The Open Government Directive & Changing Federal Culture – 2

As a mediator, I have this annoying habit of taking all sides of an issue seriously. Further, as a colleague once put it to me, people in our line of work need to combine optimism about outcomes with cynicism about motives. So I thought I’d offer doses of both in looking at the brighter and darker prospects for the federal agency culture change promised in President’s Open Government Directive.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, without fully cooperative staff and management at all levels, especially beyond the ranks of White House and other political appointees, the entire initiative can become an exercise in mechanical, even reluctant compliance.

The Directive points to the requirement of Open Government Plans as a primary method of instilling the values of transparency, participation and collaboration throughout each agency. That can be a major step but hardly sufficient, given the scope of the task. Plans can set the tone for future change, especially if they’re the product of committed leadership and significant employee input. That process itself can serve as a model of collaboration, and plans can build on that example to create new performance mandates and expectations.

The long list of deadlines, actions and deliverables (more than 70 by one count) can also begin to induce change by getting staff used to meeting the new standards. Culture change, in fact, does happen gradually, rather than as a result of a burst of directives from the top down. New practices and values are at first eagerly embraced by the early adopters – those already committed to change. Others follow in time as the new methods and attitudes actually help them do their jobs, while many will comply with indifference only because it’s required. Setting tight deadlines forces the process to get going.

The primary purpose of those deadlines, though, is the need to show quick results. Having created expectations of rapid adoption of these practices, especially during the campaign, the Administration faces demands for immediate action to prove the sincerity of political commitments. Despite this demand, no one will be satisfied unless staff in charge of data and participation cooperate fully. Employee values and attitudes are critical for consistent results, yet federal staff don’t find a place for their contributions in the Directive, except as the soldiers following orders from above.

The comparable Australian Government 2.0 effort has explicitly emphasized the central role of employee participation in its draft report:

Agencies should support employee-initiated innovative Government 2.0 based proposals that create, or support, greater engagement and participation with their customers, citizens and/or communities of interest in different aspects of the agency’s work. They should create a culture that gives their staff an opportunity to experiment and develop new opportunities for engagement from their own initiative, rewarding those especially who create new engagement/participation tools or methods that can quickly be absorbed into the mainstream practice that lifts the performance of the department or agency.

We have yet to see how that will work in practice, but there is an example of employee-centered culture change in this country’s relatively recent experience. Here’s Bill Clinton introducing the National Performance Review (NPR) in 1993.

Our goal is to make the entire Federal Government both less expensive and more efficient, and to change the culture of our national bureaucracy away from complacency and entitlement toward initiative and empowerment. We intend to redesign, to reinvent, to reinvigorate the entire National Government.

… We will turn first to Federal employees for help. They know better than anyone else how to do their jobs if someone will simply ask them and reward them for wanting to do it better.Remarks by President Clinton Announcing the Initiative to Streamline Government March 3, 1993

Throughout the eight years of the NPR, later renamed the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, culture change was identified as a critical element. Federal employees needed to learn new levels of efficiency (do more with less), adopt entrepreneurial attitudes toward the “business” of government and reframe dealings with the public in terms of service to customers. The method was to combine committed and energetic leadership with employee initiative.

Here’s the way it worked at the Bureau of Reclamation, at least according to a highly promotional status report of 1994 (no assurance of accuracy here, but the idea is a good one):

What the commissioner has launched is, in essence, a culture change, one that transcends jurisdictional boundaries and encourages employees to think creatively about how to do their jobs better. At his initiative, teams of workers developed all of the bureau’s new organizational structures, work processes, and implementation plans.

To increase staff input, [Commissioner Dan] Beard distributes what he calls “How Am I Doing?” cards. On one side is a series of questions about intra-bureau communication, cooperation, empowerment, and recognition and rewards. The other side, under the heading “Make A Difference–Talk Back to Dan,” asks staffers for their ideas and for suggestions about what they would like to see more or less of. He has received more than 700 responses, each of which he answers.

… To encourage his senior managers to take risks, Beard gave them “forgiveness coupons” that they can cash in upon making a mistake. (“It is easier to get forgiveness . . . than permission,” they read.)

