Open Government is Not Dead: The Conversation is Just Maturing…

This installment of my featured jennovation series on Govloop and the Phase One Consulting Group (POCG) Transformation in the Federal Sector Blog, was inspired by the recent Open Government Community Summit held at NASA on October 13, 2010 and many recent blog postings discussing variations on the death, sophomore slump and/or decline of Gov 2.0 and Open Gov (including “Sophomore slump for Open Government?”, comment thread of “What Gov 2.0 Needs Now”, “Will Gov 2.0 and Open Gov Die?”). Over the last year my colleagues and I at POCG have been striving to contextualize the Open Government Initiative within a broader innovation vision. This presentation from the Summit introduced some of our thinking to the attendees. This blog posting shares the same thinking.

Bottom line: Open Government is not dead. However, Open Government initiatives are only part of what is required to cultivate an innovative agency culture. They are an important part of a much larger innovation ecosystem, but only one part nonetheless. To cultivate a culture of innovation, the broader picture of what “innovation” means to the Federal Government is critical to understand.

True innovation powered by good ideas is a tricky thing. Before you continue reading, I highly recommend you take five minutes to watch this great video “Where good ideas come from” for a walk through one depiction of the evolution of great ideas over history. What Gov 2.0 champions, Open Government Senior Accountable Officials, and the feds and consultants that support them have been trying to do over the last year, under the direction of the Open Government Directive, is complicated and incredibly difficult. Over the last couple years agencies have been experimenting with apps contests, data release and visualization, social media, and other Open Gov related efforts. These are huge efforts within themselves given the technology, policy and cultural barriers to implementation that exist. But to create the lasting change that will truly revolutionize government performance, many of those individuals have realized that establishing a culture of innovation that has permanence, is institutionalized, and directly improves mission delivery is paramount. It’s creating that culture of innovation that seems impossible but is one of the most important outcomes of all this recent Open Gov and Gov 2.0 activity. The jury remains out on how the variety of initiatives we’ve already undertaken will support a culture of innovation.

As Dan Morgan (@dsmorgan77), an Open Gov Associate at POCG, would say “Government can create new spaces where ideas can collide, ecosystems can form, and innovation can be nurtured. It can do this in benevolent fashion, such as with prizes and competitions. It can do this with open data either actively (Community Health Data Initiative) or passively (simply releasing data on data.gov). It can use these tools internally (DOT’s IdeaHub, etc.) as well as externally (Unemployment Insurance reforms) to improve data quality, drive better data-driven decision making in formulating policy, achieve program performance targets, and ultimately deliver improved outcomes.” But this requires a fundamentally new way of thinking about how the government does business, across the board. It requires a culture of innovation throughout the business—not just in Open Government offices.

Does this vision seem a bit broader than the mandates in the Open Government Directive? It is. This vision is discussed in the President’s Strategy for American Innovation. If you haven’t read that document in full yet, I highly recommend you do. Figure 1 below displays some of the tactics that are mentioned in this Strategy to drive innovation. Within the context of the Strategy, Open Government is a critical enabler in accomplishing all of the key outcomes. Within this context, an Open Government can transform, accelerate, and increase the value of the outcomes of innovations. Open Government is only one enabler for innovation.

Figure 1: Sample Tactics for Promoting American Innovation

So what does this mean to the heroes out there that are struggling to advance the principles of Open Government every day? It means they are not alone. It means there are other tactics that are likely being employed at their agencies that share a common vision for innovation. It means that there is a larger context within which Open Government principles lie. Obviously, some of the puzzle pieces shown in Figure 1 overlap in theory and in practice. Table 1 below highlights some examples where Agencies are taking significant steps towards creating an innovative culture leveraging some of these tactics. Many of these efforts might be unknown in the current Open Gov context because of how we’ve framed the discussion around Open Government and Innovation.

Table 1: Examples of Agency Innovation Efforts (full disclosure: DOT is a client)

So for all you Open Gov practitioners, advocates, and heroes out there, what does this re-framing mean to you? It should help you further your objectives with new tools in your tool belt.

  • Identify other innovation leaders in you agency. Bring those innovation leaders to cross-agency events and get them familiar with the Open Government Initiative. Become familiar with their programs and goals. You can be each other’s greatest allies.
  • If your managers are resistant to Open Gov, try broadening the conversation to one of Innovation. It’s hard to argue with pursuing innovation to improve mission performance.
  • Leverage Open Gov initiatives and pilots as success stories for innovation.

I’ve blogged before on many of the other puzzle pieces (including prizes and competitions, partnerships for sustainability, partnerships to create secondary markets to fill funding gaps, and partnerships to develop infrastructure) and will make an effort to focus on some of the others in future blog postings. What are some other great examples of Agency innovation that are benefiting from the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration that you know of? What do you think about elevating the conversation from one of furthering “open government” to furthering “innovation”? What are the unintended consequences of such a scoping?

As always, please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] or on twitter at @jenngustetic at any time during this series to continue to conversation.


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Great post and love the puzzle.

Like this quote – If your managers are resistant to Open Gov, try broadening the conversation to one of Innovation. It’s hard to argue with pursuing innovation to improve mission performance.

