The Difference between Open Government and Open Governance

Is the federal government up to the challenge of citizen engagement with the public on an individual basis? Is it too much to expect an institution with an annual budget of three trillion dollars and as the nation’s largest employer with close to two million employees ready to go one-on-one with John or Jane Q. Public? If so, are they equipped to do so, and do they really want to?

On a federal level, it may be asking too much to think open government and open governance can be synonymous. What’s the difference between the two? To write this post, I consider open government as the government establishing a reliable structure and a capability to provide access to information and communication in a standardize manner across the executive branch. Open governance is the practice of facilitating individual and group dialog in collaborative exchanges that enables citizens to advance and initiate discussions as well as respond to questions and conversations originated by government.

In other words, open government is opening your home to the general public. Open governance allows them to rearrange the furniture as they see fit.

We are sitting on the “Gov 2.0 Train” that has already left the station bound for who knows where. There is a noted degree of sincerity by the men and women who work for the federal government who blog, tweet and speak about the need for open government. On a daily basis, these employees put forth policies and efforts to advance this idea.

Yet, I am not convinced the executive and legislative branches really want to (or even can) have the level of exposure or accountability based on the definition of open governance described above or on the same level that state and particularly local governments have with their constituents.

As the evidence has yet to jell around capacity and desire, an argument can be made that there is a very big difference between open government and open governance. This is a fair and timely statement considering the recent announcement of President Obama’s Open Government Initiative.

Open Government Initiative distinguishes between the two

Much credit is due this administration for its efforts to make government more open, inclusive and responsive to its citizens. Since the beginning of the Obama Administration there has been a pledge for government transparency and open government. The president’s first executive order focused on open government and this month, the Whitehouse launched the Open Government Initiative “designed to hardwire accountability and accessibility into government institutions.” It also published this month, a 28-page Report to the American People on the same topic.

The contents of these documents support further discussion and inspection of the distinctions of the two concepts. Another important distinction to be made is that open government directives do not require what we have come to call Web 2.0 solutions to be successful. However, open governance will require the collaborative technologies provided in Web 2.0 solutions to succeed. Why?

Open government has to do with the institution itself and its structure, or mechanics. Open governance has to do with its processes. While the Internet has become the common denominator to both concepts, the Administration’s immediate goal is open government while citizens and stakeholders hope for open governance –and may be expecting they are one in the same.

The memorandum outlines three goals that have been incorporated into the strategies and execution: Transparency, Participation and Collaboration. President Obama believes government should be all three.

He touches upon concepts of open government and open governance in his directive. By using “should” or “will,” one can distinguish between what is open government and what is open governance. Using “will” is in the directives the government can deliver. The “should” directives will require a government that’s actively engaged with citizens and operating on a different level of collaboration, and using methods that have yet to be practiced across the agencies.

What I am hearing and reading in these communiqués is the Administration distinguishes between open government and open governance; and probably for valid reasons around capacity and desire. If this is the case, we should not expect to have open governance until we reach the level of open government outlined in the president’s directive.

Unfortunately, this will only continue the ongoing debate of transparency, participation and collaboration and what they look like online. However, there have been a growing number of blog posts that Gov 2.0 train has been slowed or is stalled. This perception (or reality) may be due, in part, to the seemingly repetitive and recycled discussions of Gov 2.0 as defined as Open Government, i.e., accomplishing the same agreed upon goal of organizing, providing and accessing content, just using different tools and technologies to achieve that result.

Widespread, active public engagement is the Holy Grail of Open Governance. But, we have to have public interest first, and that component can be advanced in the open governance design/build. In a recent Twitter feed on this subject @DavidForbes posted a wise “tweet” saying, “…without tackling the cultural factors involved, will end up w/ same mess, just w/ fancier tools.” I fully understand that assessment.

We need to start or expand the discussions of Open Governance. Not as Open Government Part II, but as a main component of the entire challenge and how that will be solved through open government. That is where the public really gets engaged. That is where the real value, or ROI, of online government and democracy will be realized.

(This Blog Post also appears on my personal Blog, www.aheadofideas.com)

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