Open Government Directive – Key Benefits and Challenges

Brooklyn Bridge - Courtesy of Flickr user Tattooed JJ

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tattooed JJ

I used to be a journalist, and it was an incredible experience. However, I eventually got tired of being on the outside. I could call attention to government issues as an “objective” observer, but I wanted to affect positive change. My ultimate goal was to help bridge the gaps between government organizations and the people they serve.

The Open Government Directive instructs our nation’s leaders to start building those bridges. The Directive takes the principles of openness, transparency, and collaboration and empowers agencies to start using them in their ongoing operations. Several Government 2.0 leaders have outlined the details of the Directive, so I want to spend some time talking about the key benefits and challenges.

Benefits

  • Investment in Our Democratic Infrastructure – Wikipedia defines infrastructure as “the basic physical and organizational structures needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.” With an estimated 308 million Americans covering 3.79 million square miles, interactive technologies are the only way to ensure that “We the People” can continue to participate in the formation of a “more perfect Union.”
  • Emphasis on Collaboration – The megacommunity concept is the idea that the challenges we face – “such as global competitiveness, health and environmental risks, and inadequate infrastructure” – can no longer be solved by individual organizations or agencies alone. It describes the intersection of businesses, governments, and not-for-profit organizations and how they can converge to address universal problems. The same tools that allow us to communicate within our organizations and with one another online can be used to bring together these organizations around common goals. Channeling the collective knowledge and power of a megacommunity can have a substantial and lasting impact on our nation’s most complex problems.
  • No More Excuses – How many of you have worked with a leader or client that has emphasized the unique challenges of your organization—promoting “social media” to some degree, but reluctant to share meaningful information or invite audience participation? I’m guessing this applies to at least four out of five people reading this blog, and my advice to you is that every organization is unique. Whether or not this Directive applies to your organization, use it as motivation to address those challenges and find ways to truly embrace the principles of open government.

Challenges

  • Lack of Public Understanding – The rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship are changing, and we need to be educated—at every level—on how and why to engage through open government channels. The loudest voices are usually the outliers (a group I fondly refer to as “the crazies”), and I would anticipate that the outliers will be the early adopters in open government. However, we cannot let a few loud voices thwart our progress, or even worse, deter individuals with more common opinions from participating online. From the beginning, we need to consider how to promote awareness of open government activities and provide a compelling call to action that’s broad enough to reach a representative public.
  • Inadequate Mission Alignment – Inevitably, some agencies will go through the motions of developing Open Government Plans and building Web sites without identifying how the basic principles can advance their missions. Failure to align open government activities to an organization’s mission, goals, and objectives could prevent the agency from realizing the true value open government. The ensuing lack of responsiveness could also result in decreased public trust. The Directive instructs each agency to incorporate the principles of President Obama’s Transparency and Open Government Memorandum into its core mission objectives, but I would argue that the principles should be integrated into strategies and processes rather than the ultimate objective.
  • Poor Construction – The first bridges were made of fallen trees and other materials that could be easily dragged across streams to create a path. They served their purpose for hunters and gatherers, but they could not support a significant traffic increase. I think many of our current open government efforts are similar to these bridges. If we want to integrate transparency, participation, and collaboration into ongoing government activities, we will need to evolve our strategy and technology to support increases in conversation. Proper construction will take expertise, time, and resources.

What are your predictions for the Open Government Directive? Do you think agencies will meet the deadlines, and if so, do you think they will embody the principles of open government? I look forward to your thoughts.

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About jacquehealth

Jacque is a Senior Consultant at Booz Allen and she helps public and not-for-profit organizations integrate social media into existing communication, collaboration, and knowledge management strategies. She currently supports social media efforts at TRICARE, the military health program. Jacque received a Master of Public Administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University where she focused on e-Governance. Find her on Twitter at @jacquebrown.

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  • Great post Jacque! Course, you had me with the introduction: “I used to be a journalist, and it was an incredible experience. However, I eventually got tired of being on the outside. I could call attention to government issues as an “objective” observer, but I wanted to affect positive change.”

    I completely relate to the feeling you describe during your journalist days–I too used to be a journalist and found it frustrating being on the “outside.” However, I also believe those experiences made me a better writer, thinker and doer in the long run.

    I love the analogy to bridges–given some of the bridge accidents as of lately, you could say that not only is the infrastructure of our country needing an overhaul, but so does the infrastructure of the our organizations and the processes we follow. It’s definitely going to be a tough climb, but hopefully the benefits will outweigh and motivate us to overcome the challenges.

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  • Great insights Jacque, and I especially loved the imagery in the “Poor Construction” challenge you described. I’ll throw another challenge on top of the others you mentioned, and that’s one of funding. The directive as it stands is an unfunded mandate. Does that mean agencies will miss the initial deadlines? Most likely not, but it also means that in large part efforts may still resemble bridges made of fallen trees vs modern multi-lane suspension bridges carrying four-fold of today’s traffic.

    Given the complexity of challenges already on the plates of federal agencies, I fear that many will simply treat the directive as yet another checklist to be met versus an opportunity to redesign processes and build modern roads throughout their organization to meeet mission in a new way.

    All in all, though, I agree this is a fantastic first step to help drive the benefits of transparency, openness and collaboration within the public sector.

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  • Steve – I agree that funding will be an issue. I’m sure that agencies will find some resources, but I’m afraid they won’t be enough to get it done well. Creating a bunch of open government-like pages could create more noise for the audience and potentially lose trust.

    Alex – I like your use of the word “overhaul”. Sometimes our continuous efforts to make updates and improvements end up making things more complicated and, if possible, we need to go back to the drawing board to develop better processes.

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  • have a few thoughts on the implications of the open government directive – (listed on web 2.0 on hello) do you think agencies realize what type of work will need to go into this? (and get it going within 45 days?)

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  • Sradick

    Thank you for your email. I'll be out of the office on Friday, June 11th and Monday, June 14th in meetings all day. During this time, I'll have limited email and voicemail access. If your inquiry is related to our Government 2.0/social media capability, please contact Matt Bado at bado_matthew@bah.com.

    If this is related to anything else, I will respond when I'm back in the office on Tuesday, June 15th.

    Steve Radick
    Lead Associate
    Booz Allen Hamilton
    Read my blog at http://www.steveradick.com
    Follow me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/sradick.

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