Sustainable Open Government

The cry for open government is rising and elected officials are delivering. But in the zeal to throw open the doors to the records vault, no one bothered to fully understand the impact except for those of us who actually work for government. But no one wants to hear from us. Politicians only care about pleasing voters (particularly when their records are not subject to these laws), and citizens think we are only expressing concern because we have something to hide.

The whole thing reminds me of stories about buried treasure. A group of people hear tales of buried treasure; spend a lot of time and effort tracking down its location; then finally there is that climatic moment of uncovering the treasure box and throwing open the lid to find…nothing. The moral of the tale for me was always don’t waste a lot of time and effort on nothing. Course you are always going to have some people say that you have to keep trying because there is always that one chance you might find something worthwhile.

So how much money and time do we as a country want to spend hunting down tales of treasure? Because FOIA laws like the one that recently went into effect in Illinois have a significant cost potential. And that cost is not only for the government.

Soon after the new year started I heard of one city that got a FOIA request asking for copies of all invoices and contracts for the last 12 years. First of all, in Illinois, governments only have to keep invoices for 7 years. But even finding and copying all invoices and contracts for the past 7 years can take up a lot of staff time. This small community will most likely have to shut down all city services to comply with this request because it has to be delivered in 5 days. So the citizens of that community go without services that week. Another story reported that Lakewood, Wash., spent $16,000 last year complying with the requests from one person.

At this point, if a terrorist wants to disable government, they don’t have to bomb a government building – all they have to do is continually file FOIA requests. And although that is a tongue in cheek comment, the potential for shutting down government to deal with these requests is real. But because citizens do have a right to public records, and elected officials are going to make sure laws are in place to protect that right, someone has to figure out a way to comply without shutting down core services. We have to make open government sustainable because it most definitely is not under the current structure.

Some have suggested hiring additional people whose only job is to deliver information. But this is going to cost a lot of money, and no one wants to pay higher taxes for more government personnel. Many have suggested putting the information in digital format and offering it online. This is certainly a sustainable method of delivery. If we had everything available immediately and online, little to no staff time is required to collect and distribute information. The underlying problem with this is getting it in digital format or if it already is in digital format, such as e-mail, getting it collected and distributed. Those steps still take up a lot of staff time.

So what is the answer? I believe a sustainable open government will require those of us working in government to make a significant change in our workflows, our policies and standards, and the tools we use. Let’s take e-mail to demonstrate my point. In order for e-mail to be easily made available to the public, there must be an “open government e-mail tool” designed to automatically take each e-mail and the related response and post it somewhere accessible to the public. It would also be nice if it maintained some structure in the flow so conversations can be easily followed. This could be expanded to include all documents received and/or generated: make all vendors send digital invoices; change word processing tools and mobile inspection apps to automatically save or post online, etc.

A lot of people working for government might initially be shocked about such a transparent suggestion. But if you work for government and think about it, you start to realize that there really is nothing there so who cares if it is out there for anyone to see? The key is in realizing up front everyone can see what is received and generated in our offices, and then finding a way to automatically collect and post these documents to a public site online. We will also need to rely on companies making software for government to incorporate these open government methods into their tools.

Two other steps are necessary to ensure a sustainable open government. One is to officially designate exactly what type of information must be collected and made available (such as do we tape phone calls – how far are we to go?). Then develop an open government template for online sites that integrate with the open government tools. And the other step is to integrate a local government/civic education into our high school curriculum. Because in the end all of this will mean nothing and will only lead to further problems if no one really understands the treasure they find.

(Originally posted on Public Works Group Blog)

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Well said, Pam. The image that comes to mind for me as I read about your call for this level of transparency is that it would be like working as a “live mannequin” in a store front window on Times Square. Everyone can watch you do your work, but will they really stop and pay attention? They’re all busy rushing to their own activities.

