The Open Government Dialogue

With little fanfare, the While House announced that 29 agencies launched their Open Government weblinks on schedule (per an OMB directive), on Saturday, February 6th.   Virtually all of them also invited citizens to participate in a dialogue on how they could improve their approaches to transparency, participation, collaboration, and innovation.  These dialogues will be open until March 19.  Afterwards, the insights will be summarized and used by agencies to help craft their OMB-required Open Government Plans that are due on April 7th.

This simultaneous open dialogue by two dozen agencies is unheard of.  According to GSA’s Dave McClure, agencies have more than 500 moderators participating in the event.  There have been several bloggers commenting on the effort:

  • The Sunlight Foundation’s Jake Brewer advocates a “National Transparency Campaign” and offers five guiding principles (such as “act like a movement,” and “listen and be authentic”).
  • Mark Drapeau cited concerns that the initiative was a symptom of “check-box government” where the emphasis is on compliance with directives, not actual engaging, or a real strategy for doing so.
  • And Tim Bonnemann thoughtfully identifies “Ten Things to Monitor As Agencies Invite Input On Open Government Plans,” including expectation management, community ground rules, and active involvement by the agency in engaging in discussions.

Being a former GAO auditor, I wanted to see for myself.  So I visited each of the 29 weblinks today.  What did I find?

The award for the most ironic Open Government link was the one for the Office of Personnel Management.  Its site said, simply, the government s “Closed” in a big, red box.   Okay, so government isn’t so open after all . . .  it is a Snow Day in Washington, DC!

Overall, there have been very few comments posted.  The sites with the most postings — such as Commerce and Defense – had prominently posted a banner or header inviting visitors to “share your ideas.”  Those with few or no comments as of today – like Education and the US Agency for International Development —  had buried their invitation further down on their Open Government webpage.

The dialogue platform, IdeaScale, was made available to agencies for free by the General Services Administration.  It was also “pre-certified” to be Section 508 compliant, and compliant with other federal requirements, so most agencies chose to use the platform.  It allows visitors to agencies across the government to use a common platform and each agency offered largely the same comment topic categories (transparency, participation, etc.).  However, you can’t register once.  You have to re-register with each agency.

Some agencies have moderators with names (such as Commerce).  Most agencies’ moderators are anonymous.  But the visitors are largely not anonymous, since they have to register with a name.

Some interesting visits:

  • NASA’s site has a countdown clock until March 19th,  including minutes and seconds left.  Will there be liftoff?!
  • Social Security’s site offers a set of ground rules for participation that looks like the license for installing a software product: “I have read and agreed to these terms of participation.”  It looks ominous!
  • Labor has a nice, brief “standards of behavior” page before you go to the IdeaScale site.  NASA’s site has one too, but it seems like you have to scroll forever to find the button to go to the IdeaScale site.
  • Some agencies – like Defense and Labor – had a “Share Your Ideas” link to the IdeaScale site, but didn’t say what they wanted visitors to share thoughts on.  Others, like State, provided some brief narrative of what citizens were encouraged to help them think through.
  • USDA’s site seems different than the others. It offers the option for visitors to discuss ideas generated by the department, or to post and share your own ideas.  It provides a useful context for contributing and offers a tag cloud of most discussed topics.

The real challenge, though, will be getting participation.  Who are agencies’ target audiences that they want to participate (constructively)?  Will the teabaggers know that IRS is in Treasury?  Will the “Obama Birthers” know that immigration is in Homeland Security?  Will the marijuana legalizers know that the DEA and FBI are in Justice?  Only the UFO believers will be sure to go to the right place – NASA!


Implementing the Open Gov Directive

President Obama’s Open Government Directive was released a week ago with lots of anticipation and a series of deadlines.  Now agencies are moving quickly to develop their plans.  A series of interesting resources are already popping up to help them:

The White House directive said OMB would create a dashboard to track agency progress.  Interestingly – in a nod toward collaboration and openness – the White House Open Government Blog is inviting input as to what the dashboard should include!  It offers examples of both quantitative and qualitative measures that might be included.  Visit and offer your suggestions!

The White House also created an Open Gov Twitter feed:  sign up at @opengov . . .

In addition, each agency is supposed to create its own Open Gov webpage.  The Sunlight Labs has created a quick scorecard to show which of the 13 major agencies have created such a page, and provide a convenient counter of how many days left they have to do so!

In addition, the Sunlight Foundation is offering specific suggestions on what agency social media should consider doing, like including a blog on their “/open” page.  They are also offering “office hours” to offer real-time questions-and-answers with their staff.

Another interesting resource is an open wiki, called “Open Gov Playbook,” organized by Lucas Cioffi.  The Playbook wiki allows you to post and answer questions, as well as post case studies and describe various tools that can be used.  If you go there now, you’ll see a framework of topics. . . you have to help fill in the blank spaces!

