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Towards a More Transparent and Collaborative Government: One Year In

The other day I was having lunch with Rich Dougherty, the CEO of Expert Choice, a collaboration software company in Arlington, VA that is a client of mine. We were discussing the trends towards a more transparent and collaborative federal government. I decided to record it with my iPhone and turn it into an interview.

Here it is:

President Obama came into office promising a more transparent, collaborative and participatory government. We’re one year in. Is it?

There are some bright lights, namely in the area of transparency with data.gov and the CIO dashboard. There are solid examples of where more information is available that was not available before. In a format that’s attractive, meaningful, and accessible. So I do think that progress has been made.

Are we to the levels that were promised? No. Did we ever really expect to get there? Who knows? You’ve got to set the bar high and reach for it knowing that you’re probably going to fall a bit short. We have to realize that this is a massive organization, and change takes time. It will simply never happen in one year or even one term. These organizations are still civil, with a political management structure. Just like any organization of that size, they don’t change on a dime.

From a collaboration standpoint, there has been more collaboration-style interaction. Has it been dramatic improvement? No. But I think there’s the intent.

Is it spotty? Are there pockets of forward movement or do you see all of the agencies trying to get there?

For it to actually play out – to meet the goals of transparency and collaboration – several pieces of the puzzle need to come together. There needs to be the will, the desire to be so. There needs to be policy that helps to guide and direct that effort. And there needs to be the means, the technology. What’s lagging right now is the policy.

I think there’s a general intent and good will. Certainly it’s pocketed in that some are more interested in this than others. There’s a general administrative intent – a desire from the Administration to be more open than in the past. Certainly there are some agencies that have little interest in being more open than before, but there’s genuine desire to be more transparent than in the past.

There are technologies that are making it easier, and some of these technologies that have been around for a while. The Web is making this easier. Social media is making this easier. But there still is the need to allow us to better take advantage of the information. It’s one thing to just collect the information, but we need to use it. We’re seeing a positive dialog trend and there are pockets of success, including efforts at the Bureau of Land Management and NASA’s Goddard Space Center to collaborate around major IT portfolio decisions.

Where we’re short is with policy. What should be shared? What shouldn’t be shared? How should it be shared? It’s not clear who should be sharing information. There are multiple shareholders if you will. Who owns that information? How should it be put forth? What are the security concerns associated with it?

With social media for example, it can be a matter of whose account is it? Is it the agency’s Facebook account or a personal Facebook account? There’s technology that’s making this feasible, but there’s a lag in policy to direct the interaction.

On the technology side, it’s one thing just to banter, have conversations and put data up on the Web. It’s another thing to filter through large bodies of information to make sense of the information and to use it. I don’t think we’ve necessarily gotten to the point we want to be on the participatory side of things. We are more participatory in that we’re engaging and creating more conversations, but I don’t know if those conversations are necessarily yielding any more effective government as a result.

A lot of the progress and action has been on making data and information more available, more transparent. But where do we go from there to use this data in reinventing the process of government and how decisions are made, such as procurement decisions? Is this proving elusive?

The government and its processes are just as elusive as they’ve always been. That’s going to take some time to overcome and it’s a tough nut to crack. These are organizations with embedded processes, stated and unstated. The framework or foundation is in place to enable the use of this information, but I haven’t yet seen it yet other than the occasional one-off examples.

I don’t think the will is there to air dirty laundry, but the will is there to be more open and collaborative.

You brought up dirty laundry. How far do we want to go with transparency? Folks like Larry Lessig have pointed out the Perils of Transparency – sometimes it can be a negative. How do you think agencies are approaching these questions?

Agencies are just starting to figure this out. What is appropriate and what isn’t? I do think there’s a dark side to transparency. I think there’s room to be more transparent than we have been – that’s not necessarily a pejorative statement. There’s more room for many reasons. The technology is there to make it a more efficient process, but if we demanded levels of transparency that required a tremendous amount of manpower to achieve, we’d be more focused on transparency than the job of governing.

We do have to be careful not to lose sight of the goal, which is to do an effective job of governing. Part of that is being transparent, and the technology is there to make this process more efficient. We’ve been involved in helping federal agencies bring together stakeholders and subject experts to prioritize objectives and bring alignment to funding decisions in a transparent way. They save significant time involved in making these decisions and the participation and transparency involved results in buy-in throughout the agency.

Regarding the dark side of transparency where security is clearly a big concern, there are going to be times where we shouldn’t make data available, particularly around national security. Ultimately it makes sense to share it, but when the threat is reduced. That’s the easy one to throw out there.

Another is when the data is wrong. Granted, you can make an argument that it’s useful to get information out there to be able to discover when it’s wrong and deal with it. But you can create a lot of stir and lost time around wrong data. Let’s take an example of data.gov around the spending of a given agency or the performance of a given investment. It’s not impossible to report the wrong information and show the investment is way behind or way ahead of its budget when it very well may not be. But I think that at the end of the day you’re better off exposing it.

There are some things like the old sausage analogy. Congress was going through this with the health care debate on what to televise and what not to televise. Your first reaction may be not televising it is “BS”. But we also realize that to get things done you have to compromise. Deals get done through compromise. But quite often when they’re public, you don’t want to be seen compromising because you appear weak. So when you televise it we’ll just fight all day long and nothing gets done. When we really want to get something done, we’ve got to compromise.

So there’s always got to be a balance. There’s a time to be transparent and a time to not be. There should be periods of transparency. Give it time to evolve.

It could be a difference between real time transparency and eventual transparency.

Yes, that’s right.

