Using GitHub in Government: A Look at a New Collaboration Platform

Citation: Longo, J., & Kelley, T. M. (2016). GitHub use in public administration in Canada: Early experience with a new open collaboration tool. Canadian Public Administration. Vol. 59, no. 4, pp. 598–623.

(this blog post also published by the Center for Policy Informatics)


In late 2014, as a postdoc in open governance in the Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University, I became interested in the potential for using GitHub to facilitate collaboration on text documents. This was largely inspired by the 2012 TED Talk by Clay Shirky where he argued that open source programmers could teach us something about how to do open governance:

Somebody put up a tool during the copyright debate last year in the Senate, saying, “It’s strange that Hollywood has more access to Canadian legislators than Canadian citizens do. Why don’t we use GitHub to show them what a citizen-developed bill might look like?” 

If you’re not familiar with it, GitHub is a web-based project hosting service, principally used for distributed version control of software and website development projects. It has enjoyed rapid growth since its debut in 2008 and, with over 14 million users and over 35 million project repositories (as of April 2016), it is the largest source-code host on the Internet.

In 2014, increasing attention was being paid to the use of GitHub as a platform for document collaboration, with the possibility that it could serve to revolutionize the practice of knowledge sharing within organizations and be a mechanism for open governance.

Along with my CPI colleague Tanya Kelley (now a postdoc at the University of Michigan), and the support of CPI Director Erik Johnston, we set out to understand how GitHub was being used in public sector organizations in Canada, and how it might be used in future.

We placed GitHub within the context of the existing literature on software approaches to collaborative work and the idea of collaboration generally in public sector settings.

During the research and writing, the Brookings Institution TechTank published a series of three blog posts (starting here) where we speculated on what tools like GitHub might mean for public sector organizations.

For this research, we undertook a census of Canadian government and public servant accounts on GitHub and surveyed those users, supplemented by interviews with key government technology leaders.

This research has now been published in the journal Canadian Public Administration. (If you don’t have access to the full document through the publisher, you can also find it here).

Despite the growing enthusiasm for GitHub (mostly from those familiar with open source software development), and the general rhetoric in favour of collaboration, we suspected that getting GitHub used in public sector organizations for text collaboration might be an uphill battle – not least of which because of the steep learning curve involved in using GitHub, and its inflexibility when being used to edit text.

The history of computer-supported collaborative work platforms is littered with really cool interfaces that failed to appeal to users. The experience to date with GitHub in Canadian governments reflects this, as far as our research shows.

We found few government agencies having an active presence on GitHub compared to social media presence in general. And while federal departments and public servants on GitHub are rare, provincial, territorial, First Nations and local governments are even rarer.

For individual accounts held by public servants, most were found in the federal government at higher rates than those found in broader society (see Mapping Collaborative Software). Within this small community, the distribution of contributions per user follows the classic long-tail distribution with a small number of contributors responsible for most of the work, a larger number of contributors doing very little on average, and many users contributing nothing.

GitHub is still resisted by all but the most technically savvy. With a peculiar terminology and work model that presupposes a familiarity with command line computer operations and the language of software coding, using GitHub presents many barriers to the novice user. But while it is tempting to dismiss GitHub, as it currently exists, as ill-suited as a collaboration tool to support document writing, it holds potential as a useful platform for facilitating collaboration in the public sector.

As an example, to help understand how GitHub might be used within governments for collaboration on text documents, we discuss a briefing note document flow in the paper (see the paper for a description of this lovely graphic).

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A few other findings are addressed in the paper, from why public servants may choose not to collaborate even though they believe it’s the right thing to do, to an interesting story about what propelled the use of GitHub in the government of Canada in the first place.

This was a fun paper to write, even though it is probably the end of my interest in GitHub specifically (the main finding being “there is no there there”). Nonetheless, we look forward to your comments.