I think the framing is key. Open government is tough to define and hard to understand for an agency’s core mission office or HR or budget. But they get “bringing innovation” into their processes. Or event performance improvement, Lean 6 sigma, etc. Everyone is always looking for ways to improve performances and solve problems in new ways. That’s the key framing.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Greatly enjoyed your presentation at the Open Gov Summit. Would love to get your thoughts on my blog posting about the future of Gov 2.0. Your work on innovation culture is quite important and I think you might benefit from reading Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity And the New Science of Ideas by Richard Ogle. Are you planning any more presentations soon?

Daniel Bevarly

Jenn –

Thank you for the post, insight and links. This deserves more attention that I plan to invest. From the hip, I like the prescriptive nature to the “ills” identified. What I am also sensing is the role the public must play for Gov 2.0 and Open Gov to truly be successful. After all, that should be the driving force behind increased efficiency, transparency and accountability of these agencies. What business would transform itself if not to better serve its customers and provide a ROI to the company? Are governments applying the same strategies in their reform methods?

I’ve believed that the push has been to heavy on the data side and not enough devoted to the dialog component for e-Gov. And that while the “conversation is maturing,” that conversation is also recurring over and over. It needs to be expanded beyond the walls of the institution. And that is a huge challenge. Data is close at hand and somewhat static. Conversations, or dialog, within organizations, and externally with public stakeholders is dynamic and much more difficult to manage. I can understand why an agency, given its limited resources, may seek out the low hanging fruit rather than setting out on an expedition.

As for innovation, certainly that is needed to devise strategies and methodologies to advance governance in the electronic information (Internet) age. However, it is not as much about reinventing as it is about replicating our 225+ years of government structure, standards and processes in an online environment (IMO). I look forward to exploring your references.

Noel Dickover

In addition to almost completely omitting the collaboration part, as Dan points out below, another real shortcoming is the belief that we can do external transparency well without first doing internal transparecy. I think we all looked at external transparency as a low-hanging fruit. But as we’ve found, data abset of a context is close to meaningless (hence the need to participation & collaboration as a precursor to releasing more useful data feeds).

But if we don’t know what the dude two cubicles over is doing, and have few ways to access it, and have virtually no idea what folks across my sub-agency is doing, how on earth are we going to make our data “transparently available” to the public? Bottom line, internal transparency is a necessary condition. To do this well, it involves fundemental shifts in how we gather and disseminate information. Currently this is all wrapped up in hierarchical reporting processes. Until we start talking about a shift where access to the working files replaces reporting processes (and templates are then used to create reports on the fly), we will still be looking at a sea of undiscovered, unstructured data as far as the network can see…

Andrew Wilson

Very solid post and would agree with Noel that some of the external work is the easiest and that internal process are probably where the greatest value may exist (but may also be more difficult to achieve). I have long been a believer that better internal collaboration and transparency will probably yield as least as much net value to the public (more efficient processes, better customer service etc.) as anything the government does externally.

Aaron E. Silvers

I really like the puzzle framework. I keep thinking about several efforts to support a Commons where the work and the by-products of government work can be shared by all… in this framework, it probably is coupled tightly with “Open Government” though it, like each individual pieces, reinforces each other mutually as well as the collective.

Jenn Gustetic

Thanks for the great comments and discussion guys! Really rich thoughts in this comment thread…

@Daniel, Noel and Andrew: I could not agree more that entire scope of possibilities for improving agencies are being ignored within the current framing/discussion of open gov at most places. An inward facing focus on innovation, transparency, knowledge management and collaboration is critically important to compliment the externally facing work. Otherwise it just won’t be sustainable. As @Steve says, innovation is NOT new. People have been doing it for a long time; it’s just called different things. Incremental innovation is also sometimes called “business process reimprovement” and “business transformation”–changes to existing processes that add a lot of value. Radical innovations often require more dedicated prototyping and different tactics–but they’re all aimed at the same thing: improving mission performance. (These initiatives in government have also been known as “egov” and “reinventing government” in previous administrations).

In general, I don’t think we pay nearly enough attention to the things we need to do to”clean house”; the low hanging fruit and the “sensational initiative” does tend to be the relatively quick stuff we can do that’s externally focused (which is also “cooler” so it gets more press coverage and is likely to grant more momentum–at least in short spurts). But the CULTURE CHANGE won’t happen unless we focus on cleaning house and broadening the dialogue from one of data release and social media strategies.

After all, innovation, open gov, and gov 2.0 (whatever you want to call it) are just tactics for helping us to improve mission performance by best utilizing the people, processes and technology available to us. (echoing @Steve)

@Bill: I’m speaking at the Executive Leadership Conference held by IAC in Williamsburg this upcoming week if you’ll be there and I’ll make sure to give you post a read

Out of curiosity, how plugged in do y’all feel at your agencies with the larger innovation agenda? Is there much coordination on sharing and working towards common goals?

Bethany Blakey

Excellent post, Jenn. And excellent responses from all who engaged.

I don’t see much evidence that the desired culture change is taking on its own momentum, other than more people tossing variations on the word innovation into conversation more often. Despite a very active and passionate community of practice, the fundamental change is not taking root where it needs to — with middle managers and program managers who I believe are at the core of most of government work. Even ‘believers’ that claim to embrace innovation routinely and automatically fall back on traditional approaches. Habit is a very difficult thing to break.

So, do we have to manufacture greater discomfort to stimulate greater change? After all, leaders and innovation do emerge when the demand for creative solutions is high. But can we turn up the heat on the demand for better performance in a way that political appointees, career executives and managers alike won’t bristle at (for those more visible and external challenges) or ignore (for those every day, internal, less sensational changes that Jenn and others talked about)?