Deadlines are fast approaching for federal agencies to complete the initial tasks under the Open Government Directive. Publishing new data sets, opening websites, completing longer-term Open Government Plans, and dozens of others.
But notably missing is any deadline or deliverable addressing changes in agency cultures and processes. Yet every day those basic dimensions of government life influence managers and staff to resist new levels of openness. Nevertheless, staff are soon expected to:
take initiative in sharing information and creating more extensive opportunities for public involvement “throughout the decision-making process” and especially in relation to “core mission activities;”
embrace and experiment with new and unfamiliar internet technologies to open access to information, elicit public feedback and increase accountability to the public;
regularly collaborate and partner with people and organizations outside of government; and
generally “strive to incorporate the values of transparency, participation, and collaboration into the ongoing work of their agency.“
Like many bloggers, I’ve been emphasizing the need for changes in federal agency culture in order to achieve the broad goals of the OGD. Pointing to the need for culture change, however, shouldn’t imply that it’s all up to federal employees to act differently and think in more collaborative terms.
This level of change has to start with the whole system. Federal staff now live with agency cultures that often encourage them to look first at the risks of change rather than its opportunities and to choose the safety of established procedure rather than the uncertainty of innovation. Are those values changing under the influence of the Open Government Initiative, even without guidance from the OGD?
At a recent workshop on implementing the Directive, a group of federal officials brought up important cultural change issues. Despite their awareness of these problems, though, much of what they said reflected familiar assumptions about how to get things done. They seemed to convey a double message, urging innovation based in new values while imposing restrictions rooted in the old. That reflects the problem of the Open Government Initiative as a whole – trying to create a new collaborative culture by relying on current procedures and values that work against such change.
The January 11th workshop was the second in a series intended to open the process of implementation to collaborative discussion. Over 200 representatives of government agencies, open government advocates and consulting firms got together to review the early phase of agency responses to the Directive. (There’s an excellent collection of videos and background information of the workshops at the Open Government Playbook wiki site.)
The federal agencies represented were primarily the IT and public participation offices that are playing a lead role in developing the internet tools and interactive sites that the OGD requires. They showcased some of their promising work-in-progress as well as projects that are already up and running. They also brought up some of the hard problems they run into when trying to get managers and staff to embrace innovation.
One of those problems is fear. Many officials say they’re concerned about the potential misinterpretation of data by the public. Speakers mentioned that the fear of data “misinterpretation,” however, is often fear of disagreement or potential embarrassment. They urged their colleagues to think of this differently – as an opportunity to explore differences that could lead to improvement. That would mean regarding the public as a partner rather than a threat.
They also pointed to a fear of experimenting with new approaches and urged that staff develop a mindset that permitted a cycle of testing, failure and improvement. Trying new methods often involves failure, and one of the purposes of public testing and review is to gather ideas on how to make constructive changes.
It’s refreshing to know that many agencies have innovators urging new attitudes of openness. Those are important voices in any change process. The problem is that the system currently makes the fears they identify as reasonable responses to prevailing norms and values. That reality came through in other statements and presentations.
There were concerns about moving too fast, since other directives would doubtless follow, and about the lack of specificity in definitions and expectations. How far can we really go in openness? What’s the standard to guide our choices? The culture encourages an attitude of waiting for detailed orders from the top. Creativity and independent thinking don’t fit well in this system. It’s dangerous for your career if you get out in front of leadership and established policy or have your name linked to mistakes and failed projects.
These realities make people cautious, and that means implementing a sweeping new directive is likely to happen very slowly. Deadlines will be met, but the products may be sketchy, echoing general principles and laying out timelines of generic planning steps. That’s a common problem with government but another sign that speed and career safety do not go hand in hand.
At the very least, a new set of performance standards will be needed to make it safe for staff and managers alike to experiment and take a lead in innovative forms of collaboration. Those standards would also have to be modeled in the day-to day behavior and attitudes of leaders and managers at all levels.
The messages to federal agencies and staff, then, are contradictory. On the surface, the OGD says, move fast, but the culture of the system says, go slow.
Continuing to create expectations of rapid change through directives and the miracle of internet technology is bound to lead to disappointment.