Organizers of the November 2009 cross-agency workshop on Open Government (see presentation materials here) are sponsoring another one next month.  The next all-day cross-agency Open Government Directive Workshop will be held January 11, 2010.   Plans are for 10 presentations by federal employees involved in open government initiatives, followed by 3 hours of break out groups focusing on key aspects of the Open Government Directive.  It will be held at the Department of Transportation’s headquarters building next to the Navy Yard. More info is available at  If you aren’t in the DC area, the workshop will also be available live via webcast.

Data-Driven Performance: The Hearing

Senator Mark Warner chaired another hearing of his Taskforce on Government Performance, on “Data-Driven Performance:  Using Technology to Deliver Results.”

The Obama Administration’s chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, testified.  Here are some interesting excerpts from his statement:

. . . .I’ve focused my government performance efforts in three areas in which technology can spur rapid innovation and drive results:

  • R&D: Moving Research into Development and Deployment
  • Open Standards:  Enabling “Government as a Platform”
  • Prizes and Competitions:  Aligning Innovation toward National Priorities.

When combined, these three pillars can drive high-performance government.  By “platform,” I mean a government that uses low-cost information technologies to do what it uniquely can—make high-quality data available, coordinating standards activities across may disparate actors, moving federally-funded research into development and deployment, hosting prizes and competitions – while leaving it to citizens, companies, non-profits, and academic institutions to build innovative tools and services on top of the platform.

His testimony gives examples of how agencies are moving forward on each of these pillars already.

Chopra was accompanied by Vivek Kundra, the federal government’s chief information officer, who talked about using technology to drive performance via the use of dashboards.  He described the use of the Obama Administration’s IT Dashboard to reduce wasteful tech spending, and doing it with a lower reporting burden on agencies.

Sen. Warner noted that the Executive Branch probably needs to focus on other areas of reporting burdens, such as the overlap between the reporting requirements for,, and GSA’s contract database, the Federal Procurement Data System.  Organizations have to report to each, with different timeframes, different data elements, and using different standards.  Kundra agreed.

Post Script:  Toward the end of the hearing, Senator Warner mentioned that both Chopra and Kundra were featured on a segment of the Jon Stewart show the night before, where Stewart poked fun at their announcement of the Open Government Directive, calling Chopra the “Indian George Clooney.”  It’s worth watching!

Open Government: Implementation Guidance

The White House released its long-awaited implementation guidance for President Obama’s Open Government initiative, along with links to ongoing agency initiatives and a “Progress Report to the American People.”  The guidance lays out actions and timetables.  The White House created a convenient landing page for all of this stuff (and all agencies will have to create their own “open government” landing pages by February 6th).

The Sunlight Foundation put together a convenient timeline on when different things are due.

Since so much has already been written about the guidance already, I’ll just highlight some links to particularly helpful explanatory pieces:

There’s also been a lot on Twitter and Facebook in terms of comments and questions.  The two that keeps cropping up are:  “Where is the accompanying funding, training, and staffing commitments?”  And:  “Who is the lead in the agencies – CIOs, public affairs, policy shops, or new media shops?”

Figuring this out quickly will be important, since agencies have to put together Open Government Plans by April 7, 2010 and seek “extensive” public, employee, and stakeholder input in developing that plan.

I also did a presentation this morning to a conference, aptly titled “Obama Administration:  A Status Update on Its Open Government Initiative,” so if you prefer reading PowerPoints than text, this is the place to go!

Citizen Participation: Others Step Out

The rumors continue about the impending release of the Obama Administration’s implementation directives for greater transparency, citizen participation, and collaboration.  But thanks to the power of Twitter, I’ve learned that both the United Kingdom and Australia have released reports that begin to detail their approaches to greater citizen participation.  These reports may serve as useful reference points when the Obama directive is released!

United Kingdom. The British report, “Putting the Front Line First:  Smarter Government,” notes that “Demands for accountability and transparency are increasing,” and that citizens want more of a say in shaping public services.  The report almost sounds like President Obama’s inaugural address: “The question is not whether government itself is too big or too small, but whether it delivers for people and communities with rising aspirations and expectations.”

The British initiative is based on three principles:

  • Using technology to create open and accountable public services
  • Devolving decision making, in part by changing the way public services are delivered, and
  • Renewing focus on “value for money” cost-saving efforts.

The report recommends actions in three areas, along with a detailed plan for moving forward:

Australia. The Australian report, “Engage:  Getting on with Government 2.0,” is a draft from its Government 2.0 Taskforce.  It proposes a “Declaration on Open Government” that reflects principles similar to President Obama’s January 2009 memorandum.  The draft recommends that the government declare “public information is a national resource,” that technology should be used to increase collaboration in making policy and providing services in order to be “more consultative, participatory and transparent,” and that “Online engagement by public servants should be enabled and encouraged.”

The report is organized around a series of specific recommendations, including:

  • An inventory across government agencies identifying barriers that inhibit online engagement, and develop plans to reduce their impact within 12 months.
  • Actively encourage and empower civil servants to be engaged online, and “establish awards for individual public servants and agencies” that recognize best practices.
  • Make public information more open, accessible and reusable by using open standards, making it easily discoverable and understandable, and making it machine-readable and freely reusable.  For example, more material would be published under a Creative Common license.

