In Pursuit of Coherence

Gary Berg-Cross poses an interesting question, soliciting ideas on the top priorities for Open Government. I started to leave a comment on his blog, but found myself extending and revising my remarks, and exceeding the reasonable length for a comment.
Perhaps the priority for Open Government is to aim for something beyond Openness. While the journalist may see utter value in openness (and I can talk about them right now, since they are busily crashing Wikileak servers); the citizen may not. To my ear, the Open Government elevator speech often takes more than a few elevators to complete.
Perhaps one value proposition is coherence. And perhaps open government improves our ability to deliver coherent government services, and share a common operational picture of citizen needs. (There. That would work even in a White House elevator.)
Back in 2008, my project team had the opportunity to hear from a European civil minister. The question posed to this individual: “What do you do about the problem of information hoarding?” The answer: “I don’t understand the question. The information is not ours, it is the public’s. The culture in our civil service must be different from yours, when we obtain a new piece of information, the first question we ask is: ‘who else needs to know this?'”
Perhaps open government begins with a coherence “audit.” Ask yourself: Who are your constituents, and who else in government touches their lives? Education Secretary Duncan says that he coordinates with Secretary Sebelius of Health and Human Services – because they are serving the same communities. (This is not to say that program managers are resourced or incentivized to continue this interagency collaboration, there is much work to do beyond Secretary-level coordination.) From the constituent point of view, the Departments of Education and HHS are both ‘government.‘ A coherent approach to government services begins with the constituent and asks: If I am the person at the ‘end’ of this program, who else in Government am I dealing with? How can I make those interactions more efficient / responsive?
What other programs serve your constituent? Reach out to other Agencies, see what efficiencies can be realized by coordinating your efforts. Explore how you can jointly present information to the public, in a conversation centered on solutions rather than your program. Begin a dialogue, and a commitment to information sharing when appropriate.
What does this have to do with Open Government? I don’t mean to imply that you ‘get your ducks in a row’ and then go public in an open government initiative. Rather, do this ‘audit’ with a bow to transparency. Do this interagency exploration, coordination and analysis in public. Let us see the process, and join in if we can help. Place the citizen at the center enhances government awareness, services, and develops increased coherence across an often bewildering stew of programs and agencies.

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Gary Berg-Cross


I like the idea of doing “this interagency exploration, coordination and analysis in public. Let us see the process, and join in if we can help. ” Beyond transparency it enables a participation in the “join in if we can help.” Like so many things in life it provides an atmospheric benefit where trust can develop and from which participation may grow.

Brandon Jubar

I like the concept of coherence. The direction most “open government” initiatives seem to be headed is reminiscent of the legal discovery process when one side sends the other side tractor trailer loads of files to review (in hopes that information overload will keep them from uncovering what they’re really looking for). Simply providing the public with terabytes of raw data does NOT keep with the true spirit of openness!

Daniel Honker

John – Great points, and I couldn’t agree more. It reminds me of a blog on GL a while back debating whether the goal of opengov is openness in and of itself, or an ultimate improvement of services for the citizen. I side with the latter.

David Kuehn

Customer-focused coherence is a good concept to consider as part of transparency. Putting out data as part of transparency requires an understanding of customer audiences for data to be meaningful and useful.