been interesting is that Emanuel seems to understand this political point. (I should hope so as he is one the best political operators around today). One of the most important datasets he has opened is one showing the political lobbyists links.

By releasing this data, he puts his political opponents and rivals under pressure and he protects his flank because he has been open about the links. Who after all can say he is not living by the open data ethos. However, the next question is whether that information can be used to his advantage without hindering his political supporters within the City Council. Therein lies the detail that will determine whether that political strategy succeeds. Yet, one wonders if the data lieutenants understand how deep and pervasive the culture of political corruption is within Chicago politics.


There seems to be a beautifully naïve assumption from Chicago outsiders that political corruption is in the past or under control. Anyone with a connection to Chicago, or more importantly a connection to Chicago politics, knows that political corruption is still alive and well. If open data can make a dent in the patronage machine that dominates within the City Government, then it will have done something amazing.

If anyone has any doubts about the level of corruption, within the Chicago system, they need to read the following report from February 2011.

When I mention these faults, it is as a more than interested bystander. Indeed intellectual, nay, moral, probity requires that as a friend of Chicago, I point out its flaws so that it can be improved. The task is enormous and if the Mayor is sincere in his aims, then he will need all the help he can get because he is up against one of the most powerful, pervasive, and pernicious patronage systems in the United States.

I wish Mayor Emanuel well because if he succeeds in his promises, then Chicago can stand proud among the top cities in America and the world. In the meantime, I wish his data lieutenants good luck because they are going to need it to succeed.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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