Transparency is Dead. Long Live Transparency.

As sovereign power passes to the new king upon the death of the old, so do I propose that Ellen Miller’s proclamation that “the drive for data transparency has stalled” [Speech video 0:49 ] yields a pursuit for transparency and open government that is filled with renewed vigor – and new perspectives.

While I agree that enshrining mandates for data transparency and open government principles in law would be the easy way to ensure that they continue in perpetuity, I don’t believe that it’s the best way to forward the movement.

In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that open government will only be accomplished by:

  1. Relegating transparency to an equal position with participation and collaboration.
  2. Building civic responsibility in citizens.
  3. Changing government culture.

Relegating transparency

Transparency has enjoyed a special (and dominant) place in the open government movement such that I feel as though I speak sacrilege when I say it is a false god. Now don’t get me wrong, I love transparency and completely agree that it is a necessity for open government. But transparency alone is not enough.

I say it’s a false god because the real goal is accountability. Transparency is only the lens through which accountability can be determined. Once data is verified, or a transgression is uncovered in the data, what do we do? Well today, we announce it publicly and expect the appropriate agency to respond out of fear and embarrassment.

There has to be a better way!

Enter participation and collaboration. How nice would it be if every time a transgression was discovered, there was a reliable way to not only ensure that the information could get to the people within government that could fix it (participation); but in addition, if the various offices and individuals that were responsible had the ability to work together to actually solve the problem (collaboration).

Sounds kinda like a fairy tale or a children’s story, doesn’t it?

But I believe that is what we’re pursuing – we don’t want a government that we can monitor, we want a government that we can monitor and that’s responsive to our needs and input as citizens.

Building civic responsibility

The Open Government movement has largely been focused on what all these cool new technologies are enabling – and that makes perfect sense. In order to utilize any tool, you have to understand it first; and in order to understand it, you have to play with it. We’ve been doing that.

Now however, we seem to have moved to another plateau. There are a lot of conversations about what the goal of the movement actually is. For me, it’s about a sea change in the relationship between citizens and government in the United States of America. I grew up with no concern for, nor belief in anything the federal government or any representatives said or did. Unfortunately, this is more the norm than the exception today.

I see the Open Government movement as a panacea for the ills of our current government system. The technology creates the possibility of a government like the one taught in our childhood civics classes – the American Dream: all people are equal and live in a true meritocracy that is fairly governed by a system that perfectly balances service provision and minimal interference in the lives of its citizens, enabling each and every one to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in whatever way they choose to define that.

As soon as I realized that this fantasy is driving my involvement in the movement, I also saw a flaw in the fantasy. Where is civic responsibility in this idyllic vision we were raised with? Does the average American want to sign up for selective service, pay taxes, serve on a jury, vote, or even serve as a representative in government? Of course not! We’re all good with the life-liberty-and-pursuit-of-happiness-greatest-country-in-the-world thing, but you can keep the rest of it – thanks, but I’ve got other things to do.

Now, you and I can pretend that this isn’t part of what we do. We work on technology implementation and adoption. We’re revolutionizing government. Right?

Unfortunately, a transparent, participatory, and collaborative government isn’t worth much if no one looks at the data, participates, or collaborates with it! If you haven’t realized this yet, open government is actually going to add more civic responsibility to an already jaded and apathetic citizenry. What are we going to do about that?

Oh. And don’t fool yourself that there will always be watchdog groups that are passionate about specific issues. These groups are merely a proxy for citizens, and their legitimacy rests on being able to engage a broad constituency.

To make a long story short, if you’re working in this space and your strategic plan doesn’t include some means of empowering, impassioning, or educating citizens on why they should care, you’re missing something.

Changing government culture

I simply don’t believe that mandating open government will result in open government. Granted, without President Obama creating the climate in which change can occur, it would be much more difficult than it is currently, but that has already happened. The political cover necessary for drastic change has been laid out.

