Imagine a responsive and transparent government, one that tells citizens what they want to hear—and what they don’t.
Public information about our government has come a long way since 1690, when the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, was shut down for being printed without the government’s authority. In the modern era, a picture of the president’s birth certificate is made available on the Internet. Tell-all books are written by or about current and former politicians, and public servants’ salaries are made, well, public.
This shift in expectations prompted President Obama to issue a call for increased openness in government when he took office in January 2009. He instructed each federal agency to formulate its own path to an open government by addressing three tenets: transparency, participation, and collaboration.
Associate Professor Gwanhoo Lee believes that agencies can accomplish the three principles outlined in Obama’s Open Government Directive by sharing data and encouraging public engagement. As the director of Kogod’s Center for IT and the Global Economy, Lee’s work focuses on the intersection of the public and private sectors. He’s studied the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its use of collaborative technology, and has also worked with IT executives at the American Red Cross, AMTRAK, CSC, and Marriott.
In response to the president’s call, Lee used his field observations to create a common framework that government agencies can apply to meet the open government goal. Along with a research partner, Young Hoon Kwak, he devised a four-stage implementation model that can be applied at federal, state, and local levels of government.
Lee’s desire to create the model emerged from his interest in social media and how it can be used to foster interaction among groups. He proposes that government agencies can enhance both internal functionality and external relations by using social media and web tools effectively, as laid out in the plan.
“Why not use technology to engage citizens?” Lee asked. “The idea is to create an ongoing conversation where input and feedback are part of the policy-making and governing process.”
To illustrate their conceptual framework, An Open Government Implementation Model: Moving to Increased Public Engagement, Lee and Kwak examined four operating divisions within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in case studies. This research was funded by IBM and published in the IBM Center for The Business of Government’s “Using Technology” series.
How It Works
Lee’s model asserts that technology is changing the way government can operate and public expectations about the way it should operate.
To meet these emerging expectations, and to overcome a lack of infrastructure and a resistance to cultural change, the model lays out a logical roadmap in four stages. Each implementation stage outlines the focus, deliverables, benefits, challenges, best practices, and metrics that will bring about collaboration—not only between agencies, but also with the public and the private sector.
STAGE ONE revolves around increasing data transparency by publishing and actively sharing relevant data. The two important tasks during this phase will be identifying high-value, high-impact data for the public and improving and assuring data quality in terms of accuracy, consistency, and timeliness. This will help the public to better understand what the government does and how it does it, and to hold it accountable.
STAGE TWO facilitates open participation by making additional forms of online content available to the public. This includes anecdotes, stories, conversations, ideas, and public comments. The goal is to increase ongoing, community-based dialogue, improve the public’s sense of community with government agencies, deliver real-time, diverse feedback, and reduce time and cost for innovation—thus leading to more innovation.
STAGE THREE focuses on enhancing open collaboration by fostering engagement among government agencies, the public, and the private sector. “Open collaboration produces synergistic effects of multiple collaborating parties and results in time/cost savings, higher quality, and more innovation for government services and policy/rule making,” Lee noted.
STAGE FOUR elevates the three principles to the highest level. Two goals define the purpose of this stage. First, public engagement becomes easier and more accessible through mobile devices and applications on those devices. Second, public engagement methods and tools are seamlessly integrated within and across government agencies to allow consistency and easy navigation.
To analyze real-world open government initiatives within the context of his model, Lee conducted several case studies and found that the agencies surveyed are leading the way in implementing the directive.
Transparency: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services launched a dashboard on its website in April 2010 to eliminate barriers to accessing data, and to allow the public to visualize Medicare spending. Members of the public are now able to retrieve important information about Medicare services from the last five years. According to Lee, CMS is well on its way to achieving the transparency required by Obama’s directive.
Transparency: In June 2009, the Food and Drug Administration launched its Transparency Initiative. A web-based resource, FDA Basics, was made public in January 2010; it includes videos and Q&A, and gives users the option to rate the helpfulness of the content. A recent YouTube video clip featured Commissioner Margaret Hamburg telling industry practitioners how they can determine whether the FDA regulates their company products. Through the end of 2011, the FDA is striving to make information related to its decision-making process more understandable and useful to the public.