Other Taskforce recommendations address security, privacy, and accessibility.

Many of the issues raised in both the UK and Australia are part of the U.S. Open Government agenda, so it will be interesting to see how the Obama Administration addresses them.

12/22/09 UPDATE:  Here’s a link to the FINAL Australian report, “Engage: Getting on With Government 2.0.

Social Media Trends in Gov for 2010

I am not a tech-toy pioneer.  It was two years before I logged onto my company’s instant message system because I thought it would create ADD symptoms (it didn’t).  I just got a Blackberry a few weeks ago (yes, Blackberry, not iPhone) because I lost my PalmPilot calendar and they don’t make them anymore.  And I resisted a Twitter account because I thought it was silly, frivolous, and seemingly narcissistic.

In each case, I found myself wrong.  Let me explain why I now Twitter. I found following a few “tweets” actually exposed me to helpful info I would not have seen otherwise.  Being selective helps.  I follow about a half dozen Tweets, including GAO (which announces its new reports daily),  Federal News Radio reporter Chris Dorobek (who posts links to timely government stories), and a new site, OhMyGov!, which highlights interesting government-related stories.

For example, OhMyGov! editor Mark Malseed did a great story, “Social Media for Government:  Six Trends for 2010,” that I’d not have seen if I had not been on Twitter.  Malseed summarized trends from a Harvard Business website article targeted to the private sector, but it is relevant to the public sector as well:

  • Individuals will become more selective about their social media connections and trim back the number of networks they belong to because of information overload.
  • Organizations will look to scale up their social media efforts (and in government, this will likely be driven by the long-awaited Open Government Directive).
  • Managers will be encouraging (not discouraging) their employees to participate in social media on behalf of their organizations.
  • Organizations will create more formal social media policies, and begin to enforce them (I’ve seen corporate dress codes for avatars in Second Life!).
  • Social media will become more mobile-device oriented.
  • Sharing will no longer mean email.  As generations shift in the workplace, email is the new snail mail.

So, do I “tweet?” Well, not really, but I do follow others!  You can follow the IBM Center, though, at: BusofGovernment on Twitter. So, if you haven’t joined, you might try it out and see if it makes a difference.  It’s free!

NOTE:  A subsequent Federal Times Op-Ed, by U.S. Army General Craig McKinley, “Why I Tweet,” provides a powerful example of how leaders can use Twitter to stress important messages across a highly decentralized organization. It’s worth reading!

Citizen Engagement: GSA Update

While there’s been little open discussion in recent days about the progress of President Obama’s Open Government Directive, the General Services Administration’s quarterly “Intergovernmental Solutions” newsletter has dedicated its latest issue to describing dozens of examples of how citizen engagement is increasing in government – federal, state, local, as well as other countries.  It is worth reading!

The stories about how states, localities, and other countries are engaging citizens are really interesting:

Ohio Redistricting Competition.  A partnership of organizations sponsored an Ohio Redistricting Competition that challenged the public to design a congressional redistricting plan that was better than the current plan.  Design criteria (e.g., minimizing fragmentation of counties, creating competitive districts, etc.), data, specialized redistricting software, and training, were provided.  People submitted plans that were judged to be better than the current redistricting approach, leading to a draft state constitutional amendment that sponsors hope to put on the ballot in 2010 to revise the state’s current redistricting process.

Citizen Pothole Patrols in Worcester, MA.  Worcester began using ComNET  (Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking) to change the way public managers and citizens view their roles and responsibilities. Neighborhood groups were armed with handheld computers and digital cameras and volunteers would go out to document street level problems and upload them to a central data base for action.

E-Petitions in Britain.  The British Prime Minister’s office extended a long-established tradition of British citizens presenting petitions at the door of Number 10 Downing Street by moving the process on-line.  Since the e-petition process was created three years ago, more than 63,000 e-petitions have been posted, with more than 10.5 million signatures.

Participatory Lawmaking in Brazil.  The Brazilian House of Representatives launched a project to engage citizens in the lawmaking process by creating opportunities to be involved at three points:  sharing information about a problem that needs addressed by law, identification and discussion of possible solutions, and drafting the text of the bill.  The site, e-Democracia, provides video, survey, and wiki tools, and allows the creation of thematic social networks. . . . Could you imagine what our healthcare debate would look like using something like this!

Participatory Budgeting in La Plata, Argentina.  City officials found greater participation in the budget development process when on-line forums were available.  In La Plata, a participatory budgeting effort started with 40 face-to-face deliberative meetings with citizens where they could allocate 30 percent of the city’s budget and options for allocating the remainder.  In a second phase, voting among options was allowed in a secure process using paper and electronic ballots, and text messaging.  This second phase attracted nine times more people than the face-to-face process.

Out of the many other short articles in the issue, one insight, in a piece by Nick Troiano and Chris Golden, was that “A citizen-centered approach to engagement necessitates organizations not just plug in those they engage but empower them to create change.” That will be the challenge for the new Obama initiative when it is announced.