What is required is the laborious process of changing government culture. I will not claim to be an expert on agency open government plans, but I was looking at NASA‘s the other day and was pleasantly surprised by their three flagship initiatives: Policy, Technology, and Culture. That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? If you can change those three things, you can successfully implement open government internally. I do think there is an order that needs to be followed here however (and you’ll notice that culture gets the limelight):

  1. Technology needs to be understood. I’m not going to talk much about this because this is mostly what we’ve all been doing so far. Nonetheless, technology creates opportunities and in order to leverage them, you need to understand how it works and what it’s capable of.
  2. Culture needs to change. The first step is figuring out what the change is that you’re trying to bring to fruition (I think the Open Government movement’s current introspection that I referenced in the previous section is a form of this). In keeping with the principles of the movement, it’s probably good to do this in a way that is transparent, participatory, and collaborative – with the civil servants that will be directly affected as well as all stakeholders, be they at other agencies, organizations, or actual citizens. There is no better way to lead than by example. The exciting part of this is that the process itself will also set the change in motion. (for more detailed cultural change hints, Lovisa Williams recently wrote a great post about effective culture change within an agency called The Elephant of Change).
  3. Policies will need to change to support the new technologies and culture. That is their job after all – to provide a structure that produces reliably consistent results. I would encourage policy changes to be liberal when providing more freedoms and very conservative when creating restrictions. This is a time for trial and error, and (where appropriate) the mantra of ‘fail early, fail often’ will actually help to shorten the transition period. At that point, it will be possible to create intelligent policies that are crafted not only with the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, but also with all of the benefits that the open government movement will have brought to government.

In my estimation then, the key to successful Open Government implementation is a focus on changing the culture of your agency or department or office to be transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Exactly what that means in your specific case is where the complexity lies, and most likely you’ll get it at least partly wrong the first couple of times you try to figure it out. It doesn’t matter – mitigate the risks, fail where you can afford to, and move on. This is how transitions work, and if we are proactive about our intentions, maybe we can build that idyllic country that we grew up believing in – although with responsible and engaged citizens that make it even better and ensure its longevity!

About Wayne Moses Burke

I'm the Executive Director of the non-profit Open Forum Foundation in Washington, DC. I spend my life thinking about how technology is changing the relationship between citizens and their governments, and working to facilitate this change as quickly as possible and in a civil manner. The majority of my work thus far has been focused on Congress, but I have also been heavily involved in the Gov2.0 and Open Government movements. Outside of that, I love good food, meeting people, and bicycling. This year, I have successfully completed two triathlons and surprised myself by enjoying them! You can also find me on our website, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

12 Responses

  1. You make a strong case here, Wayne. I look forward to reading the other reactions.

    You mention, “the key to successful Open Government implementation is a focus on changing the culture of your agency or department or office to be transparent, participatory, and collaborative.”

    Perhaps the best way to change culture is to help people experience a different one. Helping federal managers experience a highly collaborative culture during the Open Gov Community Summits has become our focus, so that they can carry these techniques back to the workplace.

    The next workshop at the EPA on Sept 24th will use an evolving model of working groups that meet online and in-person. If any of the readers here are interested in building some of the knowledge infrastructure for the open gov community, they are welcome to join in:
    http://september-opengov-workshop.eventbrite.com/

  2. Mike Kondratick

    This is an excellent post Wayne. The one additional thing I would add to your key for success in changing culture, broadly stated, is communication.

    It’ll be imperative that the advancements made possible by open government, that improve the average citizen’s life immeasurably, are consistently emphasized by all stakeholders–most importantly elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels. That should slowly build the interest in the participatory government you discuss in your post and drive demand for policy changes that further open government.

  3. Mike Kondratick

    Wayne…fair point on assuming the communication. What I’ve noticed in the county where I live is that managing communication beyond the really engaged citizens–the people that discuss and argue over every issue–is really lacking. And, because of that, the number of those influencing the decisions of local elected officials and staff is really small and it’s easy for policy to follow a less-than-optimal path.

    Each locality probably needs a moment like described by David Eaves from the Gov 2.0 summit with the Vancouver trash pick-up. Until people ‘get-it’ like that, I don’t think you can hope to drive the participation/collaboration that’s needed from the citizenry. Having a larger number of people interested at the beginning would significantly alter the way the decisions are made, particularly at the local level (where politicians count votes in handfuls).

