Blog post

Why Employees Are The Missing Link for Successful Open Government

By Andrea Di Maio | May 03, 2012 | 11 Comments

web 2.0 in governmentopen government data

Open government initiatives are either aimed at providing greater transparency, usually as a reaction to an accusation or perception of excessive secrecy, or at engaging citizens in specific problem solution as well as service delivery. It is probably fair to say that the US federal initiatives are closer to the former, while UK initiatives are closer to the latter.

In both cases, though, there is a fundamental lack of confidence – or blatant distrust – in the government workforce. This is rooted in a mixture of reality and perception: laziness, risk aversion, self-preservation, lack of incentives, low salaries, a culture of job security, and so forth, do not contribute to creating a pretty picture of government employees. In countries that are struggling with their finances and economy, civil servants are seen as a cost to be reduced in order to recover resources that should help reignite the economy. At the same time many agree that the retirement or dismissal of experienced government workers may make the situation even worse in areas where government services will be in greater demand going forward (think about education, social care, health care, public safety).

So are government employees an asset or a liability? I am sorry to say that most of the open government and open data ethos seem to suggest the latter. Open government advocates claim that citizens, communities, enterprises know better, that people cannot trust government to get the “whole story”, that the government workforce cannot be made more productive and effective unless slashing it.

For quite some time now I have been of a different opinion. Since when I started talking about employee-centric government, as opposed to the common wisdom of citizen-centricity, I have tried to highlight how the challenges ahead of us all were – and still are – of such a magnitude and severity that we need to work collaboratively to tackle them. This implies leveraging rather than challenging the considerable expertise that exists in the government workforce. Technology, including open data, can provide a formidable toolset to make that happen, and there are countless example where great initiatives and innovation start from inside the civil service.

Then, why is it so difficult to recognize the government workforce as one of the most relevant sources of public value, and look at how to deploy technology to unleash this value rather than to allegedly replace them?

My working assumption is that this is due to a combination of what politicians and technology suppliers want us to believe. For a politician facing voters challenged by a recession, who have lost or risk losing their jobs, it is easy to say that resources can be recovered by cutting public spending, which in turns lead to workforce reduction (since salaries are one of the highest if not the highest cost item for most departments). For technology suppliers, who face declining government budgets and often a less-than-stellar reputation about how IT has helped create public value, it is easy to say that government must spend more on self-service technology and automation to increase productivity.

Of course both claims have some merit: it would be unruly to allow public spending to run of control just to preserve civil service jobs. On the other hand, they do not support any effort to make employees not only more productive, but more innovative.

Case in point, the many idea contests that are being run to ask citizens how to address certain problems. Over the last few months even my country has been taken by an open government frenzy, and citizens are being asked about ideas for a digital agenda, or suggestions about how to reduce public spending. However it is not clear whether and how employees get involved in these discussions, either as contributors or animators. Every time I raise this is the local open government circles I get referred to the (rather stale) literature about wikinomics, wikicracy, and the likes.

Now, let’s think for a moment. Who knows best about teaching: parents or teachers? Who knows best about nursing: nurses or relatives? Who know best about public procurement: purchasing officers or technology consultants? Who knows best about policy making: cabinet staff or open data entrepreneurs? And the list goes on and on.

Yes, we can all provide input to these processes and we can help government be better and more transparent. But we cannot replace those whose job is to work for us all.

After all, isn’t this is the essence of representative democracy? We do elect individuals who will take care of the common good for all of us. Let’s help them, but let them also do their job.

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  • Mark Diner says:

    Agree – there are three necessary conditions that need to be in place for an engaged Governmen (gov 2.0)

    (1) the mission, the purpose which government wants to tackle.
    (2) a citizen-centric community that is already self organzied toward that purpose
    (3) empowered employees (we are looking at a model based on “The Learning Organization).

  • Christo says:

    An engaged public service (as oppossed to an engaged government – there is a difference) is one that sits closely with the community, not one which hides behind the bulwark of beauracracy. It isn’t one which think that it is the expert and the community should subscribe blindly to the values and services it provides.

