Why Government Isn’t Open

It comes down to incentives.

In private companies, what’s the worst thing that can happen to you, as a business owner?

Losses. If you can’t make money, you can’t stay in business. Private sector industry loves communicating and advertising itself — far more than many of us prefer — because it has no choice. It is less likely to lose money if people know about their product. And every business owner wants to make enough money to feed their families.

It’s a different story in government. What’s the worst thing that can happen to you as a government employee? While it varies from agency to agency, there is one consistent thing all government employees fear — appearing in the New York Times. Or the Washington Post. Or Government Executive. These stories have real impacts on the operations of these agencies, because Congress — the Federal Government’s Board of Directors — doesn’t like these stories. Budgets get cut. Even if their budgets aren’t cut directly, they are cut de facto, because the agencies that are the targets of these stories will be forced to institute additional oversight mechanisms, which itself is a cost.

In business, sales and revenue determine whether a business says in business. In government, Congressional votes replace revenue. Criticism costs vosts. Criticism is the negative incentive that drives government.

So what does this have to do with openness? Being open invites criticism. It is impossible to criticize what you don’t know. And that’s why government has a hard time being open; those who are most open are the most easily punished.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

“that’s why government has a hard time being open; those who are most open are the most easily punished.”

I’ve not heard it put quite this way before, but it’s true – to be open means that government is exposed and accountable…to be “naked” in a sense. And that’s an awfully uncomfortable position to be in…especially if you don’t choose it. Of course there’s a fear and resistance to being open.

So now that we know “why?” – let’s explore getting to “how?”

How do we create incentives for openness? How do we overcome fear?

How do we create courage and boldness and smart risk-taking?

Kristy Dalton

“…those who are most open are the most easily punished.” Well, only if they’re doing bad things.

The value in open government isn’t only about transparency. It’s about trusting that your citizens may have something to offer back to those who govern them. Open government isn’t all about one-directional criticism toward those who govern. Citizens’ ability to be informed and understand the operations of government can only be a good thing – I’ve heard so many great ideas from citizens lately that I don’t believe we would have known if we had the doors of our government locked and barred shut for fear that someone may get in.

Andre Castillo


Fair point, but surely you don’t think it’s unheard of to be criticized for doing the right thing? 😉

I like Niccolo Machiavelli’s take on that point:

“There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. The innovator has the enmity of all who profit by the preservation of the old system and only lukewarm defenders by those who would gain by the new system. (Machiavelli, 1513. Cited from http://www.spaceandmotion.com/Philosophy-Politics-Globalisation.htm)”

– Andre

Andre Castillo

Andrew — Good insight. For incentives, I think it begins with the basic premise that you have to make less of a big deal when you see $16 muffins than when you see $16 savings. It sounds obvious on the surface, but when you think it through it’s a radical shift from where Congress is currently at.

And remember — Congress sets the incentives more than any actor in government, because they control the law and the purse.

Brian Gryth

Using business as the analogy for openness is a complete failure. A marketing and sales pieces cannot be considered open. Very few companies are complete forthright about their products. They may not lie, but they certainly not publicize their faults or shortcoming. After all, openness may cost revenue as well.

Transparency is only one component of the openness pie. Another component is access to information. And government is more accessible than business. If for no other reason than government has a legal obligation to provide access to records and communications. Business has no obligation to the public to be accessible. Shareholder may have some rights, but those rights are not universal.

Government could obviously do a better job at being open. I will agree that a culture of discouraging openness can and does exist. I also largely agree with your thesis here. I just take issue with your analogy to business in general as the exemplar of openness. Are some businesses open? Yes. Do those businesses succeed? Some do.

Generalizations do not forward the discussion and we need not weaken an otherwise good arguments with exception ridden analogies.

Andre Castillo


You’re absolutely right. I skimmed over that qualifier to make a larger point, and there are many examples that support your statement. Apple’s famous secrecy, for example. Where openness happens and where it doesn’t just comes down to incentives, as Andrew pointed out. I do believe that, to limit the openness pie to just marketing for example, in general that there are fewer incentives for government agencies to market themselves than there are for private companies because government agencies don’t depend on sales for survival. They just need the favor of patrons in Congress, sometimes of just one Congressman. And that is often easier to maintain when fewer people are aware of how much money you are getting and for what (the whole “a passionate few beat an apathetic many” concept).

