Three Reasons Why Gov 2.0 and Open Gov Are Different From Past Government Reform Efforts

First, a quick disclaimer: I am currently on a six-month detail for OPM’s Open Government Team. Yes, I am bragging but I also want to stress that anything I write on GovLoop is just my personal opinion and does not reflect the opinions of OPM, the Open Government Team, or anyone connected with the OPM Open Government effort.

Now on to the topic. There is a lot of cynicism both in and outside of government concerning Gov 2.0 and Open Gov. I believe most of this comes past government reform efforts which had, at best, mixed results. In my first round as a Federal employee I was involved with Gore’s Reinventing Government effort. Reagan had a blue-ribbon commission on reform as did Nixon. Government reform has been a continuing effort since Wilson and Taylorism. I believe they even found evidence of government reform efforts in Ancient Egypt (I wonder how you tell a god-emperor he or she needs to go “lean”).

So, with this long history of government reform which has some brought some innovation but disappointment what makes Gov 2.0 and Open Gov different? And is this difference enough to make a real impact? To me there are three major reasons why Gov 2.0 and Open Gov will succeed and succeed big:

1) Government is re-engaging their citizens. Public agencies can no longer operate as vending machines where citizens put in tax dollars and out pops government services. Agencies are becoming transparent and accountable for how they spend tax money and are encouraging citizens to become part of providing government services. Think of Dr. Noveck’s Peer-to-Patent program and the recent SeeClickFix programs.

2) Democracy is changing. I have written before about the emergence of monitory democracy and the recent events in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and other Middle Eastern countries just demonstrates the desire for democracy and how media-rich nations empower citizens to grow democracy. Even in well-established democracies citizens are no longer content to vote for a representative and then trust that the government will operate in their interest. People want to speak directly to agencies that affect their lives and are demanding the right to monitor even the inner workings of the Federal, state, and local governments.

3) Balance of Information Power has shifted. Before the Open Data movement, government essentially held all the cards when it came to information about what government did and how it operated. Yes, there were investigative journalism articles, legislative hearings, and the occasional FOIA request but obtaining government information that wasn’t selectively released by agencies was difficult to obtain for the average citizen. Now, thanks to the Internet and Social Media technologies it is easier to gain access and to aggregate data sources to give a more complete picture of what government is doing. The Balance of Information Power is shifting in favor for the citizen and will continue to shift that way as government engages citizens and as monitory democracy evolves.

In Gov 2.0 and Open Gov the citizen is no longer a customer who passively receives government services. Past reform movements were built upon the vending machine model and that is why they didn’t deliver as promised. Gov 2.0 and Open Gov are built upon engagement and collaboration and that is why they will prove to be more successful.

What do you think? Are these three reasons valid? Are there better reasons for why Gov 2.0 and Open Gov will succeed? Or is Gov 2.0 and Open Gov just like previous government reform efforts?

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Jeff Ribeira

I think you touched on a very important distinction here, Bill. When it comes to gov reform, as you said, there is a negative association perpetuated throughout history, destining any “traditional” efforts to fail even before they begin. But we need to ask ourselves if the usual restructuring and moving around of “boxes” as they say is really the best method. If the end goal is efficiency, transparency, collaboration, or whatever else, then there are so many other “nontraditional” methods which are such a better use of time and resources, and I think you’ve touched on some great ones here. What we really need is for people to start thinking outside the box, and reform the very idea of reform.

Andrea Schneider

Hi Bill,

The Open Gov Directive (OGD) has a big champion, President Obama, as does his call for Innovation at a large scale. It’s what we do with it with this challenge that will make the difference. The OGD is a big framework, which includes the focus on Gov 2.0/transparency/data.

Using technology to maximum effect requires a bigger ‘house’, new organizational design and capabilities, new ways of allocating dollars to maximize results, new partnerships, public and private, new ideas with sticking power.

One tenant of the OGD is collaboration. Doing this well requires a shift in how we work together, large scale and small. Responding to the recent GAO report, on redundancy and duplication of taxpayer dollars, would require us to break down categorical funding silos, share resources, leverage talent and fundamentally shift how we work together. Gov 2.0 can help this process, but it still requires organizational innovation to work well, in a sustainable way, Sustainability in Government

I have a several groups on GovLoop which address this challenge from different perspectives, one you might find interesting is related to Open Gov and Gov 2.0. Your thoughts and ideas are very welcome. I hope we can make things work this time.


I think the primary reason that Gov 2.0 and OpenGov will succeed is that the social media boom is enabling many of the changes. The tools are accessible to anyone and everyone, and can begin to cut through citizen apathy and governmental bureacracy and resistance to change. If used correctly, they amplify individual voices and flatten hierarchies, and will accelerate the transition to the next stage of OpenGov, which is to institutionalize via innovations in policy, culture and technology.