Do you see a trade-off among decision-makers between positives, such as a CYA effect that comes from a transparent, collaborative decision-making process and losing control or power they may have had?

I think there is a trade-off between the command and control “I’m going to make the call” and a collaborative approach. If you truly have mandate and you need to make rapid decisive calls, sure, to be in the position to just make the call and less collaborative and participatory you do it, then there are time savings. The classic analogy goes to the battlefield. There’s no time to deliberate whether you’re going to move these troops here or advance there. It’s life or death. There are times that call for quick and decisive action. So that’s the trade off.

The flipside is that when you do take that approach you lose the opportunity for meaningful input and the outcome could be better informed with different perspectives. There’s a time-value trade-off, but it’s disappearing. The processes and technologies exist to quickly capture inputs around decisions, and we’ve worked with a number of agencies to use them internally to increase collaboration and participation while cutting the time-to-decision. The successes and lessons learned are there for others to take.

There’s always the added benefit of the buy-in. Whether it’s the right decision or not, they’re all behind it and you can enjoy the efficiencies that come with having that alignment around a decision.

Are some agencies in a better position to embrace collaboration and transparency than others? The Department of Defense has been a leader in embracing social media and other tools, which may seem counter-intuitive.

You do see some agencies stepping ahead. I can’t speak for the entire government and offer a report card on which agencies are ahead of others, but you do see DoD ahead of the game in certain respects. They’re certainly not blogging about whether or not we should surge in Afghanistan. But they are getting input in “life” type of issues. They’ve got a huge staff and deal with a wide range of issues, so there are a number of areas where they can benefit from that kind of interaction and dialogue. They have the budget, and they’ve always been a technology-advanced organization. They’ve also been able to effectively leverage technology, so it’s not entirely surprising that they tend to be more comfortable with these engagements and the technology. But they’re selective in how they use it.

What are some of the major challenges that an agency faces in this area? Is it the legacy bureaucracies and processes? Human resistance? Technologies?

There is generally, from an Administration standpoint, a willingness to be more open. From a human element, you often find a risk aversion mentality among civilian employees. It’s an impediment if people feel the exposure will bring risk.

A much larger impediment than aversion to risk is the lack of policies around how to do this. Who’s responsible for that data? Who communicates that to the public? When and how? How do we deal with the security issues? Who can speak for the agency? Those are the issues that, to date, have been the biggest impediments. I think they’ll get worked out.

When you talk about participatory, then you’re going to another level. It’s one thing for the federal government to say “this is how we’re spending your money, good or bad.” It’s another thing for the federal government to effectively engage stakeholders and the citizenry in making decisions that guide the government. So we’ve got to collect input, triage it, understand it, find common ground, and use it. That’s going to take some time.

Some of the federal government’s efforts in the area of participation have been “give us your comments and ideas and let the community vote them up or down.” Is this a true effort to involve the public or is it designed to make people feel like they’re involved?

There’s always going to be that element of checking the box, but I do think there’s a genuine interest relative to previous Administration to engage the public. In some ways it’s technology and lifestyle driven. Facebook is new on a macro level. There’s a coolness factor, and how it’s used is changing. That gets applied to how we can approach governing.

There’s two pieces of the puzzle. There’s the government and the citizenry, and let’s lump industry in with the citizenry. The government publishes information and asks for input, but the citizenry has to want to engage. One of the things I’m hearing anecdotally – one client is a CIO and FOIA officer for a Federal agency – is that there’s been a spike in FOIA requests, hundreds of percent increase. Maybe citizens feel that the government is more open to their requests. Maybe they’ll listen, so maybe I’ll ask.

Do you think we’re closer to changing the processes of how decisions are made in government and understanding why they were made?

A little bit but not much. We’re better at sharing information, but that doesn’t say anything about how we made a decision and the data that was used. We’re better at putting a dashboard out and showing investments, risk levels, budget schedules. But that doesn’t inform on how or why the decision was made to fund it in the first place. It may become more apparent on why we kill a program because it’s always been in the red.

It’s one thing to publish data… it’s another thing to act on it. Right now we’re seeing more transparency around the outcomes, the facts and data.

Are you seeing a push to transform the collaboration and decision-making processes?

I think they’re still trying to work out how to get data out there, but that won’t take forever. They haven’t transcended that first step. Whether the will to continue to the next steps will depend on A) if the Administration continues to demand it, and B) if there have been positive benefits from phase one. If we feel we’re better off at governing making data and information more transparent, then I think we’ll be making progress.

There’s a theme in the private sector around encouraging people to fail early and fail often. Is this changing in the government?

You’re hearing from the top that we want people to feel like they can take risks. The message is there, but the question is has the organization caught up? If HR procedures and incentive structures haven’t caught up, nothing’s going to change. If a performance review doesn’t include these incentives and performance structures to include taking risks, the system won’t change. I haven’t been close enough to the OPM performance review process to know if these changes are coming, but that’s what it will take.

What do all these changes mean for government contractors? What opportunities are there? Challenges? Implications for small business contractors?

I think transparency helps contractors because they can become more aware of what’s going on. You can have better conversations with clients and prospects, and put forward better proposals. It certainly levels the playing field by reducing the importance of chummy relationships and insider information.

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Great dialogue. I think 1 year in the lesson learned is that we are just at the beginning and getting our feet wet. First year we set up the basic foundation. And in 2010 – now we are laying the walls and finishing the house and starting to move in. 2011 and 2012 will be about learning about the house, what we like, don’t like, redecorating, etc

Andrew Wright

Thanks Steve. I think you’re right. I feel there has been some “irrational exuberance” regarding all this stuff and how quickly it would come together. Steady, smart progress is happening.