Open Government is Dead, Long Live Open Data

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.

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Carl Webb

Washington Post: The death of open government

Vivek Kundra’s resignation last week from his post as the nation’s Chief Information Officer is an ominous event.

Kundra’s goal was to set government data free via an expansive Internet effort called Data.gov, and encourage innovation with government-collected data through the Open Government Initiative. He had hoped to slash tens of billions of dollars from the government information technology (I.T.) budget by democratizing who and which types of companies can deliver I.T. solutions to the government. The most radical part of his program was to make public data available to entrepreneurs, allowing them to build new applications that solved problems for the government and their communities.

The program was off to a great start, with hundreds of thousands of data sets becoming available, and entrepreneurs building thousands of innovative applications. Then the ill-considered race to slash the Federal deficit started. The Obama Administration agreed to cut e-government initiative funding from $35 million to $8 million. Never mind that Kundra’s programs had already saved taxpayers $3 billion over the past two years.

Click here for the article on Washington Post’s website

Not surprisingly, Kundra resigned. Why preside over a portfolio of shuttered initiatives? In a phone interview, Kundra acknowledged that he is worried about the program’s funding, but told me that he believes that the open data initiative has so much momentum that it is unstoppable, echoing the sentiment issued in his formal statement that he is “confident progress will continue.”

But, with Kundra gone, I am not optimistic about the program. Whenever a program loses its key evangelist, it normally dies. The Open Government Initiative is likely to suffer a slow, inevitable death.

We may live in the richest nation on Earth, but most government agencies and large corporations still process their mission-critical transactions on ’60s-era legacy systems that were designed for machines with less processing power than an iPhone. And they’re more expensive. The I.T. systems for these mainframes typically took years to build and cost millions of dollars — and that doesn’t include the hundreds of millions more we spend to maintain them.

Today, software developers can churn out more sophisticated applications for thousands – not millions – of dollars. So, while grandma flips through photo albums on her iPad and watches streaming videos from Netflix, our government relies on cumbersome web-based systems that function by tricking mainframes into thinking that they are connected to cathode ray tube (CRT) terminals.

The problem is catching very prominent attention. When President Obama could not get a late-model Blackberry, he complained that the U.S. government was 30 years behind when it comes to technology. But, while he may have noticed and pushed for reforms in the early part of his administration, President Obama certainly has not made a priority of advocating for Kundra and his laudable goals.

In January 2010, I issued a challenge to Silicon Valley to bid on a rewrite of an unemployment benefits check-processing system that the California government had budgeted $50 million just to maintain. I was met with a hail of criticism from government I.T. contractors who claimed that complying with government mandates for security was complicated and that their experience best positioned them to keep the government’s systems humming. A senior vice president of one of these firms went so far as to call me “naïve” and to say that I should not “kick something” that I “know absolutely squat about.”

Meanwhile, half a dozen Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with deep domain experience came forward. They all believed they could build a better government I.T. system for a mere fraction of the annual operating costs—as low as $1 million.

A year later, no one has taken these entrepreneurs up on their offer, even as California prepares for a draconian round of budget cuts that will hammer poor children and the education system. Meanwhile, featured on the home page of the Data.gov is a picture of a cupcake with two lit candles and the festive words “ Happy 2nd Anniversary, Data.gov.” It’s a hollow celebration marking the gutting of a rare win–win scenario that resulted, while it lasted, in both less spending and better government.