Peter Sperry

I think we need to get past some of the negative mythology regarding past government reform efforts. While it is true that none of them led to a nirvana of completely open, effective, efficient government at little or no cost to taxpayers; close examination indicates that almost all of them made incremental progress in a positive direction. Even the reform efforts which initially appeared to have little impact (2nd Hoover Commission) provided research, ideas and management blueprints that were often incorporated in subsequent efforts.

We should be very careful about dismissing past efforts and instead view our own as the latest increment in a long progression of improvement which began before most of us were born and will continue long after we are gone.

Daniel Honker

10 years ago, the E-gov initiative was about making government more efficient and customer-friendly. With Gov 2.0 and Opengov, efficiency is a byproduct of greater citizen involvement. So on that point, you’re exactly right.

With Obama’s push for government reorganization, I think we’re at a real tipping point on Gov 2.0. Jeff had a great point in his comment below: that the 1960s notion of doing government reorganization by “moving around the boxes” just won’t work. However, I think there’s a possibility that some agencies are exhausted by the opengov push, which in my view seems to have saturated the “early adopters” but is having trouble getting ingrained in the culture of government agencies. OMB is putting together a team to explore reorg options, but I haven’t heard much about whether they’re looking at Gov 2.0 concepts. I’m pessimistic that Congress would initiate a move toward greater openness, so I think the impetus must come from the Administration.

Thanks for the invite to the Gov 2.0/Opengov group — I joined too 🙂

Mark Forman

I have to disagree strongly that government reform today is different from the 1980s or 1990s. This Administration seems to be caught up with naming long-term trends and creating an office and a “czar” then claiming they have created a new idea…that’s really re-purposing for self interest. First, we have to realize that the dominant focus of government reform in the 1980s was built on new-Federalism, which dramatically reduced the federal government’s interactions with Citizens and delegated most Citizen service delievery to state and local governments. In the 1990s, this migrated to non-profit groups as well as governments. So the federal government’s largest transactions today are with businesses, and the only services that the federal government provides directly citizens are programs that compete with new Federalism approaches (heat, Veterans benefits, Social Security (but even much SSI gets filtered through non-profits under late 1990s welfare reforms). Second, the notion of government as a source of information to citizens is a function of the e-Government movement of the last 15 years, but in the end you can find decades of publications dissemination efforts at virtually every agency. In fact, most information dissemination is based on data collected from citizens and businesses, then aggregated and given back to the industry groups. In the late 1990s, “infomediary” companies came into existence and proposed zero-cost bids on the old government information dissemination contracts (prior to “Open Goverment” the federal goverment paid vendors or the GPO to disseminate government data). Even in spending transparency, most states led the way with putting budgets and spending on-line in the 1990s (they didn’t pick sexy name like “social media” or “transparency,” they just did it because it was the taxpayers money). Third, if the “Open Government” movement is really going to be a game changer, it has to put something other than data sets in public view…essentially opening up behind the scenes “closed door” agency decision making to the Tea Party movement, which everytime I have asked Administration officials they are unwilling to do that for fear of negatively impacting their interests. So, this movement is good, but not new.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Mark – I will quibble with you on your first two points but you are right on the third point. Open Government has to be more than just giving out data sets and calling it a day. I’m not sure of the reason behind not disclosing to the Tea Party is as you say but any U.S. citizen no matter their beliefs should know what their government is doing with their tax money.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Daniel – Yes, change fatigue can be a killer. I am hopeful that the administration’s effort at reorg will be more than pushing around boxes and will bring about the deep and sustainable change government needs.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Peter – Good point on incremental change but I think we should be smarter about managing expectations. In my personal observations during the Gore Reinventing Government effort, I felt like they were overselling the actual impact of the policies. Now that is just my opinion and I am not aware of any actual data supporting that conclusion so take it for what is worth.

Christina Morrison

Good post Bill. I agree with Megan’s assessment below: I think OpenGov is different from previous reforms because we now have the platforms online to find and share the relevant data. Niche social networks, groups and forums can gather people who have very specific interests, both to hold governments accountable, but also to spread helpful information.

Mark Sullivan

Excellent discussion! I would only add that specific process or technical solutions can’t work unless we fundamentally change how citizens interact with government. All to often, efforts at government ‘reform’ are derailed or run out of steam because citizens enage in behaviors that perpetuate the current relationship (e.g., bringing issues to government officials or politicians, but not taking responsibility for developing or implementing solutions). Government officials then get seduced into owning the work, rather than sharing it. The challenges we face today are far too complex for any one party to resolve. Technical opengov and gov20 solutions provide a vehicle for this greater engagement, but real sustainable change will require us to alter the fundamental relationship between citizens and government.

“We’re not going to fix government until we fix citizenship.” — Jennifer Pahlka, founder of CodeForAmerica