E-gov Versus Open Gov: The Evolution of E-democracy

One of the first questions I asked myself when familiarizing myself with the Open Government initiative was: “How is the Obama Administration’s Open Government (Open Gov) initiative different from the Bush Administration’s E-government (E-gov) initiative?” There are many people who use the two terms interchangeably but this paper argues that although they are distinct initiatives in the United States, they are also part of the same E-democracy maturity continuum. Thus while they should not be handled totally separately, they should not be combined either. This blog post provides a high level summary of the findings and recommendations described in more detail in a corresponding white paper.

The E-government efforts of the last decade and the new Open Government initiative share many similar goals and characteristics, the largest being that they both strive to make the Federal Government more transparent. However, they are not synonymous. They are different efforts that are overlapping phases in an incremental growth towards E-democracy. Open Gov can be seen as an evolution of E-gov. Open Gov would not be possible without the outcomes created by E-gov and the advances made in technology (including social media (a.k.a. Web 2.0 or Gov 2.0) and cloud computing), policy (including OMB attempts to amend the current legal/policy environment), and culture (an employee workforce more accustomed to transparency) over the last decade. E-gov was a first and crucial step towards E-democracy. However, the Open Gov initiative is not the end-state solution. It is the most recent maturation of the Federal Government’s growth towards E-democracy, but it is not the final step. There will likely be an initiative that follows Open Government as a new future Administration enters the White House and as tools grow and the culture of the Federal Government evolves.

Some key similarities and differences between the two initiatives are highlighted below. For more detail on each of the following assertions, please see this short E-Gov and Open Gov white paper.

1. The E-gov efforts are directly enabled by law, but the Open Gov initiative is not.
2. E-gov and Open Gov both produce significant advances in Federal transparency, but Open Gov should also produce more participation and collaboration mechanisms.
3. E-gov and Open Gov both are “unfunded mandates” and must be implemented with existing resources.
4. E-gov and Open Gov both rely heavily on web-enabled technology adoption, but many Open Government-related technologies (i.e. social media tools) are rapidly evolving.
5. E-gov has largely become a compliance exercise for the Chief Information Officer (CIO), but Open Gov expands the responsibility for openness outside the CIO organization.

OMB should strive to delay, for as long as possible, the point at which the momentum supporting Open Gov is converted to devoting staff time to a reporting compliance exercise. Some reporting is valuable and necessary to ensure broad milestones are met across the Federal Government. However, just how far Open Gov will take us towards E-democracy will be highly determined by how effectively culture changes as a result of this effort—not how frequently or well Agencies report. There are several opportunities to direct the Open Gov momentum onto the right track right now—and there is a narrow window. OMB should focus on the following opportunities to help avoid a compliancy fate:

1. Provide Agencies with tools and methodologies to implement the Open Government Directive in order to prevent an attitude of compliant reporting. The Department of Transportation has started developing such a best practice methodology.
2. Support and facilitate best practice sharing and shared services to ease Open Government adoption since most Open Government efforts are not funded.
3. Tie in Enterprise Architecture from the beginning of the effort in order to identify where cost savings through IT consolidation can be applied to new Open Gov efforts.
4. Re-evaluate how E-gov and Open Gov efforts and reporting should and could be combined to eliminate redundant reporting requirements on the Agencies.
5. Advocate for authorization and appropriation for a PMO for E-democracy efforts that encompass both E-gov and Open Gov.

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Salina Washington

Hi Jenn. I agree with you in regards to changes in culture playing a critical role in how far Open Gov will take us towards E-democracy. Often times these types of initiatives lose momentum because they lack education and adoption strategies which are critical ot their success. Differentiating between E-gov and Open Gov is going to be key.

Good information and well organized. Thanks for sharing.


I’d love to see more on what truly succeeded with egov and what were the characteristics. My sense with opengov is that over time there will be more guidance that will help enable agencies.

Jenn Gustetic

Steve–if you look in the white paper itself there’s a table with examples of the types of “successes” that came out of egov, including grants.gov, recreation.gov, etc…. Most are portals to the public for transparency. The efforts that successed were those that had $$ attached to them from shared service agreements/MOUs. (Grants.gov is funded every year through millions in MOU from other agencies) and those that aligned closely with one of the OMB reporting portfolios. You didn’t see many participatory successes (with the citizen) in egov since there is no portfolio that requires it (even though its the law).

Salina–thanks for the kind words. It comes back to the principles that open gov is about more than tools! It’s about culture transformation.

Noel Dickover

Great post, Jenn. One thing that worried me in looking at the Open Govt. Directive is the idea that there are no solid policy requirements for an agency – meaning there is not a requirement to re-embed the Open Govt. Directive into the agency’s Directives system. You are sort of making the case that as soon as this becomes a compliance exercise, its chances of success diminish.

That said, the MOUs in E-Gov really were the method to the madness that made it all work. The Open Govt. Directive doesn’t really have a Federal-wide component other than the cross-agency working group. This, I think, is problematic. Considering the unfunded nature of this, the OpenGov movement will need to figure out some way of leveraging resources across the agencies. If they don’t act like an Enterprise in enacting these initiatives, chances of widespread success will be lower.

Jenn Gustetic

Noel and Steve–

I agree with you 100%. The MOUs for shared services have kept many key ventures alive (like grants.gov) but those MOUs are tied to specific, established efforts. They do not fund new innovative efforts. Hence, there has been little innovation through egov recently. Legislation with authorization for an Open Gov PMO that has a fund to support some of the innovation work will be critical–and it’s something Congress can do independent of the OMB directive.

This is a critical issue that the OMB folks and the White House will have to address in the coming months. Even a successful open gov effort, like data.gov, has started to run into walls because it too does not have adequate resources and no agencies are paying in to use that platform.

Try to make it to the DOT Open Gov Workshop on Jan 11 if you can. (http://opengovdirective.pbworks.com/Open-Government-Strategy-Development-and-Implementation-Framework). We’ll be trying to cover a lot of these issues.

Thanks for the great comments!