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.
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