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What's in a Name? Open Gov and Good Gov

Putting the cabinet secretary's schedule up online does little to produce greater accountabilitybetter government. At least there's no empirical evidence to suggest that it does.
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Last week the White House launched a new website about Good Government.

The site's name appears to be responding to the demands of major watchdog groups (and distances open government from national security questions), who want "accountability data," including information about government spending and the workings of political officials, such as salaries, travel and meeting schedules of cabinet secretaries.

The problem with aligning the White House's goals to a traditional reform agenda is not only having to endure Jon Stewart's scathing yet humorous attacks on any failures to deliver, but that open government and the Open Government Directive were never exclusively about making transparent information about the workings of government. It was a strategy for changing how government works -- using public sector information to create more innovative institutions and effective democracy.

Putting the cabinet secretary's schedule up online does little to produce greater accountability or better government. At least there's no empirical evidence to suggest that it does. By contrast, when HHS makes hundreds of datasets about health and wellness available online and invites .orgs and .coms to transform that data into tools that help individuals, institutions and communities make smarter decisions that improve the quality and reduce the cost of healthcare, it is partnering with the public to solve problems more collaboratively. The public isn't simply accepting the solution that government comes up with by creating new services and solutions. I've written earlier about how this kind of co-creation makes government institutions more innovative and also creates jobs and economic growth.

Agencies across the executive branch have been working to adopt the practices of open innovation -- namely creating more collaborative strategies for working with the public, informed by open data about everything from bridge safety to air quality, to achieve their core mission better.

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. For example, whereas we need to know about radiation levels from Japan, oil contamination in the Gulf and cost overuns in the public sector, most important is that the government invites "all hands on deck" to develop innovative solutions to crises such as these -- solutions that the government doesn't always readily devise on its own.

Two years ago I published a book called Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful. In it, I advocate the principle of collaborative democracy that emphasizes the ability of ordinary people using network technology to do extraordinary things by working together for the public good. Collaborative democracy is an answer to those who think that the public is only capable of voting once every four years and who ignore citizen coders who redesign the Federal Register and create useful apps for better healthcare; citizen activists who build a powerful first responder network; citizen scientists who solve scientific challenges; and citizen archivists who improve government recordkeeping.

When I had the opportunity to work with colleagues on turning collaborative governance into a national agenda for the Obama Campaign, Obama-Biden Transition and then in the White House, I didn't want to use a term that could in any way be construed as promoting my book. Collaboration: out. Wiki Gov: out.

Gov 2.0 is a popular term but puts the emphasis on technology when our goal was to focus on changing how government institutions work for the better. Our work was not limited to doing the cool stuff of Silicon Valley in the staid world of Washington. Technology is only one means to the end of changing how we work -- of finding practical ways to take advantage of the intelligence, skills and expertise of others. And, besides, it was a brand already in widespread commercial use. Anything 2.0: out.

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. By working together as team with government in productive fashion, the public can then help to foster accountability.

The unveiling of the Good Government website brings into stark relief the two different camps trying to make 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.

The reformer wants more information about how government functions. For example, he demands to see the travel schedule of the Cabinet Secretary. When he doesn't get it, he sues. When he does, he works with the media to make sense of it and point out fraud, waste and abuse.

The innovator recognizes that the public schedule provides little insight into how power is wielded. Instead, he wants the Cabinet Secretary to use network technology to invite the public to identify creative solutions to the problems he's going to discuss on those trips. Therefore the innovator also needs a broader kind of data about health, education, or the economy so that she can engage in informed collaboration. She doesn't have to sue for the data because the agency knows that with the information in hand, the innovator is going to build productive tools, apps and visualizations to transform that data into useful knowledge.

Unless we think that government has all the answers (and not many Americans think it does), we need to create more participatory institutions.

There's a happy ending to this story. At the same time as the White House launched the Good Government brand, it also hired a phenomenal United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Public Sector Innovation, Chris Vein (former CIO of San Francisco).

By dividing the world into Good Government and Public Sector Innovation, the White House may be well-poised to work with both the reformers and the innovators to pursue accountable and participatory government.

Just as what we used to call e-commerce is now just commerce, if eventually government works with citizens to address challenges, it won't matter if we talk about open gov, good gov, e-gov, or wegov. We will simply enjoy functioning, legitimate -- Government.

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