Thursday, July 1, 2010

What's the "Next Step" in Open Government & Transparency?

Feb 19, 2010

Is Open Government Dangerously Digital?

Yesterday I sat on a great panel about the Open Government Directive and the open government principles of transparency, collaboration, and engagement hosted by Adobe and 1105 Media. I'm particularly interested in how communities are engaged by the government, especially with my new job as a "director of innovative social engagement." So, as I listened to Robynn Sturm, the Assistant Deputy CTO of the U.S. for Open Government, speak before me, I couldn't help but notice one thing - technology was a huge part of the equation, and humans were not.
In my later panel, I termed this "Dangerously Digital."
There have been some clear wins for digital open government. I think that something like the Federal IT Dashboard is the kind of transparent, impersonal Government 2.0 initiative that works in a digital space. It makes sense. But then I see examples more on the collaborative and participatory side of things that have what appears to be a "sit and wait" strategy - we will make data available, press release a contest, or create a website where anyone can submit and vote on ideas...and hope something happens.
This is the equivalent of quenching your thirst for the year by putting a plastic kiddie pool outside and hoping that it rains hard.
It's not that we shouldn't have open data, or contests, or open suggestion websites. But what I wonder is, while the government surely has people in charge of all of these things, who's in charge of being a social ambassador to the communities that can help, and the communities that can benefit? For something like the Innovations for Healthy Kids Challenge (a worthy cause), who's in charge of actually reaching out to video game developers and similar people to make them aware of the challenge, let them know that their private sector skills are needed and respected and taken seriously by their govenrment, and build trust with them over the long term so they can possibly be activated at a later date?
Often times, it's remarked that going to LA pool parties hosted by video game designers isn't part of government work. But maybe it is, if that's what it takes to get more talented people involved in their government. "Social" isn't a dirty word, it's part of what government needs to do better. Social comes before collaboration. It comes before participation. That's because it comes before trust.
Do people trust your government agency enough to feel that their ideas are taken seriously in Washington?
Some side notes. 
One, I still am not sure that Facebook "Fan" pages and Twitter accounts and the like branded with EPA, USDA, DOT, and so forth are the right way to go. Sorry, no one is a "fan" of the EPA. Or virtually any other government entity (I can imagine a few exceptions, like the Marines). What people are "fans" of are issues important to them, their families and neighborhoods, and their communities. I'd like to see a Facebook page about a clean environment with safe water, family farms, and energy efficiency run jointly by (say) the USDA, EPA, DOE, and DOI. Here's a decent private-sector example of this kind of non-organization pro-community Facebook page, named Bright Side of Government; I think this starts to get at the right idea.
Two, the idea of a Public Roadmap for Open Government (deadline soon!) is a good start, but this is predicated on the assumption that creating a more transparent, collaborative, patrticipatory federal government is a predictable, measureable process. To some degree it is, and to some degree it isn't. Rather than an artificial, forced deadline to decide what a roadmap looks like, how about a year within which experiments in open government are conducted, social networks are formed with the public and stakeholders, and a "roadmap" is built experimentally through trial and error? Perhaps the rules, the principles, and the grand strategy can be written down in a tidy report beforehand - the tactics? Not so much.
Three, the idea of a "high value dataset" is a little shaky. Yes, we want good data. It should be collected in a quality manner, meaning that one can trust the numbers. But trying to determine a priori what data will be more useful and which won't is a very tricky business. As a scientist, I saw numerous examples of people reviving older topics and relying on crusty old data 20 or 30 years old, to put together something novel. In fact, that's how my Ph.D. dissertation came about. Thank goodness someones published all that "low value data" for me.
In the end, I think that incorporating relatively inexpensive technologies like IdeaScale across the government is a great idea. But the idea seems to be very tech-heavy. I'm not even convinced that the CTO should be in charge of Open Govenrnment, because that unnecessarily supposes that technology is the answer to every problem. Technology is useful, no doubt. I'm using it to write this right now. I'm a blogger. I'm a Twitter fiend. I fly Virgin America and text people from my seat. And maybe the digital world is by far the best way to achieve transparency and deliver more information to more people - I don't dispute that.
But collaboration and participation are human endeavors, not robotic ones. Building websites, inventing contests, and inviting input are necessary but not sufficient for collaboration and participation, whether inside the enterprise or with the public. Only when combined with government participation in and knowledge and understanding of communities that rely and care about their missions do these things work well over the long term, repeatedly.
Sometimes government can seem intimidating. Even an "open government" website that invites input begs the question - will anyone in Washington DC really care about my idea? I don't know anyone there, and therefore I don't trust anyone there. Trust in government is at a low for the last 50 years (at least).
So, if you are working on Open Government, don't be Dangerously Digital. Make sure someone's on the human side of the equation, interacting. Caring. After all, happy hours are meetings.
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Comments (12)

Feb 19, 2010
Step in rt dir -- has gov't people that chat online and respond in real time.

Feb 19, 2010
Smashing post, Mark. The tools are fantastic, but you simply cannot build them and expect people to dash right over and use them, especially when many citizens are still on dial-up. And I also agree that Twitter and Facebook pages for agencies (as maybe opposed to iniatiatives) are that valuable (Andrew Wilson wrote such this week as well).
Much of the "Gov 2.0" and "Open Gov" movement was spurred by the Obama campaign and it's community organizing/engagement style. That is not translating well to the federal bureaucracy's attempts at open gov.
Let's keep on working to highlight and grow the "bright side" of gov't.

