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The Open Government Directive & Changing Federal Agency Culture

From John Folk-Williams’s blog Cross Collaborate

Fixing US 300x281 The Open Government Directive & Changing Federal Agency Culture

Will federal agencies really become more fully transparent, participatory and collaborative, as the Obama Administration’s Open Government Directive promises? Hopes are high among advocates of the new policies that such practices will become the standard across the government.

Turning that hope into the reality of a federal world of collaborative organizations, however, poses a vast problem of culture change. The Directive, admittedly just a first step, only hints at the scope of that effort. Its section on institutionalizing a culture of Open Government does not go far enough.

Although much of the Directive and the extensive public input process that preceded it focus on new methods and technologies for access to data and the online platforms for public participation, new technologies don’t automatically lead to agency responsiveness to the public and willingness to dialogue on major issues.

Collaboration is the key dimension that brings government and citizens together for dialogue on data, policies and legislative proposals. That also requires different values and mindset about relating to the non-governmental world. Beth Noveck, now Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government, wrote in her influential book, Wiki Government The Open Government Directive & Changing Federal Agency Culture:

Over the long term, merely exhorting agency directors to incorporate more technology and conduct pilot programs is not enough. Personnel must be distributed throughout the organization who can seed innovation from the bottom up. (p. 164)

The Directive relies on a top-down approach, and that is one essential dimension of change. Government employees need to know that there is full support and commitment to a collaborative approach from the highest levels. To achieve effective implementation, though, it’s also necessary to start with the present attitudes of federal managers and staff.

A recent survey of their existing attitudes toward the principles of the Open Government Initiative indicates that there is a lot of work to be done. As summarized at NextGov.Com, the survey showed that a majority of the managers polled believed that current levels of public participation and accessible data were just what they should be. Most also were using the conventional technologies of the first web generation, web sites and email newsletters as one-way forms of communication with the public, rather than the newer, interactive technologies.

Many agencies currently do not permit employees to access social media sites through government computer networks because their use is regarded as personal rather than professional. Only a minority of managers themselves use these more interactive tools on their own time, and most of that use is personal.

The majority of managers also give the highest priority to data security issues, and 74% believe that opening their networks to social media for collaborative discussion poses a security threat – along with blogging and email. Security, of course, is a valid concern, but publicly accessible platforms operate outside government firewalls. Those used by federal employees are, of course, limited in access. Opening secure networks does not seem at all necessary. Whether or not use of these technologies must pose a threat needs to be rooted in fact, not assumption.

Common attitudes like these among federal managers need to change if they are to establish collaborative models for their staff. Government employees across all agencies, however, not only need leadership but also a more enduring signal in the form of performance standards for fulfillment of their responsibilities. Will they be recognized for their contributions to Open Government principles or will the existing standards still dominate their thinking?

In that respect, I’m reminded of work I did with one of the federal resource management agencies a number of years ago. The increased use of public consultation and cooperation was a new policy from Washington, but staff understood that this policy did not affect job evaluation in a formal way. The record of enhancing commodity production was the key criterion for success. If a manager could succeed on the production side while also collaborating more with the public, that was a bonus on the record. But agency priorities at the performance level had not really changed. That shouldn’t happen with the Open Government Directive.

It is not yet clear how new requirements will be reflected in expectations about the performance of employees. There is a section in the Directive suggesting the use of incentives to reward innovative ideas and practices, but that sort of “prize” approach does not address the more fundamental expectations about how staff will be evaluated for their overall engagement in collaboration.

One of the proposals prepared during the public collaboration phase of the Open Government Initiative outlines a strategy for dealing with this issue. Joseph P. Goldman, Vice-President of Citizen Engagement at America Speaks, proposed putting responsibility for this phase of implementation with the President’s Management Council, an entity created by the Clinton Administration as part of its sweeping government performance review.

This recommendation speaks not only to management and performance dimensions but also to the fact that the Council’s members are deputy secretaries and directors of the major departments and agencies. Working with leadership at this level gives the entire effort an important boost in credibility for implementation.

The proposal calls for the creation of workgroups to address, among several other priorities, the development of “performance measures that recognize and validate effective actions, innovations and policies.” It also goes into the need for building collaborative capacity to put values into practice. Among its recommendations:

  • Define competencies needed

  • Develop a shared vocabulary and knowledge base

  • Develop training requirements addressed by the Office of Personnel Management’s various training centers (including collaborative training through inter-agency efforts)

  • Ensure efforts are multi-disciplinary

  • and provide incentives to reward federal employees who successfully implement the Open Government Directive.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is charged with preparing guidance on providing incentives for adoption of the new practices. That’s the next major opportunity for the Administration to put the spotlight on real culture change and how to achieve it. I believe that all those who have worked hard on Open Government policies need to pay just as much attention to the less glamorous but equally important step of making new practices the norm of action as well as policy.

As Nancy Sciola observes: “… the White House is betting some of the Open Government Initiatives success on a cultural revolution to take place inside agencies. The open question on open government: what will it take to get a United States federal government that has a momentum towards secrecy to shift its orientation to one of transparency, participation, and collaboration? Is betting on that shift taking place a reasonable gamble?”

That’s a question everyone interested in the future of the Open Government Directive should be asking.


John Folk-Williams

I’m John Folk-Williams, the publisher and editor of Cross Collaborate. Since the early 1980s, I’ve been a practitioner and writer in the field of public policy collaboration, interest-based negotiation, mediation and the involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect their lives. A site like this is itself a collaboration… MORE >

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