Blog post

US Open Government Directive is Disappointing

By Andrea Di Maio | December 08, 2009 | 11 Comments

open government data

Earlier today, the US federal government issued the long-awaited Open Government Directive, as requested in an executive memo issued in January by President Obama.

The directive covers the three principles of transparency, participation and collaboration set out in the executive memo, and outlines a series of actions that agencies must take over the next 120 days and going forward. Amongst them:

  • Within 45 days each agency is expected to identify and register via Data.gov three high-value data set that were not previously available online
  • Within 60 days each agency shall create an Open Government page on its web site reporting about activities related to the directive
  • Within 120 days each agency shall publish an Open Government Plan addressing all the three principles (an outline of the plan is provided as an attachment)
  • Within 45 days the Federal CIO and CTO will establish a working group to socialize best practices, coordinate with other mandates around federal spending transparency and recovery, and share best practices about the use of new technologies and insights of people inside and outside government
  • And within 60 days they will create an Open Government Dashboard to keep track of progress of all agencies

The directive covers also issues like accountability for government information quality and federal spending transparency.

The suggested components of the Open Government Plan are skewed toward supporting transparency, for which a lot of detail is provided. However also the sections on to participation and collaboration confirm what I have called several times the “asymmetry of government 2.0”, i.e. the fact that governments take a one-way approach only to government 2.0 (data from government to citizens and engagement from citizens to government), losing sight that that information and engagement flow in the opposite direction too (information is created elsewhere that government need to be aware of, and government employees engage with external communities).

In fact when it comes to participation, the directive suggests that

The Plan should include descriptions of and links to appropriate websites where the public can engage in existing participatory processes of your agency […] The Plan should include proposals for new feedback mechanisms, including innovative tools and practices that create new and easier methods for public engagement.

While in the section on collaboration it says that

The Plan should include proposals to use technology platforms to improve collaboration among people within and outside your agency. […] The Plan should include descriptions of and links to appropriate websites where the public can learn about existing collaboration efforts of your agency.

It is quite clear that the suggested approach is for agencies to address participation and collaboration on their turf and on their terms.

Also when external collaboration is mentioned:

[…] The Plan should include innovative methods, such as prizes and competitions, to obtain ideas from and to increase collaboration with those in the private sector, non-profit, and academic communities.

it refers to a type of codified, institutional collaboration that has little to do with the spontaneity of “general citizen” communities. (see interesting debate on citizen participation)

For sure, this directive will make social software vendors happy, as it will require agencies to consider some of their tools to support the requirement for participation and collaboration.  But, in doing so, the US government just perpetuates the asymmetry of government 2.0.

The picture below, which I used in a previous post, shows what I mean.

image

The US directive looks only at the flows drawn in black, but does very little to help agencies understand the importance of flows drawn in red for each and every principle set out in the executive memo. This begs a few questions:

  • How will agencies know whether open data are being used to the benefit of citizens unless employees can engage in external communities (i.e. communities that citizens themselves establish using their social media of choice?).
  • How will real participation be possible unless agencies recognize that data is being created and collected by citizens, communities, private companies, which has the same dignity of government data to support participation?
  • How can government agencies collaborate unless there is a bi-directional flow of information and collaboration can take place – depending on topics and constituency – on government and citizen turf at the same time?
  • How can participation and collaboration be realized without addressing explicitly the role of government employees, and how can they play this role unless they can access external social media?

Failing to address any of the above and setting so many milestones and reporting obligations for agencies, this directive risks turning into yet another exercise in compliance.

As a corollary to my disappointment, while I was following the live feed on Facebook with the Federal CIO and CTO presenting the directive and taking question, somebody posted the following: Too bad that agency policy prohibits us federal employees from watching this (or using Facebook) at work….

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11 Comments

  • Ivy says:

    The last paragraph is one of the most telling points, so i am glad you included it in your post — the fact that government “doesn’t get it’ is clear by the policy prohibiting participaiton in 2.0 capabilities. No wonder you are underwhelmed! This would also be another area to include in your upcoming article on government policies in this area — how policies encourage or discourage particiaption in the open government processes

  • I very much agree with your points. It’s easy for many of us to jump on the bandwagon and act as cheerleaders. While these are important steps I doubt that the government will be able to truly curate the flow of information without interaction between employees and citizens.

  • Sonny Hashmi says:

    Andrea,

    Interesting outline of the OpenGov directive. I do agree with your assertion that the directive only covers the paths “in black” and very little if any focus is expended on the red paths in your diagram. Particularly like the last two sentences in your post (employee comment on facebook).

    In my view, there are some distinct features of social networks/media that make them valuable over other channels in our private lives:

    1) Real Time
    2) Bi-directional, person to person or multi-directional (one to many, many to one)
    3) Human element (as opposed to a web portal)
    4) dynamic (networks, topics, content, focus change constantly)

    Now consider the fact that most Government organizations are:

    1) Typically transactional in nature, not real time (due to a myriad of good and bad reasons)
    2) Typically not set up for bi-directional communication (tight messaging, PIO, risk averse, “trusted” information use only, etc.)
    3) Bureucracy not human (actually this is the same challenge big corporations face on social networks)
    4) Established, static and stable

    Clearly there are significant challenges to overcome if Gov2.0 is to maximize the value from Web2.0 and breakdown bureucracy1.0 (from your previous post).

