The politics of open government free speech

I occasionally post critical comments when government is operating outside my definition of ‘open’ and only do so when I believe it’s important for the community at large to consider it in context of their own actions. By and large, GovFresh posts are positive, educational and, at times, congratulatory pieces that highly offset the critiques.

What’s interesting about the critical posts is that they never get much openly shared traction. You don’t see high-volume tweets or Facebook ‘Likes,’ especially when it concerns large, federal bureaucracies.

When reviewing traffic analytics on these posts, the pageviews and unique visitors traction is noticeably different than what you would expect related to social network ‘chatter.’ This is interesting, not only because it affirms email’s influence as a content sharing mechanism, but more importantly, the critiques manage to make the rounds despite the appearance otherwise. People ‘feel’ it, but won’t say it.

This is understandable. Whether you’re a government employee or contractor, the last thing you want to do is upset the 8 million pound gorilla. Not only may people in the agency be your friends, but they also hold the purse strings to significant business opportunities.

While I’m not naive, it does concern me there can’t be an open discussion about what is wrong with certain aspects of the way government does business. It’s as if we’ve scratched the surface, and that’s as far as we’re willing to go. It’s fine to superficially engage with technology and transparency leaders, deploy Web 2.0 tools and open source software, but when it comes to acknowledging the contrarian, ‘open’ suddenly becomes ‘closed.’

If you consider yourself an open government advocate or practitioner, and these critiques incense you, you can do one of two things. Either do something about it, address it publicly and move on or disregard it completely and revert back to business as usual.

Open government is the former. It’s an ideal and opportunity to fundamentally change the way government works, and if you’re incensed by it and don’t want to engage, look in the mirror and ask yourself this: ‘Am I honestly building a better government?’

I’ve had a number of conversations with colleagues inside the Beltway, and they acknowledge the dynamics. People appreciate the perspective, but they won’t openly express it.

This type of culture leads me to ask myself, “Is there a place for something like GovFresh to exist and sustainably maintain itself? Will government contractors or service providers support a blog or news site that at times is critical of its customer? Does GovFresh have to choose between watchdog or ‘play inside Beltway?’ Can you have it both ways?”

Maybe I’m too idealistic or naive to think open government means ‘open government.’ As democracy matures into a more transparent, collaborative and participatory role, I hope more people, be it government employees or contractors, feel comfortable about publicly expressing their concerns without being chastised or ostracized. I hope the leaders of these institutions, especially government, openly engage with the criticisms and set an example for others, including industry, that’s it’s OK to do the same.

If anyone can’t respect that, perhaps I’m overly-idealistic or maybe, instead of ‘two steps forward, one step back,’ we never fundamentally left square one.

Luke Fretwell is the founder of the civic innovation and technology blog GovFresh. He advises civic leaders and businesses on how to best leverage digital strategies to create more effective, collaborative governments. He has written about government IT for Federal Computer Week, NextGov, FedScoop, StateScoop and FierceGovernment, and has been referenced by the Washington Post and Fast Company on civic technology issues. He has worked with a number of government-focused companies and media, including CivicActions, NuCivic and FedScoop and has been involved in broad-focused community efforts, such as GovPress, CityCamp, CivicMeet, Agile Government Leadership and Open Source for America. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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