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The Zen of Cultural Change

It is time to move from creating a more open government to sustaining open government. Yes, there is a lot more work to do in making agencies on all levels of government are releasing their data and becoming transparent. Governments have successfully picked the low-hanging fruit of opening up their datasets. It’s now time to change the culture of government so that openness, transparency, and collaboration is embodied in everything government does. Ten years from now (if not sooner) government employees shouldn’t even have to think about if they are being open, transparent, and collaborative because the culture of the agency insures that they they are.

Culture is a natural byproduct of humans as social beings. We develop culture so that we can get along, survive, and achieve goals. It is only naturally that we develop cultures at work because a large part of our waking hours is spent at work or thinking about work. A single person cannot have a culture; it takes interactions between each other to create a culture. But what exactly is culture?

There are many academic definitions for culture but for our purposes I prefer this simple definition: the way we do things around here. “We” come together in a defined group (eg. IBM, HUD, Star Trek fans) and in a defined boundary such as a department, office, or online community (“around here”). We develop methods, practices, policies, etc. (“way”) that govern the actions (“do”) members of the culture take in response to “things” (issues, events, etc.) that we face as a culture. Essentially, organizational culture is how we collectively solve the problems we face everyday in our work and life.

Thus, the resistance to changing the organizational culture. Problem-solving is hard and takes a lot or resources and effort. Humans are incredible at problem-solving but they are also good at optimizing. We don’t like having to solve the same problems over and over so we create things like writing, forms, email, databases and the like to embody the solutions we have created so that the next time the same problem shows up we can just solve it without having to think about it. We only give up our solutions when a demonstrably better solution comes along. And it better be a really good solution if it has a chance of displacing the current solution.

Cultural change is not only possible but it is necessary. Groups change, new events confront the group, and new problems face our culture. I believe that the reason why many intentional cultural efforts fail is that they don’t recognize the paradoxes of cultural change. This is what I can the Zen of culture because we blend many paradoxical ideas to develop culture. Here are three paradoxes that makes cultural change difficult for those who do not first seek to understand the culture:

  1. The culture is not the culture. There is no one culture but many cultures that people belong to. You may have an overall agency culture but you also belong to the subculture of your department, the subculture of Redskins fans, the subculture of people who eat out for lunch, and so on. Some of these subcultures are easily changed while others are ingrained in you. And how these subcultures interact cause the resistance to change. For example, IT folks are often most open to new technologies while the law department would rather stay with the software they have been using for the last 20 years because they have built many of their processes around how the software works.
  2. We seek the novel and the safety of the familiar. A colleague has a great example of this. Imagine a playground in an open field without fences. The children will often huddle together in the middle of the playground and are reluctant to wander out in the field. Now, put a fence around the playground. Then the children will often hang around the fence and are more willing to venture out in the open field. It is the setting of boundaries that makes us adventurous. We have the safety of the fence that we can run to in between our adventures. Culture equals safety.
  3. Culture remains the same by changing. Thanks to the Internet, many ancient religions are now being practiced today. Many Amish businesses use a personal computer in their business dealings with the outside world. There are numerous monasteries that sustain themselves by creating websites for clients. Cultural groups will often use the new technologies or practices as a way to sustain the culture and its core beliefs. This can be frustrating for a change agent when they see their innovation being used to defeat the intent of the change.

I want to invite you to join the conversation on cultural change and keep Open Government alive. There is well-justified concern that the 2011 budget cuts to the Open Data sites will stall the Open Government but I believe that the best way to keep Open Government going is to change the cultures in our agencies and governments so that the citizens demand further change. This concern has prompted several of us to start an online group with two purposes:

  1. to collect the best thinking on how to effectively change cultures so that they are more open, transparent, and collaborative, and
  2. to establish worldwide unconferences where government workers, academics, and citizens gather to discuss how to change the culture of their governments to be more open, transparent, and collaborative.

Please join us at Culture Change and Open Government.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed are my own and do not reflect the views of my employers or any groups where I am a member.)

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Jeff Ribeira

I think you hit the nail right on the head with this one Bill. In just about every conference/forum on open gov initiatives that I’ve sat in on have all boiled down to the need to change culture. Unfortunately this can be, as you said, extremely difficult since culture is so closely linked a person’s identity, yet it’s so vital to sustainability. I look forward to the discussions in the new group!

Bill Brantley

@Andy: Even if you implement deliberate disruption you still run into the third paradox. Microsoft was able to maintain it’s culture despite almost missing the Internet by quickly embracing the Internet. Lou Gerstner saved IBM by changing its culture back to the earlier consultative culture of IBM. The history of China is one long demonstration of how the Chinese assimilated those who conquered China into the Chinese culture.

You are correct that a major factor is a new leader but the most successful leaders are able to take existing cultural themes into changing the culture. President Reagan springs to mind as an example of this type of leader.