I think we largely agree here, it’s just a matter of how we describe it.

– Andre

Christopher Whitaker

Those within the government resist the opengov movement at their peril – because everything comes out eventually. To think one can hide mistakes forever is in need of some serious shock therapy.

OpenGov is catching on in part because it makes accountability easier – which makes government better!

And, by the way, the OpenGov movement is spearheaded by government employees. We want the data out there – we want people to look at things.

Plus, opendata means cool things can be produced from the data.

Dannielle Blumenthal

This is an interesting quote from Marlin Fitzwater about the Chief of Staff function in the White House. To me it sheds light on the conversation about openness because it highlights how personality-driven Washington is. Reality: We are a high-context culture where small, stovepiped “in-groups,” working within a convoluted maze of rules, have their own unique communication codes that wouldn’t be easily decipherable by the outside world. I am in favor of transparency but at the same time, one has to recognize that in some environments, being able to close the door and get work done is critical to being effective. Fitzwater’s quote:

But in terms of the people management it’s a very small group and it’s always a personality kind of thing. And that’s also why I think businessmen have such a difficult time. There’s always this kind of feeling when you bring in businessmen or businesswomen with experience and they’ll bring some professionalism to the organization. And they always fail because they always think in line-staff structural relationships and in business they don’t have to worry about personal relationships because they have the power. They give orders; they take away your salary; they can fire you; they can give you bonuses. And in the White House all those normal management techniques go out the window. Oftentimes you can’t fire people. (Fitzwater)

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Andre – It’s deeper than incentives. It’s culture. Specifically, the cultural imperative of appearing accountable and performing the mission as ordered. It’s making the trains run on time even though the rest of the world are flying jet planes. Innovation and experimentation is coming but it is still a slow process.

Courtney Shelton Hunt

I think the contrast with for-profit organizations is a false distinction. To build on Brian’s point, most commercial enterprises are NOT open, and sales/revenue incentives have little impact on that.

But there’s another point that’s missing here to me: no organization can control the conversation anymore. Those days are long past. One of the primary reasons leaders of all types hesitate to become more digitally engaged is that they’re afraid of what will happen when they open the conversation, which is the basic point you’re making. But the notion that not being open reduces risk and increases control is a myth (one of the 4 I address in Part 3 of the Social Media Primer: http://tiny.cc/SMinOrgsPrimer3). No one needs permission to talk about the government or any enterprise in cyberspace. As long as they don’t break any laws, they can say whatever they want, wherever they want. Rather than simply let those conversations take place all over the place, it’s in an organization’s best interests to provide a forum where they can listen and engage.

I’ll also note that your comments seem heavily weighted toward the federal government. Though similarities may exist at the state and local level, the dynamics aren’t quite the same. Government is not a monolithic entity…

Finally, to build on Andrew’s point, I much prefer talking about solutions rather than problems. Yes, being open is scary and difficult. Rather than simply talking about the challenges – which can easily become excuses and obstacles – let’s figure out how to tackle them.

Andre Castillo

Courtney — the solution is easy to identify: change the incentives. I just don’t think it’s possible to do that without first identifying what they are in any given organization. And for many, many government employees, openness is not incentivized, because of the nature of government.

About the idea of a false dichotomy between private and public sectors, it depends on what the comparison is. I was being general, perhaps overbroad, but just compare the average corporate website compared to the average government website. Seems to me there is a greater incentive for the average private company to tell you about what they do, why, and how than there is for government agencies. Speaking for VA, it’s not because we don’t try — we try very hard, and spend significant resources, to be open online. it’s just extremely difficult. Look at VA’s social media efforts, especially VA’s blog. Every time we communicate openly we take hits every little thing we don’t do, even though 99% of that is Congress’s decisions, not ours. We continue to communicate online anyway because it’s the right thing to do. But we don’t get rewarded for it. Not at all.