Open government initiatives are either aimed at providing greater transparency, usually as a reaction to an accusation or perception of excessive secrecy, or at engaging citizens in specific problem solution as well as service delivery. It is probably fair to say that the US federal initiatives are closer to the former, while UK initiatives are closer to the latter.
In both cases, though, there is a fundamental lack of confidence – or blatant distrust – in the government workforce. This is rooted in a mixture of reality and perception: laziness, risk aversion, self-preservation, lack of incentives, low salaries, a culture of job security, and so forth, do not contribute to creating a pretty picture of government employees. In countries that are struggling with their finances and economy, civil servants are seen as a cost to be reduced in order to recover resources that should help reignite the economy. At the same time many agree that the retirement or dismissal of experienced government workers may make the situation even worse in areas where government services will be in greater demand going forward (think about education, social care, health care, public safety).
So are government employees an asset or a liability? I am sorry to say that most of the open government and open data ethos seem to suggest the latter. Open government advocates claim that citizens, communities, enterprises know better, that people cannot trust government to get the “whole story”, that the government workforce cannot be made more productive and effective unless slashing it.
For quite some time now I have been of a different opinion. Since when I started talking about employee-centric government, as opposed to the common wisdom of citizen-centricity, I have tried to highlight how the challenges ahead of us all were – and still are – of such a magnitude and severity that we need to work collaboratively to tackle them. This implies leveraging rather than challenging the considerable expertise that exists in the government workforce. Technology, including open data, can provide a formidable toolset to make that happen, and there are countless example where great initiatives and innovation start from inside the civil service.
Then, why is it so difficult to recognize the government workforce as one of the most relevant sources of public value, and look at how to deploy technology to unleash this value rather than to allegedly replace them?
My working assumption is that this is due to a combination of what politicians and technology suppliers want us to believe. For a politician facing voters challenged by a recession, who have lost or risk losing their jobs, it is easy to say that resources can be recovered by cutting public spending, which in turns lead to workforce reduction (since salaries are one of the highest if not the highest cost item for most departments). For technology suppliers, who face declining government budgets and often a less-than-stellar reputation about how IT has helped create public value, it is easy to say that government must spend more on self-service technology and automation to increase productivity.
Of course both claims have some merit: it would be unruly to allow public spending to run of control just to preserve civil service jobs. On the other hand, they do not support any effort to make employees not only more productive, but more innovative.
Case in point, the many idea contests that are being run to ask citizens how to address certain problems. Over the last few months even my country has been taken by an open government frenzy, and citizens are being asked about ideas for a digital agenda, or suggestions about how to reduce public spending. However it is not clear whether and how employees get involved in these discussions, either as contributors or animators. Every time I raise this is the local open government circles I get referred to the (rather stale) literature about wikinomics, wikicracy, and the likes.
Now, let’s think for a moment. Who knows best about teaching: parents or teachers? Who knows best about nursing: nurses or relatives? Who know best about public procurement: purchasing officers or technology consultants? Who knows best about policy making: cabinet staff or open data entrepreneurs? And the list goes on and on.
Yes, we can all provide input to these processes and we can help government be better and more transparent. But we cannot replace those whose job is to work for us all.
After all, isn’t this is the essence of representative democracy? We do elect individuals who will take care of the common good for all of us. Let’s help them, but let them also do their job.