Blog post

Beth Noveck Leaving the White House is No Big Loss

By Andrea Di Maio | January 11, 2011 | 17 Comments

open government data

I just read that Beth Noveck, Obama administrations’s Deputy CTO in charge for open government, stepped down to return to her teaching position at New York Law School. Beth was  instrumental to the White House activities around the Open Government Directive.

If the current state of open government in the federal government is a testament to her achievements, I have to say that this reminds me of her book, Wiki Government, which I read shortly after its publication.

The book is dominated by the story of PeerToPatent, the crowdsourcing of patent applications that was successfully ventured by the US Patent and Trademark Office and can be seen as Beth’s baby.

Now, for how interesting PeerToPatent is, my impression was that the book is too much about celebrating that story, and too little about understanding the critical issues behind open government and how to make it work in practice.

This is exactly the way I feel about where open government is today in the US federal government. Great concept, a directive to kick the ball, a few agencies doing good things but most still scratching their heads about how to do something more than complying with what the directive asked them to do.

I do not know what role Beth had in the original conception and implementation of the open government directive. But it looks like she is great at conceptualizing and maybe less at leading, which is not surprising for a university professor.

Since it seems that the position is vacant now, I do hope that whoever will replace Beth will have the profile, and will be given a clear mandate, to take open government to the next level: which is to become a tool for agencies to be more effective and efficient, not just to tick the transparency box.

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

Comments are closed


  • Fergus says:

    That post reads somewhat, hmm, nasty. Perhaps all she needed was a(nother) Gartner quadrant to solve the government’s implementation problems? I think not.
    Thanks for the memories, Beth.

  • @Fergus – It was not meant to be. She might have been a great asset at the beginning, when things needed to be kickstarted, but what is needed now is somebody who has both the profile and (very important) a clear mandate to make open government become part of the normal course of business.
    Incidentally profile and mandate have very little to do with the kind of information, frameworks or analyst firms used to act on that mandate.

  • Fergus says:

    @Andrea, thanks for the response. I am in Australia and when talking with people have often used the Obama open government initiatives as a demonstration of ‘what’s possible’ and also ‘a reform wave that is coming’, so I really hope the foundations laid do not crumble and that the mandate gets another kick along. I’ll watch the space with continued interest. And your posts too, of course! Cheers

  • I liked the great spirit and enthusiasm that Beth brought to her work and hope that we can build on that with someone who can do real transformation by re-architecting and re-implementing government services using a Gov 2.0 Platform that supports Getting to the 5 Stars of Linked Open Data – see

  • Alex Howard says:

    Andrea, when you write subject lines like that, interpretations like the one that Bergus voiced are inevitable. More over, when you write that “I do not know what role Beth had in the original conception and implementation of the open government directive,” you lead some readers to question how informed you are about her role.

    Respectfully, in 2011, I hope you’ll reconsider posting “linkbait” headlines and instead focus on picking up the phone and doing more due diligence. That’s the kind of analysis the public needs and deserves.

  • I could not agree with Alex more – I am not certain you understand at times how your comments, such as ““I do not know what role Beth had in the original conception and implementation of the open government directive” in a post link-baitingly titled “Beth Noveck Leaving the White House is No Big Loss,” creates the impression that you do not have a firm understanding on the subject matter you seek to discuss. I hope that this is just an impression that is being made, and your contributions will become just that – contributions – and not akin to this particularly more regretful example.

  • @Alex – If you have read some of my earlier posts about open government you should know that I do my homework. What is quite evident is that, with few exceptions, open government has been dealt with as a compliance issue, not as a game changer. Most plans and related pages and initiatives are somewhat self-referential, i.e. aiming to prove that agencies are being transparent and that open gov is indeed a good thing, rather than really using open gov as an enabler or a tool (or a platform, if you like that term).
    My sentence about Beth’s role was meant to shield her (and any specific individual) from being associated with my negative assessment of where open gov is today in the US federal government. Actually it is quite evident to me how instrumental she was to the design of all this. My observation is that there is a need to change gear to make open gov something else than a desirable attribute. My only criticism is that Beth and her colleagues could have built better mechanisms in the directive to blend open govt initiatives with each agency’s business.

  • @Justin – I hope my response to Alex will alleviate some of your concerns. Actually you retweeted my other post about OMB and Google, so I was not sure what you were referring to.
    My position about open government has been quite clear since when the directive was published (you are welcome to go back and re-read some of my original posts). There is little evidence that open government has made the difference it was meant to make (yet) and – more importantly – that the majority of agencies have really looked at it as an opportunity rather than as an obligation.
    Just to be clear, I have very little interest in link baiting. But I am always interested in seeing who reacts most vehemently when I challenge the common wisdom.

  • Alex Howard says:

    @Andrea I have read every post here since the beginning of 2009. Note that I did not say that you don’t do your homework, only that that sentence might lead people to think otherwise. You talk to hundreds of people in government and clearly read the source documents in question.

    Your reply does bring up a different question: It’s not clear to me why you wish to shield government officials from negative assessments of the plans or initiatives that they designed or directed. Accountability for public servants (or elected officials) based upon their performance would seem to be one of the pillars of open government.

