Culture Change and the International Open Government Movement

Government In the Lab has a good post on the upcoming Open Government Partnership which is being led by the United States. The kickoff meeting is September 20th with the unveiling of the Open Government Declaration.

I am hopeful that this will bring Open Government from being just about Open Data to a more sustainable and more powerful effort to change the cultures of the respective governments. In past discussions about setting up unconferences about cultural change and open government, we realized that there is a lot of groundwork in just what we mean by cultural change and openness in government.

I have called for an unconference at the Culture Change and Open Government group before but I would like to renew that call in light of the Open Government Partnership. If you are interested, please join the group and let us start discussing this exciting new opportunity. Thank you.

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Mark Forman


Thanks for your leadership here. I think we are in a cultural resistance to change mode here in the US. The Open Government movement is occuring in the populus via Tea Party groups and social media tools (e.g. Freedomworks’ FreedomConnector). Instead of engaging motivated government reformers (including internal change agents and citizens who want to help make government better), the press reports that the Administration is using social media and transparency websites to provide filtered materials. Social media and Open Government in the US has become just another venue for the public affairs officers, and has lost considerable value since many beleive that Open Government is just political outreach cloaked in good government and transparency. Rather than increasing approval and trust of government through improving citizen engagement (which requires more responsive government), citizen’s are reducing trust.

It would be great to have poeple’s thoughts on how we turn this situation around when politicos in the public affairs offices seem to control Open Government initiatives. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.

Stephen Buckley

I agree with Mark that the federal Open Government effort is being politicized by agencies’ Public Affairs offices (PAOs). I began to notice it last year, when I contacted many of the Public Affairs office (PAO) in federal agencies in order to request someone to interview (on Open Government Radio) about their agency’s Open Government Plan.

When I asked about the PAO’s protocol for making such requests, I was surprised, even as a former federal bureaucrat, at the widespread lack of standard procedures for how PAOs operate. Most often, their response is “Send us an email telling us what you want to ask, and then we’ll figure out whether and how to respond.” Basically, they work on a case-by-case basis, i.e., deciding if and how each person can help them get their agency’s “message” out.

What frequently happens is that a “quid pro quo” relationship develops where the PAO gives a reporter more and more access to speak with agency officials, as long as the reporter dutifully repeats the language and phrases (preferably without quotes) from the agency’s press-releases.

And because these are the “unwritten rules” of PAOs, they certainly do not appear in an agency’s (written) Open Government Plan. In many (most?) of those Plans, the PAO is rarely even mentioned at all! The average reader would wonder if, under its Open Government Plan, an agency’s Public Affairs office has any new or different duties — at all!

Until there is a change in the existing thinking in PAOs (i.e., that they merely “curators” of a gate-keeping sort; but not really part of the agency’s work), then the PAOs are a major barrier to any agency’s shifting to a culture of openness.

If anyone would like to work with me to survey federal agencies’ PAO practices, as related to Open Government, please let me know.

Andrea Schneider

I have a call out for case studies needed for a book being published by the London School of Economics. I’m working with Christian Bason, Director of MindLab in Denmark (funded by 3 gov’t ministries) to find the best examples of using design thinking in the public sector. This is very related to Open Government.

While the US has focused on technology primarily, the UK, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand and Europe have gone further in actually changing how the culture and services are being delivered. This is still very new and emerging. The US company doing some of this work with government is IDEO.

If you know of good cases, let me know. By design I mean projects which have been co-created, end user is the focus and prototyping has been done quickly. Usually visualization is integral as well.

We have a short timeline, so as much as you can help, I greatly appreciate it. I think we have a lot to learn from some examples outside the US.

I expect we are going to see a lot more written about this in the near future. Stanford’s Innovation Review is a great place to read about innovation and there is a tension about our focus on technology as “the answer” rather than the broader agenda where technology is seen as a tool, but not the answer. Some of this is becoming evident with the latest Knight Foundation report on public participation. I wonder how many of our technology apps have been developed with the end user as a participant and in mind throughout the process. After all they are the ones who will actually use the products.