Forgiveness coupons sound great and typify the optimistic attitude toward culture change. Install the right leadership, unleash staff creativity and implement their ideas, and then culture change follows. There is no question that this approach can work well. Employees need recognition and reward for their effort, and leadership needs to know how to make use of their contributions. Changes happen because they make sense to the people who are responsible for putting the new policies into practice.

OK, that’s the optimistic view of the outcome – it’s all about voluntary collaboration. The cynical – or just realistic – view takes a harder look at motives. There was a far less voluntary side to the emphasis on staff initiative in the NPR. Al Gore put it bluntly in another early statement: “We must reward the people and ideas that work and get rid of those that don’t.”

If employees, especially managers, didn’t demonstrate inventiveness about cutting budgets and “doing more with less,” there was a real possibility that they could be reinvented out of a job and their offices disappear in reorganization. In fact, as budgets were reduced, federal agencies dropped more than 425,000 positions, consolidated hundreds of field and district offices and stripped authority from others. That was a clear message and provided a strong motive.

This example touched on an aspect of federal agency culture that never gets into the language of directives and press releases. A 2004 post on the Government Executive.Com blog by Brian Friel of the National Journal reported that, for all the talk of a federal agency culture, he could identify only one defining cultural factor shared across the great diversity of federal agencies: politics and the fear it engendered.

“Do not get out in front of the secretary/director.” That’s one key rule that one former federal executive said governs behavior. Another is the understanding of operating in a fish bowl and the realization that their actions might appear on the front page of The Washington Post the next day.

Politics, managers said, trickles down through the bureaucracy as fear. “The fear is the fear of powerful others [managers, Congress, stakeholders] that might be displeased about anything at any time,” explained a federal management analyst. “Fear that careers will be affected, programs will lose funding, one will be marginalized and therefore will not be able to apply one’s abilities to any effect. The cultural effects include indecisiveness, suppression of surfacing issues, little open dialogue and withholding of information.”

Behaviors like these are not just the result of inertia, old school attitudes or personal unwillingness to give up control. They may be partly that, but they are also reasonable responses to conditions far beyond the control of career civil servants.

This bleak assessment doesn’t bode well for the current effort at culture change, since politics ensures a regular shift in priorities and values at the top. As a federal employee under Clinton-Gore, you reinvented and served customers. Under Bush, you shut the doors in the name of national security. Under Obama, you’ll fling them open in the name of democracy. Through it all, you cooperate with the trend or face the consequences.

If it’s true that politics is the overriding force influencing agency culture and behavior, who’s going to change that?

People become politically active because they want their values and policies to control government, especially its employees. There will always be tension between those emphasizing the need for top-down control to get quick results and those who see the need for collaboration by all the key participants in change. That’s no less true when the values and practices in question are themselves collaborative.

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2 Responses to “ The Open Government Directive & Changing Federal Culture – 2 ”

  1. John, it seems that there are similarities between this effort and those efforts aimed at making federal websites accessible. Those efforts eventually led to the enactment of Section 508 of the Disablities Act. There was much optimism that the 508 guidelines would lead to standards-based, accessible websites across the federal government. More so, agencies not in compliance faced the threat of lawsuits. 10 years into that effort the results are mixed, at best. I can only imagine the results had there been no legal requirement to make sites accessible.

    Do you know of any legal mandate (beyond FOIA) that will actually drive the adoption of those tools, technologies, and methods encouraged by the Open Government initiative?

  2. Hi, Doug –

    I’m not aware of laws that can drive implementation of the OGD specifically, though most federal laws have provisions about public participation to some extent. Those would not be much help in moving into a much more interactive relationship between agencies and public. Perhaps there will be proposed legislation, but one of the difficulties is the vagueness of the three principles when it comes to trying to measure success. At this point, there could be requirements about plans, data publishing and technical capabilities, but it is easy to satisfy the mechanical requirements without establishing a new standard of genuinely collaborative interaction with the public and among agencies. The analogy with 508 implementation is interesting and doesn’t bode well – to cite just one example that I encountered myself – the state university where I most recently worked only developed website standards for accessibility in the last year, largely spurred by litigation. I agree it’s hard to see the push for federal agencies on open gov, especially after this administration is gone.

    Thanks for coming by —

    John