    Your point about tying open government to agency missions, however, is one that I have heard voiced frequently in the last year. Given cost pressures and the need for better services, that’s not surprising. I look forward to more of your analysis of where and when that is – or is not – happening as plans move towards implementation in United States and open government efforts in other countries go forward. Or don’t, as the case may be.

    With respect to my other point, look back:

    Bridging the Digital Divide Is A Myth
    Why Do Women Understand Government 2.0 and Social Media Better Than Men?
    Keep Developers Out of Politics, Please
    Do You Want to Show the Value of E-Government? Forget the Citizen

    To be clear, the majority of your headlines are substantive, focus on the topic and present a viewpoint which readers may or may not agree with, depending upon their own biases or understanding. These examples, however, read at first blush like they might be found on Gawker’s blog network, not Gartner’s. For what it’s worth, it would be wonderful if everyone – journalist and analyst alike – stopped using war metaphors:

    Microsoft Returns Fire in Federal Cloud Battle
    Government and the Battle of the Clouds

    All that said, I look forward to your analysis of the prospects for the next deputy CTOs in OSTP.

  • @Alex – Thanks for reading my blog and – as I said elsewhere – for keeping me on my toes.

    In response to your points:

    – I am all for accountability, just I am not sure one can determine the exact responsibilities that Beth rather than other people involved in concocting and deploying the OGD had.

    – I am no journalist so I probably lack the ability to judge what sound sensationalistic and what is not. All the titles you mention are actually bottom-line oriented and aim at capturing the essence of the post. Since in all those cases, posts were meant to challenge the common wisdom, I purposely used a stronger highlight: I am sorry you found those a bit off, but what I care about is the post content.

    I am with you about war metaphors. I should know that they have a different flavor in different countries. Maybe I should revert to sport contests or corridas in future posts 🙂

  • Andrea, I tweeted you back, but here’s my answer to your question as to why Beth will be missed:

    We need passionate, intelligent & progressive thinkers — change agents — to help move both conversation & culture forward and that’s how most would view Beth, I think.

    Change takes time in any large organization, but can be especially difficult within government (given the different barriers and challenges they face vs commercial organizations). While the pace may not be as fast as many would like, I think Beth is leaving having helped create a solid foundation from which the U.S. will continue to build from.

    Beth’s direct contributions, ideas and leadership will be missed simply because (as you mention in your post) there is so much more to do…

  • @Steve – I tweeted back saying that the fact that there is much more to do is no excuse for not having done enough earlier. Indeed she helped build the foundation, but the directive missed the opportunity of creating stronger links with agency mission.

  • Lucas Cioffi says:

    Di Maio: “Just to be clear, I have very little interest in link baiting. But I am always interested in seeing who reacts most vehemently when I challenge the common wisdom.”

    Response: The title of this article doesn’t challenge common wisdom; it challenges common courtesy.

    If you don’t mind that it sounds like a personal attack, you should keep the title as “Beth Noveck Leaving the White House is No Big Loss.”

    If you want to get your point across without making it sound like a personal attack, change the title. It’s OK to admit that the original title was unprofessional.

  • @Lucas – I am pretty sure that the content of my blog post explains rather clearly that this is no personal attack (Beth is a lovely person and a very capable professional) but an observation about the need for a change at this stage of open government and the US administration.
    The title is indeed my conclusion: no big loss for the future of open government. It was not meant to be dismissive at all.
    Last thing. By posting your comment and calling me unprofessional you offer an additional data point supporting my view that “it is interesting to see who reacts most vehemently”.

  • Martin Stewart-Weeks says:

    I think the basic insights about the difficulty of keeping these kinds of initiatives elevated above the compliance level are fine. For the rest, much of the critique and subsequent analysis is typical of a consulting perspective – naive, unrealistic and with almost no awareness of the dynamics of change in large institutions.

    Some of the prescriptions in this and the other open govt pieces are exactly the kind of advice that people who are struggling to actually do this stuff, as opposed to write about it, find so distracting.

    And as for the disingenuous backtracking on the cheap headline writing, it didn’t sound plausible.

  • @Martin – Thanks for your observations, but I have to say that I do disagree big time. Let me be clear: these posts have no presumption to replace the analysis that goes into my Gartner research notes. However the position they express are in line with my research, which is based on talking to hundreds of government officials in the US and elsewhere about these topics.
    I have been working in the public sector myself, in a very large organization, presumably more complex in terms of policy portfolios and diversity of cultures than any of those you have been working with, and believe me I know rather well what is a realistic pace of transformation.
    This is exactly why it is important to connect open government to mission priorities, to use it as a means to solve problems rather than an end in itself. What is needed are people who are expert in the business of government, and not people who are expert in open data and the likes.
    This is the meaning of my headline, by which I stand. It is time to act, and different people need to be in charge.
    As far as your point about my statement being distracting,. you are probably right: I often find myself distracting my clients from listening to the usual tune by vendors, consultants and passionate open gov supporters, by inviting them to ask themselves a very simple question: why are we doing this? I am happy to say that most government clients are quite appreciative of a different viewpoint, as it helps them take a fresh look at this and other overhyped topics. But I also understand why this may not be welcome in other parts of the marketplace.