Sunday, November 1, 2009

Open Government Intiative: Chapter Two of "Reinventing Government"

Beth Noveck, who is in charge of the White House's "Open Government Initiative", spoke last Friday at the National Center for Digital Government at the University of Massachusetts. (Video of the event was accessible online, and will be available in "early November" at .)

As someone who was involved in the intitiative for "open-government" during the Clinton-Gore administration (aka, "Reinventing Government"), I was glad to finally hear Ms. Noveck acknowledge the existence of that previous effort. I was afraid that the people in charge of this new "openness" effort by the Obama administration had no clue that what they are attempting to do had been tried (with mixed results) before. The danger is that they fail to appreciate (and avoid) the mistakes made before.

Now, based on her remarks last Friday, I know that Ms. Noveck does "have a clue". Unfortunately, however, it seems that she is still under-informed about the fundamental parallel between the current "Open Government Intiative" (OGI) and the previous "Reinventing Government" (REGO) effort.

Based on her remarks (see partial transcript, below), Ms. Noveck believes that, compared to the REGO effort, the current OGI involves "a shift to a new set of values" that focus on "openness".
Excuse me? "New set of values"?
"So we created this agenda of institutional innovation, and that we define this agenda around a set of core values. So, in many ways, it builds on work that you [gesturing towards NCDG staff] were involved in, earlier, around 'Reinventing Government' and have written extensively about.

"But -- for a variety of reasons that I hope we can talk more about in the discussion -- I think we have come to a different place in today's approach to "Reinventing Government". It very much builds on that work, and we are able to do things, because of technology, that's different today that it was 15 years ago.

"But the technology has also enabled a shift to a new set of values really drive the conception of what it means to "reinvent government", what it means to innovate in terms of our public sector institutions. And these are tested, really, around "Openness" .. around this notion of creating ways that are more open, more collaborative, more participatory than we've ever seen before.

"Again, engendered by technology, because it makes it possible, but driven very much by a philosophical mindset that believes that Openness should be at the root of this change. And so, when we focus now on institutional innovation, and thinking about how we create a more open government, it's not simply for its own sake. It's not just innovation because it's a nice thing to have, or because it's frankly the more democratic way of doing things.

 "It is integration of public sector institutions, by necessity, to make them more effective in the way that we work, more efficient in the way that we work, and that will improve the quality of people's lives."

Okay, perhaps the REGO effort did not have "Open" in its name, but "openness" was a core value of REGO. Every successful aspect of REGO was based on "openness", both with citizens and within government. Please show me one that was not. (For a few references in REGO: type in "openness" here.)

This just more evidence (at least, to me) about the low level of understanding, by many relative newcomers to the campaign "open-government", about the culture-war experience gained by their predecessors. Hopefully, with some openmindedness on the subject, that will change.

But that means some more humility that President Obama talks about when he says that, sometimes, the people in government don't know as much as they think they do. Even for a program on "openness".

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