The real treasure is less that we operate transparently and more that we engage citizens effectively in the act of delivering services to them, right? Does this sustainable open government model achieve that end – making ourselves and our activities available for everyone to see? Or would it be better if we move the table to the street corner…

But then again, would we get any work done if we made ourselves so available? Would the average citizen want that level of transparency in his/her own job?

There’s got to be an approach somewhere in the middle – where everything we do is digital, so it’s easily extractable when a request is made…but isn’t so transparent that we feel as if someone is constantly looking over our shoulder. I don’t think anyone wants to work in that kind of environment, eh?


That’s amazing about some of the FOIA requests. I’ve seen the backlogs at big agencies and worked with a number of people that had to complete and it sure was crazy.

Automation does seem to be the key. How can we automate the work flow so open is the default and it is easy to do.

The trick though will be how people react. I remember when congressional staff salaries were put online there was a lot of upset folks even though it was public info. I wonder if the same will occur with gov salaries/emails/info that is public record but hard to get. I

‘m always shocked that people don’t already know about sites like http://php.app.com/fed_employees/search.php – where you can already do some things like find salaries as public info.

Sam Allgood

Another issue is being able to figure out in advance what information citizens might ask for. Even when provided digitally, how it is organized can significantly effect how it is interpreted. Further, the digitized data is often coded rather than plain text and with many legacy systems the translation of the codes are embedded in programs.

David Dejewski

There are some great ideas in here, Pam. I’m thinking they are “Way out of the Box!” quality.

You’re articulating something that I think we’re all thinking. It’s about how to apply Web 2.0 most effectively in response to the kinds of challenges you mention above. I personally believe that forums like GovLoop, MilSuite, and others are doing a great job of slowly raising the awareness across government that there are options. Technology is finally beginning to deliver on the promises we’ve been hearing for the last 25 years. Anything we can do to continue to raise that awareness will get us to solutions faster.

In an effort to continue raising awareness of ways that Web 2.0 can be implemented in the government, my team has pulled together a brief titled “Implementing Web 2.0 in the U.S. Government” and would like an opportunity to brief it at the upcoming OGI Open Government Event.

The only way we get to brief this subject is if we can collect enough Twitter votes to put us in the running (that’s the way OGI is running it this year). We could sure use your vote.

If you’d like to vote, just follow this link, log in with your Twitter account and click the “Vote” button. We only have a few days left, so please log in and vote today if you can.

Pam Broviak

Adriel, I had read parts of it over time, but went and read it all through today. It covers a lot of these concerns and is well written.

So based on our discussion in this thread (which by the way is refreshing to read since I think people are hesitant to bring up real issues with transparency for fear of being thought against it) here is a start on a blanket statement of what we need to do:
Develop a mission or goal that will create an open government within an efficient and effective framework that ensures integrity and enhances delivery of public services. In planning, organizing, and delivering open government, agencies will use all means of available technology, collaborate between all levels of government, and engage the public while maintaining the highest degree of commitment, truthfulness, and transparency.

As an engineer, I call this part Phase 1 or looking at the big picture. Now we need to move into Phase 2 or the guts of how to accomplish this. Today I joined the OpenGov Playbook Website, so maybe we can expand the dialogue over there and start hashing out our design!

Lisa Nelson

This raises an interesting issue, e-discovery. Virtually all (95%) desktop government records are born digital, only a small percentage end up being “preserved” in a electronic recordkeeping system. Little attention is paid to preserving in a coherent, uniform, and consistent fashion potentially large numbers of electronic communications on otherwise highly networked systems that constitute long-term temporary or permanent government records.

Governments routinely have trouble collecting and preserving records in their native, proprietary form (with metadata), and they have trouble searching them in a reasonable way – especially if they must rely on the enormous expense of restoration.

Pam Broviak

Hi Lisa!!! You are so right – our IT guy and I always talk about how we need training just in organizing our files on the network. It would be nice to just have a standard for digital archiving in general.