Just the day before I take my briefing tour about government 2.0 and cloud to Arlington VA, I read about rumors that some of the web sites created in response to the Open Government Directive may be shut down due to lack of funding. These would include the IT dashboard and Data.gov, but would also touch the internal collaboration platform FedSpace and Apps.gov/now.
This could be a blow to a process that has concerned the US, but has also given inspiration to government around the world.
In the past (see here, here or here) I warned about the risk that open government initiatives may not be sufficiently focused, that the open data and government-as-a-platform movements were not taking value for money into sufficient consideration, and all these efforts had to be seen as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.
But having seen the risk where many others were praising the benefits does not give me any satisfaction. For how vulnerable to criticism they were, open government initiatives were instrumental to keep the lights on, to sustain a living laboratory where value could be discovered over time, to show that transparency and participation can ultimately solve problem.
The mistake made by those in charge for open government has been to look at it, or at least make other people perceive it, as a goal and not as a tool. This has somewhat detached it from the reality of shrinking budgets, salary freezes, possible shutdowns. Now, with e-gov budget possibly drying out, this approach is untenable.
So, should we just pull the plug and move on? Is there any way this effort can be sustained, although at a different level, as part of the normal course of business and not as a sort of R&D activity?
I believe this is possible. It takes courage and willingness to put their skin in the game by those who have been proponents and leaders so far.
Open government – and more in general government 2.0 – can help address intractable problems, which could not be solved using traditional approaches, processes, tools. So, let’s apply them to the worst problem of all, i.e. how do we make government services and operations financially sustainable?
This is not about asking people how to save money. It is about tasking employees with finding cheaper, faster solutions by applying open government principles, such as creating communities of voluntary people to address well defined issues, or finding external information and skills that can replace – temporarily or permanently – internal ones.
Every single one of the examples I use in my gov 2.0 session relates to how to save money or deal with a problem that could not be addressed otherwise. This has been done, is being done everyday, everywhere. It is a matter of mindset, shifting from a nice-to-have to a must-have attitude, reorienting open government from serving the citizen to serving government, rewarding those employees who try and succeed rather than scaring them with bans and risks.
As I wrote over a year ago, selfishness is the key success factor for open government. Be selfish, exploit open government to save money and jobs. And even the skeptics will realize this is not just about deploying technology: it is about achieving outcomes.