Blog post

What’s Wrong with Open Government?

By Andrea Di Maio | January 13, 2011 | 9 Comments

open government data

The other day I posted about Beth Noveck’s departure as deputy CTO and responsible for Open Government activities in the US federal government and got considerable pushback from readers who both disliked the title of my post and disagreed about my position that open government is not doing great.

Let me clarify why I think open government – although a great idea and an invaluable asset to any government organization – risks ending up on life support sooner rather than later, unless pace and approach change.

Compliance rather than leverage

The main benefit of the Open Government Directive has been to kickstart open government initiatives and to overcome  the initial resistance of agencies that, for lack of internal believers and evangelists or for the peculiar nature of their mission, were more reluctant to embrace its principles.

However, from my very early comments, I detected a lack of mechanisms to make such initiatives sustainable over time.The urgency of coming up with open data sets and identifying flagship initiatives has not given agencies enough time to reflect about how to build a closer link between open government and their mission priorities. All agencies were forced into a crowdsourcing exercise to gather input from the public at large, while what they really needed was to have more people inside their organizations who understand the benefits and challenges of open government and start applying those principles to solve everyday’s business problems.

Selected experts rather than everybody

The most visible outcome of all this has been that, with very few exceptions (e.g. NASA, which did not need an open government directive to move forward), agencies have practically “outsourced” open government to specific expert groups in their organizations or even to external consulting companies, some of which are not surprisingly among the most vehement opponents of my views.

One interpretation associated to open government is to engage constituents in doing something they can do better, more creatively and possibly cheaper than government can. No surprise then that governments focus on areas that are less mission-critical to them, since these are the ones that they would usually consider to outsource.

But the real benefits of open government can be realized only when its principles become core to the whole organization, when all employees can see how transparency, participation and collaboration can help them do their job better.

Best practices rather than effective practices

We have seen this multiple times in the past. When there is a new trend or technology, the most frequent question from our government clients is “show us best practices from other jurisdictions”. The obsession with best practices has been responsible for wasting money and time in Europe around e-government, with countries imitating each other irrespective of the significant differences in demographics, regulatory frameworks, technology sourcing maturity, and local market maturity.

The key question is not “who has done what before?”, but “how can I apply these principles to my specific situation?”. Good practices are a source of inspiration, but only after having done one’s homework about relevance and priorities in relation to the agency’s strategic objectives.

Ranking initiatives rather than ranking impact

The success measures for open government tend to be based on compliance with what the directive requires and not on how effectively agencies are seeking the connection between open government principles and their individual mission.

Initiatives like the e-government benchmarking in Europe have often encouraged the wrong behavior (i.e. spending money to increase position in a ranking) rather than a much needed reflection about where and how to deploy technology to increase service levels and operational efficiency in a specific jurisdiction. Some US agency’s reactions to the early ranking of open government plans suggests that the same is happening here.

What is needed is a measure of impact, a focus on outcomes rather than output. And this is one area where Beth and her staff have failed.

Bottom Line: There still hope but…

As one of the responses to my earlier blog post reminded, “Change takes time in any large organization, but can be especially difficult within government” . My main criticism to the Open Government Directive is that it could have steered behaviors differently, toward contextualizing open government at the agency level, rather than making it a “me too” exercise for many.

There is still time to correct this, to consider current open government plans as pilots, and to start creating a tighter link between the implementation of open government principles and agency mission. But this requires open government to become integral part of performance management, budgeting, procurement and all other processes that are so fundamental to the operation of the machinery of government.

Actually, open government will get out of intensive care when we won’t need a White House person in charge of open government any longer.

Comments are closed


  • Alorza says:

    Andrea, as usual, I agree most of your points, but I do not feel comfortable with the conclusion drawn. And I feel that you are mixing oGov and eGov in this post, while the title is talking only about oGov.

    Big changes are so difficult and you never get exactly what you wanted. As you say “The main benefit of the Open Government Directive has been to kickstart open government initiatives and to overcome the initial resistance of agencies”. But… hey, that’s great! Well done!

