Vivek Kundra leaving the White House rings one more bell that the Open Government soiree is over. And like all poorly planned parties, it should be. But, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t leave us one lovely party favor.
Let’s be honest. The combination of the very nebulous idea of “Open Government” and the institutionalization of new technology was a combination fraught with unnecessary complication and uncommon convolution, emblematic of a campaign hangover. It was a bad cocktail from the beginning. Let’s be equally honest and recognize that good governance requires strategic planning with clear outcomes and evaluation procedures—none of which were actually present in the Open Government Directive or the subsequent enactment efforts. Open Government was doomed long before Vivek Kundra took the position of CIO.
When President Bush implemented the E-Government Act of 2002, he did so with clearly defined measures of success outlined with budgets and personnel assignments along with technology requirements to move the government into the 21st Century. He also did so with the backing of Congress.
In a wonderful speech on the first day of his presidency, President Obama introduced Open Government as a conceptual framework for how his government would operate. And when Peter Orszag, then head of the Office of Management and Budget, published the operational document laying out how Open Government would penetrate governmental agencies, the 11 page tome housed only one requirement for measurement and plan for sustainability. Both of these items are related to the agency Flagship initiative that would launch individual agency Open Government activities. Neither was systematically monitored.
That’s not to say that there aren’t significant outcomes associated with Open Government, but those outcomes are far more related with agencies use of new technologies than actual “open” government. My research shows that agencies using the interactive IdeaScale tool to collect input on their Open Government plans saw a statistically significant 1.3 point increase in customer service satisfaction. This is above the average 0.78 point increase for all agencies. And is a significantly different outcome from agencies that didn’t use the tool and experienced an average decrease of 0.2 points. Equally, when people rank the data that is housed in Data.gov, it fairs well with a 3.7 out of five stars ranking. Thus, in addition to the estimated $3 billion saved by the government with data.gov, there is value associated with these new technologies.
But, that value arises from the technologies themselves, not necessarily from Open Government. Moreover these data points are soon to be squirrelled away in the dissertation archive at the University of Texas because they are impossible to monitor or re-create as no formal methods for standardizing the collection of these data –within the government or within academe—exists. They don’t exist because no goal posts have been set for Open Government or for new technology development.
Likewise, since the presentation of new technology deployment was intended to enhance the democratic relationship, there was no systematic, systemic agency level adoption of technology. The cutting of the budget allocated for new technologies and e-government by Congress is a clear indicator that with the convolution of new technology adoption as Open Government, technology is not a tool for better government, it is a tool for political posing—which no responsible Congress should fund.
Kundra is correct about one thing, though. Open Data acts as a unique identity in the world with strategic outcomes and products unrelated to transparency or open governance. Open Data happens to be globally recognized as good business and as a platform for innovation—that in the case of the federal government has been paid for many times over with tax-payer dollars. Failure to support and exploit the innovation platform provided by Data.gov would be just as bad an act of governance as incorrectly comingling open government with new technology adoption.
The exodus of two key Open Government leaders (Beth Noveck in January, now Vivek Kundra) from the Obama administration should provide a sobering moment for the President, one in which he lets Open Government become a part of good governance and considers carefully the strategic planning, evaluation, and leadership cocktail necessary to implement new technologies in government and provide platforms for innovation like Data.gov.
Angela Newell is a Candidate for the Doctorate of Philosophy in Public Policy in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Her expertise lies in government and technology.