The Open Government Directive & Changing Federal Agency Culture

Will federal agencies really become more fully transparent, participatory and collaborative, as the Obama Administration’s Open Government Directive promises? Hopes are high among advocates of the new policies that such practices will become the standard across the government.

Turning that hope into the reality of a federal world of collaborative organizations, however, poses a vast problem of culture change. The Directive, admittedly just a first step, only hints at the scope of that effort. Its section on institutionalizing a culture of Open Government does not go far enough.

Although much of the Directive and the extensive public input process that preceded it focus on new methods and technologies for access to data and the online platforms for public participation, new technologies don’t automatically lead to agency responsiveness to the public and willingness to dialogue on major issues.

Collaboration is the key dimension that brings government and citizens together for dialogue on data, policies and legislative proposals. That also requires different values and mindset about relating to the non-governmental world. Beth Noveck, now Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government, wrote in her influential book, Wiki Government:

Over the long term, merely exhorting agency directors to incorporate more technology and conduct pilot programs is not enough. Personnel must be distributed throughout the organization who can seed innovation from the bottom up. (p. 164)

The Directive relies on a top-down approach, and that is one essential dimension of change. Government employees need to know that there is full support and commitment to a collaborative approach from the highest levels. To achieve effective implementation, though, it’s also necessary to start with the present attitudes of federal managers and staff.

A recent survey of their existing attitudes toward the principles of the Open Government Initiative indicates that there is a lot of work to be done. As summarized at NextGov.Com, the survey showed that a majority of the managers polled believed that current levels of public participation and accessible data were just what they should be. Most also were using the conventional technologies of the first web generation, web sites and email newsletters as one-way forms of communication with the public, rather than the newer, interactive technologies.

Many agencies currently do not permit employees to access social media sites through government computer networks because their use is regarded as personal rather than professional. Only a minority of managers themselves use these more interactive tools on their own time, and most of that use is personal.

The majority of managers also give the highest priority to data security issues, and 74% believe that opening their networks to social media for collaborative discussion poses a security threat – along with blogging and email. Security, of course, is a valid concern, but publicly accessible platforms operate outside government firewalls. Those used by federal employees are, of course, limited in access. Opening secure networks does not seem at all necessary. Whether or not use of these technologies must pose a threat needs to be rooted in fact, not assumption.

Common attitudes like these among federal managers need to change if they are to establish collaborative models for their staff. Government employees across all agencies, however, not only need leadership but also a more enduring signal in the form of performance standards for fulfillment of their responsibilities. Will they be recognized for their contributions to Open Government principles or will the existing standards still dominate their thinking?

In that respect, I’m reminded of work I did with one of the federal resource management agencies a number of years ago. The increased use of public consultation and cooperation was a new policy from Washington, but staff understood that this policy did not affect job evaluation in a formal way. The record of enhancing commodity production was the key criterion for success. If a manager could succeed on the production side while also collaborating more with the public, that was a bonus on the record. But agency priorities at the performance level had not really changed. That shouldn’t happen with the Open Government Directive.

It is not yet clear how new requirements will be reflected in expectations about the performance of employees. There is a section in the Directive suggesting the use of incentives to reward innovative ideas and practices, but that sort of “prize” approach does not address the more fundamental expectations about how staff will be evaluated for their overall engagement in collaboration.

One of the proposals prepared during the public collaboration phase of the Open Government Initiative outlines a strategy for dealing with this issue. Joseph P. Goldman, Vice-President of Citizen Engagement at America Speaks, proposed putting responsibility for this phase of implementation with the President’s Management Council, an entity created by the Clinton Administration as part of its sweeping government performance review.

This recommendation speaks not only to management and performance dimensions but also to the fact that the Council’s members are deputy secretaries and directors of the major departments and agencies. Working with leadership at this level gives the entire effort an important boost in credibility for implementation.

The proposal calls for the creation of workgroups to address, among several other priorities, the development of “performance measures that recognize and validate effective actions, innovations and policies.” It also goes into the need for building collaborative capacity to put values into practice. Among its recommendations:

  • Define competencies needed

  • Develop a shared vocabulary and knowledge base

  • Develop training requirements addressed by the Office of Personnel Management’s various training centers (including collaborative training through inter-agency efforts)

  • Ensure efforts are multi-disciplinary

  • and provide incentives to reward federal employees who successfully implement the Open Government Directive.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is charged with preparing guidance on providing incentives for adoption of the new practices. That’s the next major opportunity for the Administration to put the spotlight on real culture change and how to achieve it. I believe that all those who have worked hard on Open Government policies need to pay just as much attention to the less glamorous but equally important step of making new practices the norm of action as well as policy.

As Nancy Sciola observes: “… the White House is betting some of the Open Government Initiatives success on a cultural revolution to take place inside agencies. The open question on open government: what will it take to get a United States federal government that has a momentum towards secrecy to shift its orientation to one of transparency, participation, and collaboration? Is betting on that shift taking place a reasonable gamble?”

That’s a question everyone interested in the future of the Open Government Directive should be asking.

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9 Responses to “ The Open Government Directive & Changing Federal Agency Culture ”

  1. Great post, John. You’ve introduce many key points on OGD adoption.

    Cultural resistance may be the single biggest barrier to collaboration in large organizations. The Federal Government is no exception, and is quite possibly the toughest hill to climb of all. OGD has the promise of a more accessible, engaged, and in the end, effective Federal Government. It’s hard to argue w/ that vision. But it’s also hard to comprehend the work required to change the status quo. In some cases, making OGD meaningful requires a paradigm shift in how Government works.