    Now other moves must be done. It is the time for the inner revolution. I agree this: “the real benefits of open government can be realized only when its principles become core to the whole organization”. Civil servants have to work in a different way. Every single politician has to take into account that principles when making public politics.

    eGov is closely linked to oGov, but is not the same thing. I don’t expect much of eGov as is being carried out. Nevertheless, I am more optimistic on sectoral policies, for example, eHealth. Probably you are right when you say: “the e-government benchmarking in Europe have often encouraged the wrong behavior”. The focus has to stand on citizen-centric services which don’t mimic the old way of doing things.

    In short, I have a more optimistic view than yours on open government and the main reason is that it has already produced interesting results, especially in terms of transparency. Thanks for encouraging debate.

  • Great insights, especially on what is driving European E-Gov strategy at the moment. Even though, senior policy makers have realized that increasing their countries standing in the ranking is not an end in itself, but mainly a political tool to increase their ability to act (even Austrian officials have become critical of their ranking-driven policy).

    Open government is more about strategy than about projects, therefore, we should not look for another apps-for-whatever contest, but try to get senior policy makers to internalize the framework of building open value webs and design interfaces to outside stakeholders to co(llaboratively)produce public values: We need to create a sensitivity for open statecraft!

  • I agree with Andrea. Most of what I currently see around open government is just marketing… a lot of bullshit. Both from the governments, as they want to show how active and modern they are, and from the companies that provide the services. Great for politicians and for outsourcing companies! Once again, so bad for society.

  • Once again a great observation Andrea. We just published a study yesterday that underlines that Open Government Data it still in its early stages in Europe:

    I also concur on the benchmark. It needs to reflect the changed policies to support the sustainability of oGov:

    I don’t agree with you that eGov is not the same as oGov. I you read the eGov literature of the last 10 years you will notice that many ideas now coined oGov are part of eGov. Of course most gov and private sector initative need a fresh name to get people moving. What is unique to oGov is that the idea of transformation of the state in a changed networked world has much greater prominence in oGov. At least for some who limit oGov to their special interests such as Open Data.

  • Alorza says:

    Yes, “many ideas now coined oGov are part of eGov”… but they are not the same thing. As you say, “the idea of transformation of the state in a changed networked world has much greater prominence in oGov”. You are a leader in eGov when you deliver most of your services online. You are a leader in oGov if you engage constituents in public affairs.
    I see Open Data just like a one of the pieces in an open government strategy. Perhaps one of the first ones to be adopted, because it is easy and cheap to do, and it can make no harm (primum, non nocere).

  • @Alexander @Alorza – The link between e-government and open government is manyfold. First of all, you see the same organizations, folks and vendors behind open government as behind e-government. Second, many of the objectives are the same (I believe that the term transparency has been used in connection to egov as well). Third, and in my view most important, open gov can be seen as e-gov giving up: as some (or many) of the original objectives of e-giv were not met (or are not sustainable), let’s give people and non-gov entities the “platform” (such as open data) for them to solve problems and provide services on our behalf.

  • Alorza says:

    @Andrea: Brilliant! So we can see oGov as the first-born son of eGov who is expected to success in the same place where the father failed 🙂

  • @alorza, @andrea, @schellong: I agree with most of what you say, however, there is a fundamental difference: e-gov was about digitization of processes and re-engineering of processes by distinguishing between the front and the back office.

    O-Gov is about a new organizational logic. Creating value webs by designing interfaces to amateurs, local knowledge, outside experts, and citizens. So, it is less about the vendors and more about the leaders that are able to build such open value creating communities.

  • Pam Broviak says:

    As someone working in local government, the open government movement has been a primary focus for me. And I have shared your concern that without sustainable practices it will not succeed. From where I am, I see two major obstacles.

    First we have elected officials passing laws they think will open up information, but instead are actually having the opposite effect. This is because they never actually talk to someone in local government to find out how to structure laws to improve release of information. So now, in my state, there is information I can no longer release, or the time and cost to release it is significantly increased. Elected officials need to stop passing laws without going through research and discovery and talking to the people who actually implement the law. It’s like we are all digging through a mountain, but they’re digging through an inaccessible area and putting their spoil in the path leading to the area where we are digging.

    Second, we don’t have tools that allow us to create an efficient work flow for us to capture, maintain, and release information. We need new software (this is where the egov helps) developed by people who really understand our work, policies, and procedures. This is something those of us in government desperately need to figure out not just to share info with citizens but even just with each other. If we can’t even share it within our organizations, how are we ever going to be able to share it with citizens?