credit: John Klossner, Federal Computer Week. Originally printed here.
The following post is a new and improved version of What's in a Name: Good Gov and Open Gov recently posted on HuffPo:
Recently the White House launched a new website about Good Government at www.whitehouse.gov/goodgovernment.
The name change appears to be responding to the demands of major watchdog groups, who want "accountability data," including information about government spending and the workings of political officials, such as salaries, travel and meeting schedules of cabinet secretaries.
The problem with aligning the White House's goals to a traditional reform agenda is not only having to endure Jon Stewart's scathing yet humorous attacks on any failures to deliver (no government can ever be transparent enough), but that the White House Open Government Initiative that I directed and the Open Government Directive instructing agencies to adopt open government were never exclusively about making transparent information about the workings of government.
Open government is an innovative strategy for changing how government works. By using network technology to connect the public to government and to one another informed by open data, an open government asks for help with solving problems. The end result is more effective institutions and more robust democracy.
Putting a cabinet secretary's schedule, for example, up online does little to produce greater accountability or better government. At least there's no empirical evidence to suggest that it does. By contrast, when HHS makes hundreds of datasets about health and wellness available online and invites .orgs and .coms to transform that data into tools that help individuals, institutions and communities make smarter decisions that improve the quality and reduce the cost of healthcare, government is partnering with the public to solve problems more collaboratively. The public isn't simply accepting the solution that government comes up with but creating new services and solutions. I've written earlier about how this kind of co-creation makes government institutions work better, creates jobs and economic growth, and engages people in governance.
Agencies across the executive branch have been working to adopt the practices of open innovation -- namely creating more collaborative strategies for working with the public, informed by open data about everything from bridge safety to air quality, to achieve their core mission better.
The aim of open government is to take advantage of the know-how and entrepreneurial spirit of those outside government institutions to work together with those inside government to solve problems. For example, whereas we must know about radiation levels from Japan and oil contamination in the Gulf and cost overuns in the public sector, most important is that government invite "all hands on deck" to develop innovative solutions to crises such as these--solutions that government doesn't always readily devise on its own.
So if open gov is a confusing name why did we name it the White House Open Government Initiative?
Two years ago I published a book called Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful. In it, I advocate the principle of collaborative democracy that emphasizes the ability of ordinary people using network technology to do extraordinary things by working together for the public good. Collaborative democracy is an answer to those who think that the public is only capable of voting once every four years and who ignore citizen coders who redesign the Federal Register and create useful apps for better healthcare; citizen activists who build a powerful first responder network; citizen scientists who solve scientific challenges; and citizen archivists who improve government recordkeeping.
When I had the opportunity to work with colleagues on turning collaborative governance into a national agenda for the Obama Campaign, Obama-Biden Transition and then in the White House, I didn't want to name our White House project in a way that could be construed as promoting my book. Collaboration: out. Wiki Gov: out.
Gov 2.0 is a popular term but puts the emphasis on technology when our goal was to focus on changing how government institutions work for the better. Our work was not limited to doing the cool stuff of Silicon Valley in the staid world of Washington. Technology is only one means to the end of changing how we work—of finding practical ways to take advantage of the intelligence, skills and expertise of others. And, besides, it was a brand already in widespread commercial use. For purposes of use in the White House, anything 2.0: out.
Open gov was actually a shorthand for open innovation or the idea that working in a transparent, participatory, and collaborative fashion helps improve performance, inform decisionmaking, encourage entrepreneurship, and solve problems more effectively. By working together as team with government in productive fashion, the public can then also help to foster accountability.
In retrospect, "open government" was a bad choice. It has generated too much confusion. Many people, even in the White House, still assume that open government means transparency about government. But through it's repeated use to describe the transformational work underway in governments around the world, especially in the federal agencies in the US, we can rescue the term and clarify its original meaning.
The unveiling of the Good Government website brings into stark relief two (not the only two, by any means) different approaches to making government more effective: Good Government reformers who focus on a certain kind of transparency and the Open Government innovators who focus on collaboration informed by data.
The reformer wants more information about how government functions. For example, he demands to see the travel schedule of the Cabinet Secretary. When he doesn't get it, he sues. When he does, he works with the media to make sense of it and point out fraud, waste and abuse.
The innovator recognizes that the public schedule provides little insight into how power is wielded. Instead, he wants the Cabinet Secretary to use network technology to invite the public to identify creative solutions to the problems he's going to discuss on those trips. Therefore the innovator also needs a broader kind of data about health, education, or the economy so that she can engage in informed collaboration. She doesn't have to sue for the data because the agency knows that with the information in hand, the innovator is going to build productive tools, apps and visualizations to transform that data into useful knowledge.
Unless we think that government has all the answers (and not many Americans think it does), we need to create more participatory institutions.
There's a happy ending to this story. At the same time as the White House launched the Good Government brand, it also hired a phenomenal United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Public Sector Innovation, Chris Vein (former CIO of San Francisco).
By dividing the world into Good Government and Public Sector Innovation, the White House may be well-poised to work with both the reformers and the innovators to pursue accountable and participatory government.
Just as what we used to call e-commerce is now just commerce, if eventually government works with citizens to address challenges, it won't matter if we talk about government open gov, good gov, e-gov, or wegov. We will simply enjoy functioning, legitimate -- Government.