    I have a lot of respect for teachers and their ability to coral different mind sets and abilities and to get them all thinking in the one direction for awhile, but I also have enormous respect for parents who, from day one, are teaching their child an enormous amount of things. To suggest that the teachers with their qualifications are ‘the experts’ invites a belittling of the contributions towards education by parents and as such I think inferring teachers are the experts and not parents are the experts is fallacious at best.

  • Craig says:

    I agree entirely Andrea,

    However it is often politicians who attack the public service even more than other groups.

    How do we address political attacks from Ministers or members of opposing parties that damage the reputation of the public service, and therefore the Government, in the eyes of the public?

    Also Public Service workplaces are often some of the most ‘nanny-like’ in a country, as they must serve as a best practice example of all the government’s business legislation (Privacy, OH&S, etc) plus have exceptional transparency and governance burdens they must manage.

    This approach often states to public servants (particularly at entry and at or below middle management level) that their expertise and experience isn’t valued. That it is more important to follow process than achieve good outcomes.

    This internally saps the capabilities of government, driving away some good people and subverting the goals of ‘good policy’ towards ‘good process’ (even with poor outcomes if you can demonstrate you followed the right process you are ‘safe’ as a public servant).

    I don’t argue for less transparency or less governance, however we do need to consider other ways of empowering public servants, taking people who are passionate about serving the public and helping them to achieve great outcomes – thereby reaffirming their commitment, enthusiasm, competence and the importance of good outcomes.

    We don’t get better government through better process, we get better government through better outcomes.

    This goes far beyond Gov 2.0, open data or even open government.

    Until better outcomes are supported within and visible without, and politicians stop publicly attacking public servants, it is hard for those who have never worked in public service, or who only deal with government as a customer, to appreciate and value a professional, committed and good outcome delivery focused public service.

  • Excellent post, Andrea! Thank you very much!

  • Mark, yes in an ideal world, but your thinking is a bit too influenced by “The Social Organization”. In many contexts, the employees’ collective purpose may not be totally in line with the government purpose, but could still contribute to that, and lead to innovation.

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  • Alex Howard says:

    A minor point, in the context of your posts, but an important one, regarding your assertion about open government initiatives coming “usually as a reaction to an accusation or perception of excessive secrecy.”

    With all due respect, you should be more honest here about a simple truth around the world: secrecy in government is not just a matter of “accusations” or perception. It’s a reality.

    For just one example, look at how much the American people is able to know about its national security and intelligence community. Overclassification is a huge issue, going back for decades. And that’s in a country with a constitution and Bill of Rights, FOIA law, free press and functioning court system. (Flawed though they may be, they do exist.)

    Other citizens do not enjoy such rights, institutions nor protections.

  • Andres Nin says:

    Totally agree. Politicians tend to prefer asking themselves, industry or civic society instead of civil servants. especially in this period of crisis. This happen also in the development of elements that are the cornerstone of Opengov, as the transparency laws. In the case of Spain, when the launch of the recent proposal for a new transparency law our gov have several meeting with an NGO, while no meetings with civil servants or other level of governments. The case is not an exception for other policies.

  • @Christo – I have written many times on this blog that it is key to create a virtuous circle engaging citizens and employees: it is only through thier cooperation that open government will realize its value. As far as teachers are concerned, parents are parents and not professional teachers: while they play a key role in their kids’ education, they often stand in the way of teachers tryng to do their job. Another great example of where collaboration would be essential, but with teachers and not parents setting the pace.

  • @Craig – I couldn’t agree more. Open government can be a useful tool, but just a tool.

  • @Alex – I am not saying that transparency is not a good thing and I am not so naive to believe that citizens in all jurisdictions enjoy the same level of transparency. What I am saying is that – in those countries where democracy works relatively well – there is ofdten too much emphasis on the transparency side of open government, hence overlooking some of its other advantages.
    However, also in countries whose governments do not shine in transparency, one should ask the question: is more transparency or better services and better equality that people would really cherish? Of course transparency is a tool to achieve this, but not the only one.