Open Government Plans Seek Revamp of Culture and Structure
On April 7, federal agencies released their individual plans to be more transparent, participatory, and collaborative, pursuant to the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive (OGD). The plans varied in scope and quality, but several interesting trends were noticeable. As agencies update their plans, these trends may become baselines for open government or may be abandoned, depending on how successful key agencies' plans prove to be.
While a comprehensive evaluation of the plans has not been completed, initial reviews of plans from major agencies revealed numerous interesting trends and conclusions, and this article covers five of them.
Experience and Resources
The first overall trend developed out of the wide variation that was quickly noticeable in agency Open Government Plans. While differences between the plans may seem to be the opposite of a trend, the way the plans differed was revealing. The OGD instructed agencies to pursue transparency, participation, and collaboration. The agencies that excelled and stood out in terms of the scope, detail, and innovation within their plans were those that had both the resources and the previous experience with pursuing these issues. Agencies that regularly deal with very engaged public audiences, such as those that handle issues of health and environment, took the lead here. Both the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had impressive plans that creatively sought to engage the public with new information and tools.
Fitting well into the trend with both resources and experience with engaging interested stakeholders, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) open government plan is also exceptional in terms of scope and detail. The agency provides specific goals for three months, six months, one year, and two years for all 13 ongoing activities related to open government, as well as five new initiatives and three flagship initiatives. For example, NASA lists short-term open government goals, such as updating website reading rooms within the next three months with documents for which three or more requests have been made. It also includes longer-term goals of substantially decreasing FOIA backlogs and switching over to a web-based FOIA database within the next two years.
At the other end of this trend were agencies with fewer resources and significantly less experience with open government efforts, whose plans lacked the vision and depth of their more experienced counterparts. For instance, the Small Business Administration, a smaller federal agency, selected as its flagship initiative a plan to overhaul its website. While the agency lists inclusion of mapping tools, interactive web chats, and community discussion forums on its site, the lack of details on these features leave the impression of a basic website redesign that might include one or two innovations. Similarly, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s plan frequently lacks concrete deliverables or specific details on the agency's goals, giving the impression that it is a plan to plan.
Even some of the largest federal agencies with significant resources but less familiarity with transparency had a noticeable lack of innovation. The Departments of Defense and Homeland Security contain few transparency programs unique to those agencies and rely largely on working with already existing government-wide programs, such as Recovery.gov, USAspending.gov, and the federal IT dashboard. Many of the agencies that were less experienced with transparency focused greater attention on collaboration with other agencies.
The missing details from the initial plans for some agencies might be attributable to lack of resources, lack of experience on open government issues, or lack of interest in achieving real open government changes. Only time will tell which agencies fall into which categories.
The second trend is the level of effort by numerous agencies to establish clear governance structure for the ongoing open government efforts. Several agencies realized the difficulty of simply adding the open government responsibilities to existing positions or structures, which might treat the new requirements as secondary to their more long-standing priorities. Instead, these agencies wrote into their plans whole new structures of governance to oversee implementation of the initiatives and develop future projects. Such action enables greater accountability and increases the likelihood that deliverables will be produced.
For instance, the Department of Transportation proposed what it called a "sustainable governance structure" that incorporates open government principles into "every-day principles." Included in this structure are several councils, including the Chief Information Officer Council, the Technology Control Board, and a Data.gov Group, among others. As another example, the Department of the Treasury has already convened an Open Government Steering Committee representing each of its bureaus and has established several subcommittees on data, communications, and its web presence.
The third notable trend among the plans was the effort to directly address the need for changing the climate within agencies in order to foster transparency, participation, and collaboration. The agencies that made significant effort to address these cultural changes emphasized that such a focus was important not only to achieving initial goals, but also critical to the long-term sustainability of the open government effort.
There were two common elements of culture change that many agencies included in their plans. First, several agencies sought to link openness to their core mission and goals, the theory being that if openness efforts are recognized as methods to improve agency functions, then employees will continue to pursue them without the need for requirements. The Department of the Treasury, for example, seeks to align its open government strategy with the agency’s existing strategic plan and core mission areas.
The second culture change method that seemed quite prevalent was exploring the use of awards or prizes for openness to encourage employees to embrace transparency. Making open government a part of individual recognition gives employees a personal stake in agency efforts to lift the shroud of secrecy. For instance, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is launching a Secretary’s Innovation Awards program, which will recognize and reward HHS employees who innovate how HHS operates, with those who harness transparency, participation, or collaboration being leading candidates.
The fourth clear trend was the emphasis on technology in the agency plans to address all three principles of open government – transparency, participation, and collaboration. Many agencies announced plans for wikis, new online tools, intranet forums for officials to share ideas, online dialogs with the public, and more. In the Internet age that we live in, and with the Web 2.0 revolution in full swing, this focus is understandable.
The General Services Administration stands out for its plan to develop a citizen engagement platform, as well as a challenges and prizes platform for other agencies to use in pursuit of open government improvements. The agency is also planning to further improve the idea discussion forum used by agencies to develop their Open Government Plans. Interestingly, NASA also deserves credit for pushing the technology boundaries with its flagship initiatives. Among its flagship initiatives were the plans for open source software development and the "Nebula" cloud computing platform. The technology products and leadership in innovation from these two agencies, if successful, could have significant repercussions for open government across federal agencies.
A fifth notable trend, a subset of the overall technology focus, is the increasing use of web-based dashboards to provide the public with information concerning agency progress toward certain goals that help both the agency and the public identify potential problems and solutions. Of all the information technology being proposed in the plans, the dashboards seemed to consistently get the highest profile, often listed as flagship initiatives. For instance, the Justice Department presented plans for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) dashboard to monitor and track agency progress in responding to public requests for information. The Office of Management and Budget selected enhancing its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) Dashboard, which provides information on regulatory actions, as the flagship initiative of its plan. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is also planning a dashboard that tracks research and development progress across agencies, similar in scope to the existing IT dashboard, which is part of USAspending.gov.
While dashboards are tools with great potential, they are only as good as the information within them; without substantive and detailed data, these dashboards will fail to measure up to expectations of most open government advocates.
The current Open Government dashboard on the White House’s website is a good example of a dashboard that does not yet provide metrics to make it truly informative. Currently, the Open Government dashboard simply reports compliance, progress, or non-compliance by agencies on a handful of OGD requirements. This is in sharp contrast to the flexibility and usefulness of information on the federal IT spending dashboard that identifies agency spending on technology programs and helps identify where those programs are stalled or ineffective. This same criticism can be leveled at the OIRA dashboard, which provides new graphics but no criteria on which to judge performance.