Blog post

Open Government May Not Be Sustainable

By Andrea Di Maio | March 30, 2010 | 5 Comments

open government data

One of the points I have been making to US federal clients when discussing their initiatives to comply with the Open Government Directive is that one thing is to meet the deadline of April 7th (by when all federal agencies are supposed to produce the first version of their open government plans), and another thing is to make those plans stick.

Making a new initiative sustainable over time when there is little or no budget available and when it competes with many other priorities is not easy. A post by Rob Pinkerton makes this even more evident by highlighting how the current open government initiatives are driven by an executive order, rather than by law.

Reporting about a Senate Government Affairs Sub Committee he testified at, Rob says

The most interesting and frictional piece of the hearing came from Senator Coburn who wanted to know when Vivek and Aneesh planned to comply with the Federal Funding and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFTA) authored by Coburn and then-Senator Obama. Coburn applauded the Administration’s open government efforts, but questioned why so many initiatives had been undertaken by executive order when the one transparency law that was a fully codified law on the books had been ignored […] if we want to progress through openness and technology, we should focus on the Law because agencies and citizens have to follow it. It’s a remarkably simple commentary but one that doesn’t seem to have much energy in the Open Government movement.

He makes a very interesting observation:

Most of the efforts have been about vision and possibility (marketing) or about data propagation (developer enablement). But I have not seen much in the way of true institutional incentive change – funding, organizational restructuring, program creation and requirements and economic incentives – the things that really do mean ‘change.’ Bills that become laws.

Congress is the most powerful branch of government in my opinion – but at least equally as powerful as the Executive branch- yet there is not the same level of energy coming from Capitol Hill equivalent to what is coming from the Administration. Which will make it hard for Open Government to progress at the rate we’d like to see it progress.

Rob hits the nail on the head. One cannot institutionalize change by executive orders. The Open Government DIrective served its purpose to kick-start efforts and to create the momentum for most if not all agencies to really care about transparency, participation and collaboration. However this is not enough to make this sustainable.
Open government efforts need to be either rooted into specific laws: there are a few – such as the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act mentioned above, the Freedom of Information Act, , the Paperwork Reduction Act – but more may be needed to make this successful overtime.

Alternatively, the only way is to make agencies link open government to their own priorities. In an earlier post, I invited federal agencies to be selfish and look at open government as a means to be more effective and efficient rather than as an end in itself.

It will be interesting to see if this happens after April 7th. So far, everything tastes of a compliance flavor

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  • Good post.

    OpenGov West was my recent opportunity to listen and learn.

    My personal experience includes speaking with elected officials, administration at many levels of government and I have to agree that in order for Open Government to be sustainable, more than just a directive or law is needed. The will to create substantive change is still the realm of evangelists. That’s changing, yet many definitely see this as a threat to the preferred status quo. I also agree re the budget issues, but don’t think things will stop cold as more stories about cost savings and efficiencies are shared some momentum may carry us through.

  • Great post Andrea. Also, don’t forget the e-gov act if 2002- it goes so far as to codify the participation aspects of open gov as well. (though the transparency/information sharing through G2C, G2G and G2B efforts were more accentuated in OMB scorecards and thus that’s where we saw the most progress with egov)

    I wrote in length about that act/ effort here:

    I agree that with no funding in sight (other than the new egov money) there needs to be a more effective “hammer” than an EO, and there are plenty of laws that should enter the routine discussion.

    Thanks for all your great thought leadership!

  • Alan Webber says:


    You are exactly right. Without some specific changes such as funding it is highly questionable whether this effort is sustainable. It would be interesting to see how many agencies will attempt to “sit this one out” much as they did under the PART effort and earlier under GPRA. Great perspective.



  • Doug Hadden says:


    The American structural and political barriers are not indicative to the growth of “open government”. For one thing, the United States federal government is but one of many.

    There has also been too much focus on the external aspects of open government and transparency in the United States among experts, analysts and the press. The real transformation in the American government has been through internal collaboration networks. This experience supports the culture change of sharing information – particularly raw information – externally.

    The American political system is also unique. The incentives for transparency in Congress (as recently witnessed in the UK), executive (as a separate branch) and the civil service (with so many political appointees at the upper levels) is different from most developed countries. This structure seems to add some friction to transparency when compared to the Westminster system.

    I think that there needs to be some comparative transparency / open government work because it will better identify incentives. There has been some analysis about the transparency of donor aid organizations (multi-lateral and bi-lateral).

    There also seems to be an implicit assumption among many technology experts that open government initiatives are primarily in developed countries. Yet there is an enormous appetite for government transparency in emerging country governments, particularly in Asia and Latin America. We may find that these countries will leapfrog the G7.

  • Owen Ambur says:

    Open government will not be sustainable (nor should it be) unless it supports the goals and objectives of the agency, pursuant to the authorities (laws) under which it operates. However, at a minimum, those goals and objectives should be published on agency Web sites in open format, e.g., Strategy Markup Language (StratML). Among the purposes of the StratML standard (ANSI/AIIM 21:2009) is to enable the establishment of linkages among goals/objectives and other records created in the routine course of business processes. One measure of the degree to which agencies are serious about open government will be whether they publish their open gov plans in StratML format.