Feb 19, 2010
Micah Sifry said...
This is all well and good, but I think you're (deliberately?) making this into a black-white argument between open data and open govt advocates, when the truth is that social engagement is necessary in both cases (if you want to succeed, anyway). Also, what's up with saying that "no one is a 'fan' of the EPA" on Facebook? There are plenty of govt agencies that do work that directly betters people's lives, enough that they might want to "fan" them. And, kettle/black: ?

Feb 19, 2010
Megan Eskey
Megan Eskey said...
Agreed! And where is Big Media (tv, newspapers, radio) in all of this? Although we like to believe the world is as digitally-focused as we are, the reality is that most folks use more traditional media to get their info. Along those lines, if we really want to engage citizens, we need to go where they are and model our own portals and sites on those platforms..Top 3 most visited sites in the US today: Google, Facebook and Yahoo:

Feb 19, 2010
Paul Filmer said...
Good points, Mark. As a gov't tweeter and admin, I have been struggling to get the 'human' side of interactions via social media approved, but that's also where any conscientious managers' alarms will go off. This is where tweeting for ones self vs. tweeting for a larger entity comes face to face with how different social media are from the one-way feeds and approval chains of the past.

Feb 19, 2010
Mark Drapeau said...
Micah, not a these vs. those argument, just pointing out that open data and transparency is part of but not all of open government, which also includes other things. Those other things require more active engagement by humans, above and beyond and perhaps in spite of social technology. I say "no one is a fan" not in the literal sense (that no one has joined the EPA Fan Page) but in a general sense that people don't sit around an root for and dream about the EPA like it's a football team or an actor or something. Probably, people fan the EPA because the EPA (and that's just an example) hasn't set up a Fan page about what people really care about - the environment, etc.

Feb 19, 2010
Mark Drapeau said...
Paul - I agree, and there is definitely a personal vs. organizational brand issue here. This is not easy stuff even when you have all the freedom in the world, never mind some constraints.

Feb 19, 2010
Dan Bevarly said...
So what's really new here? Not with the post, but with its message? The concept of Data versus Dialog is such an easy one to appreciate. Yet, it is made so complex in its execution. This is a game-changing challenge for democracy as we rely more and more on the Web for sharing information and communicating. It's not about the content. It’s about the interaction occurring (or not) around it. What we seem to be finding is that type of activity may not be a desired outcome by some agencies.

Feb 19, 2010
Mark Drapeau said...
Hey Dan - I wouldn't claim that this is really "new," but clearly people still need to hear it. When the Assistant Deputy CTO of the U.S. gives a keynote talk about collaboration and participation and the talk is virtually all tech and no human interaction, there is a conversation in need of being had. I guess the bottom line is, I'm not sure why the CTOs and CIOs are in charge of government-wide and nation-wide collaboration.

Feb 19, 2010
Brendan said...
There's some issue with agencies like EPA doing fan pages for "clean environment" or others. Companies do this as a marketing effort to promote the good things they do (and make people forget the bad things they do). It's not really clear that this sort of marketing and branding is a government function.

Feb 20, 2010
jaimegracia said...
Mark - I think you are right on point. I face this struggle with my clients, as our tools provide the foundation for creating "actionable data," but it is the analysts and their expert knowledge on communications, marketing, and the operational environment that adds the value. I believe the Government seems to be enamored with the tools, but does not yet realize the value in the human interactions which is the ultimate goal of these initiatives. It also does not help that many software providers are springing up overnight, promising to be OGI compliant and promising transparency overnight. This is an emerging market for sure, but the Government is best served by understanding that being "Dangerously Digital" is the wrong path to realizing improvements in collaboration and information sharing.

Jul 01, 2010
Dr. Mark
The Danger in Digital is "Disconnect."
As you and others have asked: "Where are the people in this process?"
The answer is: They are still participating in the old methodology.
The great expansion of Open Government has yet to merge with the old paradigm. The digital data exists at, and, but only 2 to 10% of the people use the Data in the Election process.
The vast majority of people rely on the fliers that come in the mail, some read the newspaper, but a negligible few are connected to the digital data, which needs to be analyzed and put into the right context anyway.
The network pathways have to be built to significantly bridge the gap and to connect the a majority of voters.
The stepping stone to connect to the people is for Challenging candidates to begin using the Digital Data in their mailers.
Congressional Candidate campaigns go unstaffed and unsupported every year.
The Gurus's of Open Government & Transparency need to train campaigns to use the data in their messaging, issue support and outreach to voters.
The pace of Open Government's main stream adoption has only been slowed by the availability of experts to take that next step and take the Data into the Real World.

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Dr. Mark Drapeau is a biological scientist, government and private-sector consultant, and prolific writer on science, technology, innovation, government, and society. He recently joined Microsoft's U.S. Public Sector division as Director of Innovative Social Engagement. He is also an adjunct faculty member in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and until recently he held the position of Associate Research Fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Mark is currently a regular writer for Washington Life, Federal Computer Week, and numerous high-profile blogs. He is a co-founder of Government 2.0 Club and is the co-chair of the O'Reilly Media / TechWeb-produced Gov 2.0 Expo. Mark has a B.S. and Ph.D. in biology and has held postdoctoral fellowships from the NIH and AAAS. His research has considered many topics, from the origin of insect behavioral instincts to the honeybee genome to government operations during pandemic flu to the uses of biological metaphors in national security.

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