Open Participation: The Department of Health and Human Services’s Open Government Portal, a stand-alone website launched in February 2010, strives to actively engage the public in discussion, comment, and feedback. Interactive data sets, tools, and online forums offer a customizable, one-stop experience. HHS is at stage two, as described by Lee’s model—meaning that it is has not yet introduced open collaboration, but has laid the foundation.
Open Collaboration: The Community Health Data Initiative launched by the Institute of Medicine helps consumers and communities by making available extensive stores of health-related data. The purpose of the initiative is to provide data that can be used to create web applications to raise awareness of community health performance, as well as increase pressure on policy makers.
Although Lee’s model includes a fourth stage, dubbed “ubiquitous engagement,” he has not found an advanced real-life example of a government agency that achieved this state.
Up to Speed
Historically, government has lagged behind the private sector when it comes to innovation and willingness to take risks. Although some technological breakthroughs, such as the Internet and the Global Positioning System (GPS), came out of government projects, the private sector, by and large, has led the way to innovation.
But social media and other web tools have made possible new forms of communication between parties that were not previously conversant. Interactive content that cultivates meaningful engagement is now becoming the standard. “Many organizations in the public and private sectors are leveraging social media to transform the way they work, collaborate, and innovate,” Lee wrote.
By focusing on incremental initiatives, Lee’s model introduces government agencies to social media in a gradual, structured way. This approach will ease challenges related to organizational learning and budgetary limitations. Barriers to adoption will be minimized, permitting maximum assimilation without overburdening government employees or overwhelming the public.
“The model will allow federal agencies to be more innovative and productive at the same time,” Lee said.
Challenges to Implementation
Despite the undeniable benefits, the implementation will be a slow and sometimes arduous process. The list of challenges is long. An International Data Corporation (IDC) study found that the top challenges government agencies face include security, HR constraints, technical expertise, and budgetary constraints.
Lee and Kwak expand on the findings of the IDC study, grouping challenges into three categories—of which ORGANIZATIONAL CHALLENGES is the largest. The federal government’s current 18-month budgeting cycle, for example, makes it difficult to make quick decisions, alter plans, or plan long-term. “Without sufficient funding and dedicated personnel,” Lee said, “government agencies will find it challenging to develop and sustain new public engagement tools and programs.”
Changing organizational culture, or the behavior and mindset of employees, is another hurdle. “Millennials are comfortable using social media and other web tools,” Lee observed. “Senior leadership is more hesitant and often less familiar, and views these efforts as risky.”
Other challenges include ensuring that data is accurate, consistent, timely, usable, and useful, and maintaining the right balance between control and autonomy in public engagement. In addition, increasing public interest and engagement will require the ongoing commitment and support of employees at every level.
Finally, accountability and responsibility are important for open collaboration. “The increased complexity that comes with the involvement of collaborators means that agencies need to identify effective coordination mechanisms and processes for collaborative projects,” Lee wrote.
In the other two categories, TECHNOLOGY CHALLENGES include improving information infrastructure, enhancing privacy and information security, and integrating open government tools and applications.
A GOVERNMENT-WIDE CHALLENGE will be to update federal policies and rules to facilitate the use of social media. A report issued by the US Government Accountability Office in 2010 details policy-related issues that are incompatible with social media use.
Lee cautions that agencies will need to avoid stretching themselves too thin by implementing hastily.
“Agencies should carefully think through various aspects of leadership, technology, policy, governance, and culture before they launch multiple open government initiatives,” he said.
As federal agencies work toward meeting the tenets of the Open Government Directive, they will have to re-evaluate frequently and make ongoing adjustments to fully harness social media and web tools. Flexibility and resolve will be essential during the process and beyond. Using Lee’s model, however, the government has an opportunity to move ahead in an area where it has historically trailed behind the private sector.