    I think this directive is a good first step to formalize the discussions and grass roots work underway in US gov for the past year. However, it is only a first step. I think in order for this movement to be sustainable, the “Red paths” in your diagram need to be nurtured, formalized and appropriate policy/process/risk models updated. Moreover, I think it requires a concentrated and focussed effort to break down the barriers to change as I have outlined above. Without this effort, Gov2.0 will just remain an exotic outlier rather than being the norm.

  • Andrew Walls says:

    Your analysis of the directive is spot on. Unfortunately, I think the scope of the directive is well aligned with the relative inability of managers in many agencies to understand, let alone embrace, collaborative approaches to agency management. The popularity of blockades to staff access to social media is symptomatic of an organization that has little faith in the effectiveness of staff governance programs (e.g.: if we don’t control them they won’t behave properly). If an agency struggles with uncontrolled collaboration by staff, they are not ready to deal with a mature collaboration relationship with the citizenry.

    Let’s hope that this is just a first step along the path to effective interaction of staff and the citizenry.

  • John Kost says:

    Andrew Walls’ comments are also very insightful relative to this issue though I think they are partially incorrect. I do think that managers do understand collaborative approaches that are possible. The issue is not lack of understanding but rather lack of will.

    Federal employees are not incentivized to be risk takers (as is further evident in the directive). In fact, to the contrary, there are significant incentives to ensure no screw ups become public. Following the path of Andrea’s red lines inevitably leads to nonconformist behavior which most agencies go to great lengths to avoid. They don’t want to inadvertently give data away that should not be and do not want to end up in the Washington Post and then sitting before a Congressional Committee.

    In an era of gotcha politics, no one wants to do anything that might add value unless it is blessed by the political masters…. most of whom have such a poor understanding of IT that they won’t bless anything.

  • @ Sonny – thanks for your thoughtful cmments (as usual)

    Indeed the directive can be read as “a good first step to formalize the discussions and grass roots work underway in US gov for the past year.”. My concern is that, without making an explicit reference to the “red paths”, many agencies will take a compliance approach, rather than use the directive as an opportunity to develop a fully fledged participation and collaboration strategy.

    Where the directive really misses the boat is in remaining silent about the role of employees and how they could/should be rewarded for being proactive in finding avenues to leverage open data and seek for communities who can use or complement it. This is why I find that the Australian strategy is far superior.

  • Sonny Hashmi says:

    @andreademaio – No doubt. You are as insightful as always. I agree that the Australian directive is much more progressive.

    Having seen the “mcahine” at work from the inside, I tend to strongly agree with John Kost in his comment. When dealing with a limited structured agenda, budgets, and operational goals for agencies, the web2.0 agenda is only successful where the executive leadership has made it a strategic priority for their agency, and have a clear understanding of how this set of “tools” can advance their mission. This is generally the exception not the norm.

    The barriers of non-compliance, data breach, inaccurate information, or “unmanaged” disclosure of information are typically far more oppressive than the benefits of individual enagement offered by web2.0. This will undoubtedly change as newer generations take the helm in policy making government positions. However, currently gov20/web20 is considered as the “cool new stuff the IT staff is doing these days”. Until this perception is changed in most agencies, meaingful progress will not be attained.

    Just my thoughts. I am sure sound minds can discuss this topic for hours in many different lights.

  • @ John & Sonny

    I have seen the machine from the inside myself and I can’t but agree with both you and John. This is why I find the Australian suggestion so remarkable (although theirs is still a draft report and we have to see the final version for a fair comparison).

    John’s point is exactly why there is a great risk that the Open Directive will be taken as a compliance exercise.

    Further, open data will create embarrassment anyhow – as I’ve pointed out in previous posts: without any oversight on how it gets used, nor any encouragement to employees to engage with communities that may be using and misusing that data, agencies (and government as a whole) could be up for some sudden awakening from their gov 2.0 illusions.

  • Tim Bertrand says:

    We believe that there are both good/aggressive points in the OGI, and also areas where the Government needs some advice & direction. It is our duty as “Industry” to provide this direction.

    At Acquia – as an Open Source company (Drupal) – we are launching a series of Webinars – starting right now, at 1PM around how Open Source technologies can assist the Government in becoming “/open”

    http://acquia.com/community/resources/webinars/open-government-directive-and-open-source-social-publishing

    The webinar series will be free, as is Drupal (as in “free beer”) 🙂 We encourage the community to write to us and leverage partners of ours, such as the New York State Senate, who have achieved their part of the OGI using Drupal and Open Source..

  • Accountant says:

    Yes, open, transparent, and REAL TIME government is achievable. In government, though, it is not thought of as being the necessity that it should be. There is no reason why a dashboard of some kind can be at the federal, state, and local level and be useful.

    I have included our dashboard which has won a number of awards.
    http://www.tib.wa.gov/performance/Dashboard/

    The other thing is that according to our State CIO, we are unable to use any ongoing feedback from local agencies because then we could “possibly open up to hackers”. Oh please, give me a break, it is just because the IT people at our illustrious DIS is UNABLE to do this.

    Kudos Andrea for opening up the dialog.

  • @Tim – I left your self-promotional blog post as a testament to my later blog post about the fact that OGI and Open Source have nothing in common, if not the understandable desire for vendors to leverage that as a business opportunity.