Monday, January 24, 2011

OpenGov at Two Years: Ignorance is Bliss?

It's been two full years since President Obama signed his Open Government Memorandum for federal agencies to be more "Transparent, Participatory, and Collaborative."

At the halfway point in the President's term, this is the obvious time for the most serious assessment as to what progress is being made with the Open Government Initiative.

Two years is plenty of time to experiment and, as a result, learn what parts of your past actions are working ... and what parts are not working as you had hoped.

Having spent 25 years in D.C., I know that this latter part (i.e., public admission of any sort of unsuccessfulness) is a very difficult thing for almost all government people to do ... especially when you work at the highest levels of the federal government in Washington.

It's the part of "how Washington works" that, ironically, is supposed to be changed by the Open Government initiative.  Citizens know certain things that Government does not.  Therefore, Government should more inviting of Citizens to share that knowledge, so that Government can make better decisions.  But yet, we complain when Government admits cluelessness.

And that's the dilemma.

Government officials are paid to be "smarter" than unpaid citizens.  How would it look, for example, if the Secretary of Education admitted not knowing something that was obvious to an ordinary teacher or parent.  And what if that was happening over and over?  For whatever reason, there is a general expectation that the people in Washington are there because they are (supposed to be) smarter than the rest of us "ordinary citizens". 

Therefore, for government officials, there is a dangerously gray area between (A) being more open-minded by considering information and ideas from "ordinary citizens", and then (B) admitting that, hey, a lot of their own information and ideas are not as good as those of "ordinary citizens".

As such, we should not be surprised to see government officials, after testing what they think are the best ideas, consistently declining to discuss and, therefore, learn from those aspects that did not work as they had hoped.  This is particularly ironic for OpenGov experiments because the whole idea is to open-mindedly search (with no guarantee of success at every step) for better ways to collaborate with those outside of government.

Here's what the President's Memorandum said about that:
Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.  Executive departments and agencies should solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation.
So, after of various collaborative exercises over the past two years, has the OpenGov leadership (i.e., in OSTP and OMB) been "walking the talk" of soliciting feedback on its experiments in citizen collaboration?  Let's see.

After the White House's "Open Government Dialogue" (May-June 2009), were participants asked for their feedback on what worked and what didn't?


In early 2010, federal agencies (including the White House's OMB and OSTP) hosted online forums for citizen collaboration on development of agencies' Open Government Plans.  Did they follow-up by asking citizen participants for feedback on what worked and what didn't?


Now, the same officials who asked -- twice before -- for citizens' ideas and collaboration on Open Government have come back once again with ExpertNet (December 2010-January 2011).  Will they now comply with the President's Memorandum about soliciting feedback on collaboration?

Based on their track record, and the absence of any mention about soliciting any feedback about the ExpertNet platform, it appears the answers will, once again, be "Nope."

And, in addition to consistent neglect in asking for citizen feedback, here's another example of OpenGov leadership failing to "walk their talk": they rarely participate in their own collaboration events!

In the ExpertNet section on "Basic Principles", this is THEIR language (scroll down to Item #12 here):
  1. Government officials must actively participate in each consultation for the public to trust in the relevance of the process. Citizen participation demands government participation. To demonstrate that public feedback is vital for sustaining public engagement and interests, government officials must collaborate and the system should define their role clearly.
So when a participant, Tim Bonnemann, asked questions about some unclear aspects of ExpertNet, the White House's "OpenGov"people in charge of the site not answer him there.  Instead of responding to Mr. Bonnemann in ExpertNet's discussion area, they posted a partial and indirect "response" in a totally different location (i.e., on the White House blog)!  

I won't go into it in this posting, but there are plenty of other examples of how the White House's OpenGov initiative, despite cool new tech-tools, is operating in many significant ways as LESS "transparent, participatory, and collaborative" than the federal agencies that they are trying to change.

It's been two years of "self-evaluation" for OpenGov, so it's way past time to start following the President's original task to ask the public to evaluate his administration's OpenGov efforts.

I compare it to the people who convince themselves that their new diet is really working but, yet, they don't want to step on the weight-scale to learn the objective truth.  They'd rather just "self-evaluate" themselves by looking in the mirror.

After two years, OpenGov should be modelling the opposite of "Ignorance is bliss."
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