    I should have probably been more specific and noted that the ‘communication strategy’ is an imperative.

  4. Interesting post… I guess open data and open government aren’t quite the same thing, which is why its useful to think about how the release of data fits in with other policies like Freedom of Information.

    I suspect that just releasing data is not enough to meet goals related to accountability or ‘armchair auditing’ (though they can meet other goals like increasing trust in the political process, supporting the economy and helping to drive up standards in public services).

    To understand some types of data, you really do need to know what the government has done with it, how the data was used in policy development, etc and then be able to challenge the interpretations given to it by politicians and officials. For other types of data, like spending, you need to know the framework in which it was spent to understand if it was really value for money in any way.

    So the need to put information into the bigger picture is why I think you are spot on about the need to change the culture of government.

    PS. Have posted a few thoughts about open data in the UK here.

  5. Andrea Schneider

    Great Post Wayne!
    I needed to see this today, it’s a boost to my perception of what is needed to create sustainable Open Government change. I was recently invited to be a guest blogger for Sunlight Foundation on Web 2.0 and Open Government. It’s been rejected for what I think is too much focus on the Open Government Directive, as a framework combining elements of the whole and not Open Government as a movement similar to the Civil Rights Movement, yes these were the words used.

    I titled it Web 2.0 ≠ Open Government. I know I may not have it all clearly articulated, but I do believe I see an alignment with what you are saying.

    I want to post it for comments and feedback. I am not a sensitive author. My basic premise is there is a ton we have to unpack, define, support and integrate for Open Government to thrive.

    Gov. 2.0 ≠ Open Government Directive

    I love the Open Government Directive. It has ignited my imagination and provided a long needed platform for transparency, collaboration, participation and accountability in government.

    The construct of President Obama’s Open Government Directive outlines what we need to do to create a more transparent and accountable government, one which actively seeks to increase citizen participation and leverage resources through collaboration. It’s an active not passive Directive which could shift how government does business in fundamental ways.

    When each idea is clearly defined, including what each part would “look” like if done well, this shift would be revolutionary. If we define the myriad of ways to implement the Directive, with corresponding and unified standards against which to measure, we could create a concrete “road-map” for change.

    While the core concepts aren’t new, the technology is very, very new. It’s a game changer. How we mix the Directive’s fundamental ideas with the new technology is getting worked out daily. Everyday new questions emerge, more is written and possibilities expanded. With enough support we are witnessing a national paradigm shift unfold.

    Until now promoting these core ideas, has been done independently, in many sectors and fields of discipline. Certainly not pulled together by a Presidential Directive under which these ideas can function as interrelated and co-dependent initiatives. If we take advantage of this rare convergence in thinking and time, between developments in government, the private sector and the nonprofit sector, we can institutionalize new and innovative strategies for a total re-design in the government sector.

    Our success depends on sorting out the best work, creating clear standards for success, getting the buy in from leadership, in multiple sectors over time, and ultimately the ability to convert our offline culture into one which integrates online technology for people of all ages. The Directive has to be compelling to a range of organizations, not seen as another “assignment” by a new administration, easy come, easy go, and have teeth beyond the seduction of the possible. The “what is it” question has to be answered to a broader audience.

    The novel use of technology is the new“magic” allowing us to see a bigger picture, who is working with who, who is funding what, who is influencing our leaders, how our towns report problems, share big and small ideas, build relationships with people we’ve never met and hopefully document and demonstrate results. A big challenge is getting people to care enough to use all this information, and make it a part of their everyday lives. Behind “what is it” is “so what”?

    This dramatic movement for change, occurring at breakneck speed because of Presidential leadership and technology, is both a tremendous opportunity for substantive transformation, and simultaneously, for big failure.

    The easiest part is generating the initial excitement, the much harder part is what follows this enthusiasm into concrete action, documented results, and sustainability. Putting meat on the bones by defining the concepts and on the ground practice, using previous experience to support emerging best practices, and building organizational capacity to carry out these initiatives, are critical challenges.

