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New US Administration Takes First Step Toward Openess

By Andrea Di Maio | January 23, 2009 | 0 Comments

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In a memo published on January 21st, i.e. only one day into his Presidency, the new US president urges his administration to act to create an “unprecedented level of openness in Government … to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration“.

As far as transparency, the aims are  (1) “to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use“, (2) to “harness new technologies to put information about (departments’ and agencies’) operations and decisions online” and (3) to “solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public“. All this steps can transform the way government operates and relates to its constituents, but it is the latter that yields the greatest potential. In fact (1) and (2) somewhat imply that government retains control of what information gets disclosed and how rapidly. But (3) puts constituents in the driving seat, through initiatives such as mashup contests like and Apps for Democracy: interestingly enough the latter was launched by the Washington D.C.’s CTO, who is one of the candidates shortlisted to become the federal government CTO.

As far as participation, the memo says that departments and agencies should (1) “offer increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information“; and (2) “solicit public input on how (the administration) can increase and improve opportunities for public participation in Government“. Both sound very promising and well-intentioned, but the administration will have to come to terms with whether such participation should happen under its watch, e.g. on a government web site like, or should embrace – if not encourage – debates that happen outside the government boundaries, on social networks and communities that people choose, or even create, to discuss different matters. Gartner discussed this more outward looking  approach in “How Government Can Use Social Networks” (login required).

Finally, as far as collaboration, departments and agencies should (1) “use innovative tools, methods,and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector“; and (2) “solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation.” The first call for action is particularly interesting, as it does not suggest a distinction between internal and external collaboration. While this may be necessary from a tactical viewpoint or just because different approaches may be more effective to target different types of collaboration, putting government and non-government in the same sentence is a powerful statement. However it would have been even more powerful if the President had invited “individuals in departments and agencies to cooperate with individuals inside and outside government”: the power of collaboration is that it crossed all organizational boundaries, and the main challenge for government organizations is how to empower their employee to embrace this collaboration without boundaries.

The memo directs the government CTO, OMB and GSA to  coordinate the development by appropriate executive departments and agencies, within 120 days, of recommendations for an Open Government Directive. Now this is where the administration could already walk the talk, and try out collaboration. It would be interesting to see whether some of the existing infrastructure, such as or Gov Gab , could be useful for this purpose.

I may have been too cautious in my previous posts and my colleague Anthony Bradley could be having a first demonstration that his optimism was well placed. The jury is still out, but this is one of those cases where I’d love to be wrong.

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