Jul 29 2009

Making the Leap

On his first day in office, President Obama signed a memorandum on “Transparency and Open Government” that defined an open government built on three guiding principles:

• Transparency — to promote accountability and provide information for citizens about what their government is doing.

• Participation — to foster public engagement and thereby enhance the government’s effectiveness and improve the quality of its decisions.

• Collaboration — to actively engage Americans in the work of their government.

To best appreciate the power of open government, we need go no further than to note that a principal preoccupation of most dictatorships and totalitarian governments is to control their citizens’ access to information. It is thus not surprising that such governments, like those in Iran or my native Cuba, are deathly afraid of the Internet.

There is also no question that the functioning of any complex organization, in both the private and the public sectors, is significantly enhanced if it adheres to the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration in its governance style. In the industrial economy of the last century, most companies were centrally organized, with a hierarchical approach to management in which authority and information flowed down from small groups of executives in headquarters. This model worked well in kinder, gentler times, but as technology and market changes have accelerated, companies have had to embrace a more distributed, collaborative organizational style to be flexible enough to adapt and keep up with the changes all around them.

But participatory governance models require that those working together have access to the information they need to make decisions, as well as an effective means of collaborating. Many have pointed out that a lack of transparency in our financial markets is one of the major reasons for the economic crisis raging around the globe. Transparency is needed for efficient market behavior, as it is for the efficient workings of government.

Force of Habit

Open-government models would have been difficult to implement only a short time ago. New technologies and platforms have changed that. Yet progress has been slow, not only in government, but across the business community. Why is that?

Technology is absolutely not the problem. Implementing the kinds of platforms needed for open government is not easy, but the tools and skills are widely available. Moreover, sweeping acceptance of the Internet and the emergence of cloud computing have made it possible for agencies to acquire IT services from a variety of public and private service providers should they decide not to develop capabilities themselves.

The reason most organizations resist change has far more to do with culture than technology. Moving from the classic hierarchical, closed organization of the past century to the open, distributed organization that we now require will not be easy. Governance models are deeply embedded in the culture and the very DNA of organizations and their people.

Having lived through transformative changes at IBM, the company I was part of for 37 years, I can attest from personal experience that it takes strong leadership to transform an organization, whether in business or government.

In his memo to the heads of agencies, the president instructed his yet-to-be-named chief technology officer to come up with specific actions needed to implement the principles set forth. CTO Aneesh Chopra has now been appointed and confirmed, and Beth Noveck is also in place as deputy CTO for open government. They have started to implement the directive the president called for on his first day.

I find it particularly heartening that they are doing so by seeking the input and advice of citizens, which will lead to prototypes of the kinds of capabilities they want all agencies to embrace. An open-government site is now set up at www.whitehouse.gov/open. It urges citizens to brainstorm ideas, help come up with innovative ways for leveraging technology to create a more open government and then vote to select the best concepts.

This is a good, practical model, which I would urge other agencies to follow as they start implementing the open-government directive. Pick an area in your agency that is particularly amenable to a collaborative approach, and start building a prototype using the best tools currently available in your organization. The first step is always the hardest, but once on the learning curve, things will quickly improve.

Organizational and transformative change is extremely hard, especially for an organization as large and complex as the U.S. government. But given the strong personal leadership of the president, backed by the specific instructions and actions his administration is putting together, the era of open government is indeed at hand. No more talking — let’s get on with it.

Photo: Andrew Kist

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