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Three Focal Points of Open Government

***See the original post at Wikinomics.com***

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Open Government and Innovations Conference in Washington, DC. The two-day conference was a fantastic opportunity to hear some of the leaders in open government thinking, including:

  • Aneesh Chopra, Federal CTO – “The Innovation Imperative
  • Vivek Kundra, Federal CIO – “Town Hall Meeting – The IT Dashboard
  • Dave Weinberger, Harvard Law and Cluetrain Manifesto – “Transparency as a Virtue
  • Tim O’Reilly, O’Reilly Media – “Government as a Platform

(If you’re interested, those talks are available via Adobe Connect here. Click on the linked headshot of the speaker you’d like to watch.)

I sat in on some great panel sessions as well:

  • Openness, Information Sharing, and the Use of New Media in DoD
  • Case Studies in Citizenship Engagement
  • Transforming Citizen Engagement with Congress
  • Embracing a Collaborative Culture

It was also great to connect with some of the participants and speakers through the conference’s live Tweet grid. If you’re interested in more links and insight, just search the hashtag #OGI on Twitter.

Throughout the conference I picked up on a few core themes that seemed to run through all the sessions. While the official themes were Government to Government, Government to Business and Government to Citizens, the following seemed to be the three focal points for moving forward with open government initiatives.

1. Despite the hurdles, collaboration is possible

You may be familiar with the memorandum President Obama issued in January to all heads of departments and agencies in the Federal Government. Aneesh Chopra highlighted this in his opening address, crediting the memo with enforcing the ‘three pillars of open government’: transparency, participatory and collaborative. Since that memorandum, new government collaboration projects have surfaced and already-existing projects have enjoyed being in the spotlight of case studies and media writeups.

One great example is the Transportation Security Authority’s (TSA) ‘Idea Factory’, which is also featured in the White House Open Government Innovations Gallery. The Idea Factory, boasting the slogan “Innovate. Collaborate. Succeed”, is a two year old project connecting some 50,000 geographically dispersed employees across countries. Tina Cariola, the Idea Factory’s Program Manager, said the TSA needed a way to tap the knowledge of all of their employees across the organization. She had clear guidelines: the site had to be up and running within only a few weeks and was to be designed as more than just an online suggestion box.

The result was a dynamic community allowing employees to interact and collaborate with each other around ideas. What’s really interesting is the fact that the Idea Factory was originally rolled out as an innovation program, yet the community has turned into a powerful tool for employee engagement and communication.
TSA management is actually using the Idea Factory as a way to monitor the workforce ‘pulse’, providing insight and awareness of key trends among employees.

Currently, the Idea Factory is seeing around 300 ideas submitted per month, and after community and management review, 1-2 of those are being implemented.

Tina’s tips:
-Establish cross-functional teams when originally establishing your collaboration strategy and reviewing user generated ideas (lawyers, IT, management, HR)
-Publicly recognize key contributors and leaders within the community. This could mean award ceremonies as well as involving that individual as ideas are selected to advance to the next stage of development.

Cases like these demonstrated for the audience that despite the oft-cited security and IP risks, collaboration within, and even across, government departments is possible. In many instances, government employees’ experience in dealing with sensitive information was seen as a real asset when making the shift to a culture of collaboration.

2. Open innovation on a continual basis

Perhaps my favourite part of the conference was hearing about departments opening up and making considerable efforts in the areas of citizen and business engagement. By governments building an effective platform for participation, sharing information and inviting participants to build off of that, communities can be established where innovation can come from anywhere at anytime, RFP issued or not. Aneesh Chopra presented the platform idea via a “Menu of Open Government Tools”, empowering others to develop their own initiatives in a cost-effective manner:

A shining example here is the Department of Defense website DefenseSolutions.gov:

“A portal through which innovative companies, entrepreneurs, and research organizations can offer potential solutions to the Department of Defense. This portal, and the team behind it, are designed to encourage companies that have never considered doing business with DoD to participate.”

Aneesh Chopra also outlined the open dialog initiative wherein the White House invited citizens to draft policy recommendations for a Presidential Directive. Using well known collaborative tools such as IdeaScale and MixedInk, the three stage process produced thousands of votes and comments and can still be seen at each individual phase here:

  1. Brainstorming
  2. Discussion
  3. Drafting Recommendations

For me, this marked the transition from a mindset of closed, project-based, incremental innovation to a government prepared to take good ideas from anywhere. As Aneesh pointed out, “Great ideas get funding, regardless of the rules“.

3. The need to provide compelling experiences

Last, but not least, I felt a real sense of urgency for government agencies to rethink their interactions with participants; the need to provide compelling experiences. This includes with other agencies, government employees, businesses and citizens.

Tammy’s talked about the power of great experiences before. As the idea of government as a platform takes off, I think this becomes even more crucial. Talent, customers, processes and selected information reside outside of the traditional boundaries of the organization. How people interact with the platform out ‘there’ is what’s important. Why should they engage? What’s the reward of doing so?

Part of this comes in presenting information in a consistent, clear, interactive and useful way. The IT Dashboard, as presented by Vivek Kundra, was a great case study here. The searchable and customizable dashboard is so compelling it has attracted more than 30 million visitors since it was launched…on June 30! It’s been effective, too. One presenter spoke of a case where nearly 45 projects were halted at once when someone interacting with the data raised some red flags about cost management.

By making all this data available for mashups and other innovative services, everyday people are allowed a view into government with far more relevance on their personal lives than, say, just tables of data. And when people are compelled to take action, change happens (e.g. 45 projects get halted because of poor contractor performance). A few weeks ago I posted an interview I did with Zappos about engaging potential talent. The same principles apply here when engaging the public. Compelling comes in the form of personal, emotional, and/or relationship-based interactions.

David Weinberger labels this human touch as ‘the spiritual lure of the Web’, in the The Cluetrain Manifesto:

This fervid desire for the Web bespeaks a longing so intense that it can only be understood as spiritual. A longing indicates that something is missing in our lives. What is missing is the sound of the human voice.

The spiritual lure of the Web is the promise of the return of voice.

Citizens and business are beginning to engage with government in interesting ways because of new expectations of a two way exchange of information and learning. New social tools are combining with changing mindsets on openness and collaboration and are starting to demonstrate the real power of that ‘return of voice’ in the form of effective citizen and business engagement.

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Maxine Teller

Thanks for your post — it extends the information and value beyond the two days of OGI and beyond the physical attendees. Information sharing multiples power.