On his first day in office, President Obama announced that he was committed to making government more open, and that he would do so by focusing on three things: transparency, participation and collaboration. Thus began the Open Government Initiative (OGI), which aims at making data available from all governmental agencies, and increasing citizen participation and civic awareness.
What is interesting to note about the OGI is that it is not a “centralized” initiative. By this I mean that each agency takes it upon itself to provide its data to the public and to adhere to the standards set by the initiative. In our conversation with her, Beth Noveck (former leader of the OGI for the Obama Administration) talked about the importance of moving away from hierarchical structures of organization and information distribution, and towards a more distributed, decentralized flow. It seems that the OGI has taken this approach even at the level of agency involvement (before citizen interaction begins). While the OGI is considered an important part of the current administration, each agency can do with it what they will (or so it seems).
While this is certainly consistent with the overall idea of decentralization, this means that the OGI has no real teeth to demand outcomes from agencies. Some agencies have responded better to the initiative than others – as Ms. Noveck pointed out, the Department of State has not been the best “customer”. I found her choice of words here very telling – the fact that she views the agencies as customers suggests that the OGI is a product that they can choose to “buy into” or not. I cannot help but question the success of the initiative here, for how can it expect to achieve what it has set out to if it cannot ensure that all agencies adopt the same policies to the same degree?
In fact, how does the initiative measure how well each agency is doing? Or, for that matter, how do we as citizens measure this? The most important thing that the initiative is lacking is a set of metrics by which to measure agency success and to therefore ensure accountability. The only evaluation I could find was on the OGI website, and was based on a 3-tier color scale (red, yellow, green) that told me next to nothing about how the agencies were doing. Having said this, I understand that developing metrics for an initiative as vast in scope as this is complicated. In fact, Beth Noveck acknowledged the lack of metrics and said that this was part of her next project.
There is a lot to be said about the OGI – it has multiple agencies on board and has numerous associated platforms committed to its goals (such as Data.gov). I think the biggest takeaway is simply that it exists, and that it has usefully exploited the online and new media to make itself effective. The question is how do we progress from here, and, as Ms. Noveck pointed out, how do we go from discussing and creating this open forum to actually implementing ideas.