    This fast track metamorphosis is pushing our expectations higher than they have a right to be at the moment. Have we conducted the needed organizational assessments so agencies can even do the expected work? We express surprise when many of the new federal web site attempts, to incorporate these new Directives, are disappointing and the data is sloppy? Why? What assumptions are we making about capability or availability of data no one has been asked for before? The “why not” have this data is another good question.

    The translation between the words of the Directive into corresponding practice is hard, takes time and doesn’t match current organizational norms and culture in government.

    Why do we expect our federal, state and local governments to suddenly be so nimble and flexible? Working behind the scenes, with “boots on the ground” who are the champions for change? Are they strong enough and powerful enough to keep pushing this change? Who is teaching and supporting our federal, state and local agencies and employees to collaborate, be innovative, take risks and try out new ideas? Up until recently there have been few rewards for this type of initiative.

    A main vehicle for the distribution of money for programs is through grant programs. It’s one natural place for the Open Government Directive to be implemented. Yet, how many grant programs have integrated the core ideas of the Open Government Directive, and the new technology, into their grant announcements? How many have revised how reporting systems work or evaluation takes place concretely? Are technical assistance and training workshops for grantees including this new direction? How many agencies have ever collaborated on their grants to get a bigger bang for their buck? I’m guessing not many. That’s a tragedy in my opinion.

    We have an increasing number of impressive outside organizations like the Sunlight Foundation, City Camp, Code for America, OpenPlans, etc., emerging with a basic focus on the use of technology for transparency, collaboration, participation, and accountability. Some are moving towards a stronger focus on technology in state and local government, depending on salaried government employees and community volunteers to sustain the change. Do we need more paid people and expertise to pull this off? Why would we depend on community volunteers for something so important and difficult to do? Noble as volunteering is in our country, how are we bringing the needed expertise into the system to stay and develop, with citizens and employees, the long term implementation for change?

    We are involved in the very organic process of change. It stimulates many good questions as we move towards solutions. Who do we need as partners in this grand experiment? Who are the leaders and how did they evolve? What are we doing to increase public understanding of these new endeavors? Who is left out of this new direction?

    How are we communicating with the general public, so they feel included, capable of participating and not “stupid”? These initiatives are very technology dependent, yet many Americans are not savvy, or maybe don’t care, about the use of this new technology. Even savvy people are learning something new everyday, discovering how to make it better. How are all these new agencies and groups working together or are they all doing their own “thing”? Maybe it doesn’t matter and it will all sort itself out.

    I want the Open Government Directive to wildly succeed. I want it to not only make sense to a few people, I want it to make sense to everyone. I want to unleash our creative potential and desire to participate in our government. I want us to have the patience to stay with it, even when it’s hard and media attention is gone. I want the benefits of the Open Government Directive and the tools of Gov. 2.0 to be clear.

    While we are all still so new in this endeavor is the perfect time to put in place the values and qualities we need to succeed. Not later as an afterthought. We have to explain how this initiative will benefit Americans.

    The Executive Branch must pay serious attention to the federal agencies and their capacity to change internally and externally. Do these federal agencies have the tools, knowledge, leadership and ability to do the job? If not, let’s make sure they do, otherwise we can’t complain. I want to see new directions in action, beyond new websites, into grant programs and other ways of disseminating change throughout the country. I want to know about it.

    We have a challenge to go deeper as we go wider, now. The Open Government Directive can be a legacy initiative of our time. Gov. 2.0 is an integral tool in the mix, but it is only one part of a more complex formula for current change. We will miss this opportunity if we mix up the use of technology as if it is the Open Government Directive.
    @communitywins (Twitter)

  6. e. tyna coles

    Thanks Wayne, you have recharged my batteries for this assignment, your article was an eye-opener. It is really hard to move things forward when you are a committee of one. I am concerned about how technology is changing the relationship between citizens and their governments but also how it is changing the relationship we have with one another. Do you have any good resources on the person to person changes that are taking place because of the increased use of technology? How can I use technology this to shock my colleagues out of inertia? Technology in the work place seems to have the turkey effect on people, it puts them to sleep or certainly is so overwhelming that they are moved to inaction. Thanks.

Comment