Information technology analyst evaluates Obama open government initiatives

A senior analyst for The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation finds much to like in Obama’s efforts to make government more open but also says it’s important to identify weaknesses in the initiatives to make sure the gains are substantial and meaningful. -db

Commentary
March 29, 2010
By Daniel Castro of The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF)

The author explores President Obama’s Open Government Initiative in the US and looks to identify the strengths, weakenesses as well as offer recommendations on ways to improve.This is an excerpt from a web memo from ITIF.

On President Obama’s first day in office, he released a memo calling for “an unprecedented level of openness in Government” and increased “transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” As instructed by that memo, the Office of the Management and Budget (OMB) released an “Open Government Directive” on December 8, 2009 outlining the major steps for government agencies including: publishing government information online, improving the quality of government information, creating and institutionalizing a culture of open government, and creating a policy framework to enable open government

Without a doubt, the Open Government Directive has led to more transparency in government than ever before in our nation’s history. The sheer volume of data now available to citizens is unprecedented and the variety of government blogs on the Internet give average citizens more insights into the inner workings of their government than ever before. But whether the Open Government Directive has created a more participatory or collaborative government has yet to be determined. Certainly, the availability of new online tools has encouraged certain citizens to participate more in government, but has the impact been substantive or inconsequential? It is probably too soon to tell whether government itself has been transformed by these initiatives. However, already we can identify strengths and weaknesses of the current Open Government Directive, and if this initiative is to be effective we should address these shortcomings early on so that such efforts do not get a reputation for ineffectiveness.

The three pillars of Open Government are:

Transparency

Transparency is the first of three key pillars of the Open Government Directive. Transparency allows citizens to learn what the government is doing and it is important as transparency is linked to accountability and citizen trust in government. The market research firm Foresee Results found in a 2009 survey of over 36,000 visitors to federal websites that “citizens who believe a site is highly transparent are 46 percent more likely to trust the overall government, 49 percent more likely to use the site as a primary resource and 37 percent more likely to return to the site.”1

Data.gov is one of the most important transparency efforts the Obama Administration’s open-government initiatives. Launched May 21, 2009, in 7 months it has grown from 47 datasets to more than 118,000 datasets with everything from reprints of the Federal Register to a list of active mines and mineral processing facilities in the United States. Data provided on this website is available in open, machine-readable formats. While much of this data is not new—many of these data sets were previously available on specific agency websites—centralizing

Public Participation

Participation is the second core value of the Open Government Directive. The purpose of increasing participation in government is to help identify the needs of citizens and to tap the expertise of citizens in government decision making. The Obama Administration has used many tools to encourage public participation, from hosting an online town hall meeting on YouTube after the State of the Union to collecting comments on various government blogs. GSA has also partnered with IdeaScale, an online crowd-sourcing platform that lets users submit and vote on proposals for improving an organization. GSA has made this tool available to all federal agencies so that they can use it to collect ideas from the public on how to better fulfill their mission.

Collaboration

The third value of the Open Government Directive is collaboration. Collaboration is supposed to make government more effective by encouraging partnerships between federal government agencies and with state and local government and the private sector. The Obama Administration has encouraged government agencies to use technology to improve collaboration and use methods such as prizes and competitions to encourage outsiders to participate. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services launched a Flu Prevention public service announcement (PSA) contest where individuals competed for a $2,500 prize. Over 50 thousand votes were cast to pick the winning video which, to date, has been watched on YouTube 230,000 times.

Conclusion

Effective use of IT has brought a new level of transparency, participation and collaboration to federal government in the United States. Government is more open today than it was one year ago. Moreover, the Obama Administration has aggressively applied Internet tools to increase transparency, public participation, and collaboration in government. While more can be done to improve these tools, the same can be said for most other Internet applications available today. In fact, it is this spirit of innovation that is most compelling about the tools and data released to date. While the Open Government Directive has yet to create radical transformations in government, its most important contribution may be a new culture of openness.

Copyright 2010 Policy Dialogue International
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