    As you and Nancy point out, simply betting on culture change won’t be enough. You’ve laid out a series of steps that could help create alignment. It’s a sensible place to start. And I’m intrigued by the recent emergence of agency blogs, a place to host agency-specific OGD dialogs. These will be even more valuable as they move beyond one-way “broadcast” of information (Web1.0 approach) to truly engage w/ and react to their unique set of stakeholders (Web2.0/Gov2.0).

    Frankly, I think Open Government is a great idea. But we need to ask the right questions:

    1. To what degree are the agencies bought-in?
    2. Do they agree on the target end state?
    3. Does everyone agree on the scope of work ahead?
    4. What do we gain/lose w/ an aggressive OGD timetable?

    It’s a new era of transparency. For that, there’s no time like the present.

  2. John, this is a great post that gets to the core of how to make the OGD a true success. Executive leadership within the agencies need to understand and embrace the cultural shift required to align their operations to meet Open directives. OMB should move away from “green light” scorecards that reward tactical implementations and instead reward agencies who demonstrate true cultural change.

  3. Thanks, Chris –

    You’re so right about cultural resistance as the key barrier. Some change management folks don’t like the “r” word and prefer to say, that’s just where the organization is, and that’s where we start. Either way, it’s the same, and I think it will take a lot of time for a different habit of mind to take hold – maybe the wave of boomer retirement too ;-). I’m working on another post now as follow up about some of the mechanisms I’ve seen in the past to introduce and institutionalize new values. Collaboration, though, is much more sweeping and gets to more basic assumptions that adding a new consideration to decision-making, like environmental justice.

    Your questions are also right on. Those are the buy-in questions that don’t seem to have been asked. For example, it’s hard for me to get to the OGD from the March federal employee ideas.

    Let’s hope the OMB guidance goes a lot further in this direction.

    By the way, those steps I outlined paraphrase Joe Goldman’s June proposal. I hope I made that clear in the post!

    John

  4. Thank you, Christine –

    I agree on OMB. This is a key opportunity for them to get beyond tactics. I hope they’re listening to the right people.

    Thanks for your comment.

    John

  5. Very well-researched and argued post. I think you’ve identified a key problem with the Open Government Directive – it’s a top-down approach, one of many directives that agency heads receive on matters great and small. It also probably conflicts with other directives they’ve received to tighten up network security.

    I think a better approach would be to empower staff who already are working on making government more accessible. Support them and give them the freedom to develop web sites, Facebook pages, data feeds and other interactive tools. This would mean removing barriers – such as bans on social media – and recognizing and rewarding innovation.

  6. Thanks for the feedback, John, we’re on the same page. I’m doing a deeper dive on culture also, as input to a coming workshop, and continue to explore the dynamics of collab/community on my blog. Let’s stay in touch. Would love to sync up on our findings.

    Btw, an early takeaway for driving culture change is the need to model the desired future state –

    Alex Pinto (@OhMyGov) recently took the time to highlight & evaluate nine FED blogs that stand out from the crowd: http://bit.ly/povOGD2 and he indicates three of them .. TSA, State and EPA .. already include interaction with the public.

    I think that should be OGD news. Early wins and examples need to be highlighted. Is somebody keeping track of progress on OGD compliance?

  7. Hi, Joe –

    Sorry to be so late responding – I fully agree about empowering staff. The latest post, though, offers two sides to that approach. Hope you’ll have a look.

    There are so many barriers to deal with, both in directives and regulations on security, privacy et al. They have reserved a lot of room for narrowing data under these standards, and a lot will depend on OMB’s guidance. I think it will come down to agency leadership’s willingness to work collaboratively, release data, and the rest.

    Thanks for commenting.

    John

  8. Hi, Chris –

    I like the desired future state idea – right now the goals for the future are vague, and the focus is on the immediate specifics only. The problem I’ve run into is the definition of the future state turns into a set of standards that are all agencies look at – let’s meet those and we’re OK. But something should be done to get beyond value and mission statements. Right now expectations of the public advocates are sky-high and agencies not sure what will be expected after meeting the 120 requirements.

    I’ve worked with and followed EPA for many years as a public policy mediator and facilitator. They have defined the cutting edge in dispute resolution and public involvement for some time. Their websites on these matters are great resources – I’ve always found plenty of data access there as well. Under Bush, though, a lot of the data was pulled back. Some reports were pulled for political reasons. Hopefully, that’s getting back online.

    I hope some of your workshop material – or at least the thinking that goes into it – will be available.

    John

  9. John,

    All the material on culture will be posted via blog (at least 2 posts planned) prior to the March workshop; that way, comments can vet my thinking and enrich it. Happy to cite contributors when I present. That way, the workshop itself is getting the latest and greatest, and we have a chance to drive new thinking. I’m not a fan of talking heads (especially when one of them is mine) or decks that are little more than an issues list.

    Thanks for reinforcing EPA’s historical & blog OG leadership. I may need to come back to them and/or you for more success stories. One part of modeling the future is looking at what’s been working, and doing more of it –

    Are you in DC for the OGI conference in May? Maybe I’ll see you there.

    Now, off to read your OGD post #2. Refilling coffee first, will need a venti for this one 😉

    Chris