Will Open Government Policies Build Trust for Effective Collaboration?

The Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative may well be an historic step forward in meeting the goals of transparency, participation and collaboration. But the way these goals are being translated into practice – and evaluated – at least in this early phase, makes me wonder if the initiative will lead to greater accountability and trust in government.

Trust is not so much a feeling as a measured confidence in the reliability of a relationship, a confidence developed over time by fair and open behavior as well as fulfilled commitments. At a public institutional level trust can’t depend on the goodwill and promises of today’s agency leadership but has to be reflected in day to day operations and interactions with all levels of staff over time. The delivery of concrete benefits is one crucial purpose of Open Government policies, but the long-term changes in culture and procedure are what set the groundwork for trust and productive collaboration.

As this NextGov post reports, internal government factors, such as cultural resistance of some federal employees, can impede early progress. An initiative toward greater openness across the vast federal bureaucracy can’t happen overnight. Yet results tend to be measured only by immediate changes. (For example, have a look at this Washington Post article as well as this one and the White House response.)

Many fear that government agencies could look at the initiative as an exercise in check-list compliance and so rely at times on quick scorecard evaluation. That’s understandable since the public is a long way from trusting the government to meet the promise of openness, and many in government don’t trust the public to get any closer to decision-making than they already are. Given that reality, check-list and scorecard seem the only reliable ways to measure progress. But both keep the focus on details of short-term action rather than deeper and more lasting change.

But there are alternatives. K. D. Payne, for example, uses much more comprehensive methods of measuring transparency and trust relating to open government, summarized in this post. She also discusses the research of Brad Rawlins and his paper, Measuring the Relationship Between Organizational Transparency and Trust.

The underlying change that can lead to greater trust as well as concrete results is just as much about values and process as immediate delivery of benefits. As stated in the Open Government Progress Report, a major purpose of the Open Government Directive is to “instill the values of transparency, participation, and collaboration into the culture of every agency.” The Directive is intended to “hardwire accountability” into the structure and processes of federal agencies.

But the approach to hardwiring leaves a lot to be desired if the goal really is to go beyond short-term accomplishments and achieve a new default behavior built on openness and accountability. I don’t underestimate the difficulty of creating any long-term change in Washington. The intense pressure of politics and 24-hour media coverage constantly push for the quick turnaround. Nevertheless, lasting changes of default behavior have been achieved. For example, environmental review and public participation, despite short-comings, became the norms of federal decision-making over decades of increasing institutionalization.

The Open Government Directive has a very imbalanced way of beginning this process. It puts transparency about data far ahead of the other values of participation and collaboration. The latter seem to await definition through each agency’s Open Government Plan, but all the attention up front and the early standards of measuring progress are about data. Not only is there an imbalance in implementation, there is also an overly limited working definition of each of these three values and the practices based on them.

The Administration describes its approach to the three in these quotes from the Open Government Progress Report:

Transparency promotes accountability by providing citizens with information about what their government is doing and by putting government data online.
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Greater access to information about how the government does its work, drives greater citizen participation. This Administration’s commitment to public participation is based on the simple notion that many of the best ideas come from outside of Washington.
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While participation brings information to government so that officials can make more informed policy decisions, collaboration focuses on finding innovative strategies for solving challenges.

It’s certainly important to achieve all three as stated in this way. But transparency involves a lot more than publishing data, participation more than getting ideas from the public and collaboration more than coming up with innovative strategies for solving problems.

Let’s take the principle of transparency since that is the primary focus of the initiative at this point. Data sets are a start but not enough to achieve accountability. To quote from Brad Rawlin’s research:

Therefore, transparency is defined as having these three important elements: information that is truthful, substantial, and useful; participation of stakeholders in identifying the information they need; and objective, balanced reporting of an organization’s activities and policies that holds the organization accountable.
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Transparency cannot meet the needs of the stakeholders unless public agencies know what they need. Therefore, stakeholder participation elevates disclosure to transparency. Stakeholders must be invited to participate in identifying the information they need to make accurate decisions.

Transparency also requires accountability. Transparent organizations are accountable for their actions, words, and decisions, because these are available for others to see and evaluate. It requires that persons in transparent organizations contemplate their decisions and behaviors, because they will most likely have to justify them before an open court of opinion.

The Administration has a long way to go in achieving transparency in this larger sense, but this is what’s necessary to build public trust in government. It may be far more than anyone can expect, given the constant barrage of crises the White House has to deal with. But the Open Government documents themselves have created high expectations, and, if they can be met, a collaborative approach to public decisions could become the new standard.

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