Friday, July 3, 2009

First Step: Define "Transparent", "Participatory", "Collaborative"

When I only post about once a month, so much has happened that I have to boil things down to the most fundamental and important information. But, of course, that's better for you (the reader).

So I will lead into it this way.

I know this has happened to all of us. You're having a great conversation with someone when, at some point, you both realize that you were both talking about something different. That's when you say, "Wait a minute, the Bob Smith that I know is a dentist!"

Of course, before that realization, you were having a really good conversation. You both thought that were talking (and agreeing) about the same thing. But you weren't. (How embarassing.)

And that's the biggest problem in discussing Open-Government: we're all agreeing that we need more "Transparency", "Participation" and "Collaboration" (TP&C) -- but we haven't really stopped to make sure that we all are talking about exactly the same things.

Such is the nature of "buzzwords". Their meanings are so fuzzy that anyone can throw them into a conversation without really having to explain to others just what exactly they're talking about. Why spoil a perfectly good conversation with specifics, right?

Unfortunately (at least, for heavy buzzword-users), there eventually comes a time when people begin to ask "Hey, what exactly do you mean by that?" And, for discussions surrounding the development of the White House's "Open Government Directive", that time is quickly approaching. And there are two things driving that.

The First Driver: The President wants to improve the "public engagement" by federal departments and agencies. He wants federal departments and agencies to become:

1. "More Transparent"
2. "More Participatory"
3. "More Collaborative"

Sounds good, but the federal depts. and agencies are beginning to wonder: How does he want us to do that? In essence, the President wants them to "jump", and they want to clear directions about: How high, When, Where, etc., etc.

And that is why the "Open Government Directive" is being drafted: to give federal depts. and agencies more specifics, so they can better understand just "what it is" that the President wants them to do.

And the reason that the federal depts. and agencies want clear direction is because they know that their performance will be graded by the President. Actually, they will be graded by the President's Chief Performance Officer, Jeffrey Zients, who indicates that "improving transparency is one of his priorities" and believes in "measuring the goals for the organization.

So, to be fair to federal depts. and agencies, the Open Government Directive will have to be very specific about the "TP&C" goals for "public engagement". It will explain how the White House (CPO) will measure "TP&C" performance towards those goals. But, to do that, the Open Government Directive (as issued by OMB, where the CPO works) first has to define just what "TP&C" are, and how they relate to "public engagement".

In other words, the White House will need to figure out "what it is" before it can figure out (and then tell others) how to measure it.

I have tried a number of times, during the "Open Government Dialogue", to point out the need to -- first -- come to some agreement on accepted definitions for "Transparency", "Participation", and "Collaboration" (TP&C) before having group-discussions about how to achieve them. However, almost all the people in those discussions are excited about this subject and, understandably, want to talk about Solutions (how to do it) without first understanding the Goals (what it is).

But that doesn't really matter now, because I know -- from my federal experience -- how federal directives are drafted and implemented. And the Open Government Directive will have TP&C definitions and criteria and metrics and measurable goals. Otherwise, the CPO will have no way to measure the "public engagement" performance of federal depts. and agencies.

The Second Driver: In the meantime, it is interesting to note that the Mainstream Media (MSM) is beginning to pick up on this "public engagement" thing. Some members of the White House press corps are now asking "Just what is a 'townhall meeting'?" The Press Secretary did not know, and then tried to side-step the question. See video here.

But, because the White House has already been presenting "townhall meetings" as a form of "public engagement", then it is only a matter of time before those same White House reporters begin asking "Okay then, so what do you mean by 'public engagement'?" And that, of course, will lead to "what is TP&C".

So the White House may be explaining what "TP&C" is, even before they offer up a draft of the Open Government Directive for public comment.

Things are going to get interesting. (Stay tuned by subscribing to my Feedburner email in right-hand column.)

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