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In response to the Open Government Directive, federal agencies have been meeting its many deadlines, though the quality of the results at this early stage has been uneven. Next is the April 7 deadline for publishing the Open Government Plans that will guide long-term implementation for each agency.
A February workshop, sponsored jointly by federal agencies and private sector groups, took a look at dozens of ideas for these plans. Using collaborative methods, the 55 participants, about equally divided between public and private sector groups, reviewed the proposals in a series of intensive sessions and came up with a priority list. (The workshop report can be downloaded here.)
The report presents a set of strong ideas that could do a lot to keep the Open Government process on track toward meaningful change. Nevertheless, in reading them and looking through the Directive, I keep asking myself, What is Open Government really about? How will its grand principles of transparency, participation and collaboration turn into meaningful action that makes a difference in people’s lives?
I’m reminded how different the public expectations can be from those of government employees. What looks like big change from the inside may not register at all with the public. Most people, of course, will never know or care about the Open Government Directive or Open Government Plans, and most don’t have time to spend downloading data sets or finding each agency’s website in order to contribute ideas about policy.
The starting point that tends to get lost in the attention to the details of the Open Government Directive is clear enough. The public doesn’t trust government. A lot of people experience it as closed-minded, ineffective at solving problems, and inefficient and wasteful in the way it spends the taxpayers’ money.
That’s what Obama was responding to in the original Memorandum on Openness in Government. He went right to that problem and made a promise to the American people that the federal government will earn the public’s trust by:
giving people a greater voice in the decisions that directly affect their lives
solving the big social and economic problems effectively
spending money efficiently
delivering results that matter to people.
At the end of last year, the Progress Report to the American People kept that basic concept in the forefront by using examples of everyday benefits: information for travel plans, nutritional meals, response to local disasters, opportunities for small business. A seldom-mentioned document that is offered as part of the Open Government policy is A Strategy for American Innovation: Driving Towards Sustainable Growth and Quality Jobs. Open Government in that context is a chief contributor to cultivating public sector innovation as a source of sustainable growth and job creation.
That’s the sort of thing Open Government is all about. Transparency, participation and collaboration are only means to that end of unlocking innovation not just for effective and efficient government but also to spur growth. The sharing of ideas and experience should become the norm to create economic benefit, end waste and restore confidence in government.
But it doesn’t sound quite the same when translated into a directive from the Office of Management and Budget. The emphasis shifts from on-the-ground results that benefit people to the more formal steps agencies must take to satisfy a new standard of performance for openness. Granted these are some of the necessary changes inside government that make possible what the public will see outside agency walls. The Directive as a whole, though, tends to reframe the action-oriented language of the White House into terms that better fit existing agency cultures.
That worries me because the whole initiative can start to drift toward compliance with directives and business as usual. As I’ve discussed before that’s an atmosphere in which innovation carries risk, and safety lies in following detailed definitions of what each agency and manager are empowered to do. Going beyond those boundaries can get into the zone of “no good deed goes unpunished.”
That reality is captured in a key recommendation to come out of the workshops: find a way to guarantee anonymity and safety to employees who are bold enough to offer new ideas. Such protection is necessary because innovative ideas are quite likely to be taken as unwanted criticism by leadership. Good call by the workshop group, but it doesn’t sound like setting free the creative torrent of innovation that the White House expects from inside government as well as from the public as a result of the new openness.
This danger is exactly what workshop members are worried about, and their proposals try to steer implementation of the Open Government Directive toward fundamental change rather than passive compliance. Some of the strongest ideas address the need to integrate openness into long-term agency operation and decision-making. In particular, changing performance standards for staff and agencies alike would add a more lasting level of accountability than launching a website or publicizing an exemplary project.
Ongoing training for federal managers and staff is also critical, as is spending the time to ensure that program and agency leadership are really committed to action. The hope, of course, is that the various agencies will act on such ideas and not simply tuck them away in an Open Government Plan that may or may not survive the current Administration’s push for results.
The workshops are performing a great service by getting such proposals into circulation. They have much more influence than individual contributions precisely because they come from a collaborative public-private effort. It’s one that includes leading agencies like the General Services Administration and the Department of Transportation as well as influential activists, consultants and private companies. The workshop series helps build a core of agency supporters who can act as internal advocates of change while the private sector and non-governmental organizations can monitor from the outside.
The first sign of their success will be the release of the Open Government Plans for each agency in early April. The collaborative group is working hard and will reconvene shortly after the plans are out. We’ll keep watching to see what happens.