I thought "open government" was such a simple concept—that the "what" and the "why" were not really complicated. We want to see what the government is doing so that we can make sure it is doing it well and doing it for the right reasons.
Boy was I wrong. In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is quite a different perception not only of what open government means, but also of why we want it and how to get it. And it looks like at least some of the people on the inside who have been calling the shots have an entirely different take from us.
Former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Beth Noveck, the person tasked with implementing the Obama Administration's Open Government Initiative until she returned to New York Law School, recently pondered the definition of "open government" in The Huffington Post:
"In retrospect, 'open government' was a bad choice. It has generated too much confusion. Many people, even in the White House, still assume that open government means transparency about government. It was a shorthand for open innovation or the idea that working in a transparent, participatory, and collaborative fashion helps improve performance, inform decisionmaking, encourage entrepreneurship, and solve problems more effectively."
Noveck went on to identify two distinct tribes in the open government world:
"The unveiling of the Good Government website [this one] brings into stark relief the two different camps trying to make the government more effective: Good government reformers who focus on a certain kind of transparency and the Open Government innovators who focus on collaboration informed by data."
... but not without dissing the good government reform agenda:
"Putting the cabinet secretary's schedule does little to produce greater accountability or better government....The aim of open government is to take advantage of the know-how and entrepreneurial spirit of those outside government institutions to work together with those inside government to solve problems."
A few points here. First, I don't think anyone involved in creating the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition (yes we came up with the phrase long before the Obama transition team) was thinking about Silicon Valley when we formed it as part of our efforts to fight excessive secrecy and promote proactive disclosure.
Second, no matter what you call it, the Open Government Directive identifies "information about what the Government is doing" as an essential ingredient to one of the key principles set forth in the document. Isn’t that the sort of information that the public can find in the calendars of top-level officials? Information about who’s meeting with key policymakers reveals a great deal about the influences behind government, and having that information out in the open will at least force decision-makers to consider whether they’re adequately taking into account the interests of the public.
Furthermore, singling out calendars as the poster-child for good government reform is reductive. Publishing cabinet secretaries’ calendars is but one of a host of transparency-related good government measures that can help build public trust, enhance accountability, and make the government more efficient.
What about the information that isn't data at all? Like Inspector General reports that point to problems within the agencies, or visitor logs to see who is getting access to decision-makers, or financial disclosure forms to see if people are making money from the policies they pursue? Or what about the data that helps to expose or just deter corruption? Some data may not be interesting to someone from the innovator camp because it isn't commercially attractive, but it's still valuable as a window into our government—e.g., campaign finance data, or government contractor performance ratings. And this data isn't just of interest to wonks in the NGO community—the American people want to know more about how their government is conducting their business. When then-Senator Obama was working in the legislative trenches, he, along with Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), pushed to make public exactly the kind of accountability data good government advocates are thinking of when they passed a law creating USAspending.gov.
Like Noveck, I hope that terms like "good government" and "open government" will some day be redundant. Certainly, the White House has made some moves towards releasing the kind of accountability information we are looking for, such as publishing its visitor logs, instructing agencies to operate under the presumption of openness when responding to FOIA requests, curbing abuse of pseudo-classification designations, launching Recovery.gov, requiring appointees to sign an ethics pledge and releasing ethics waivers, and of course, issuing the Open Government Directive. But the federal government still has a long way to go. In the mean time, can't the two camps in the open government world peacefully co-exist? There's just too much work to be done for us to get bogged down in denigrating each others' agendas.
Danielle Brian is POGO's Executive Director.
Image: "Open Government (OG) gang symbol," by joebeone