The new Administration has put significant effort into the Transparency and Open Government effort. There have certainly been examples of progress towards an open government, such as HUD’s Recovery Act site, which already has some great data on where their Recovery Act dollars are going. While there has been a lot of work, time and effort devoted to figuring ways that citizens can participate in this process, the question of how to get government employee participation is perhaps a harder problem. One concern is whether government communication structures have ossified over the years. Formal lines of communication between agencies and the White House staff, between agencies and Congressional representatives, and hierarchically within an agency can often be described as slow and opaque. Detailed coordination between all stakeholders is the norm in these communications.
Government Needs Nimble Communication Structures: If the goal is to move toward an open government, one that is responsive to the public to the point that it actually invites the public to participate in policy making, this almost assumes that underneath the covers, a nimble government is able to quickly take in diverse points of view and course correct. If this be the case, than certainly we are assuming that within government, the cycle time for communicating important ideas across the Federal government can be accomplished in under 30 days, for instance. The Transparency and Open Govt memo has a 120 day countdown for soliciting recommendations – we are already at 50 days. At this point, how many agencies have even been able to take the OMB memo and turned it around into an agency-specific implementation? This is of course important because most people follow guidance from their specific organization’s interpretation of OMB guidance, not from OMB itself.
I recently had a conversation with someone who did not know of the memo, and pretty much said, “I would know about this if it was important.” There meaning was clear – the message of Transparency and Open Government hadn’t made it to the official places they look for important information to show up. As we move towards a more open, participative, collaborative and transparent government, this problem will get more visibility. Bottom line, the internal channels of communication that are the lifeblood of the government coordination and response process are not sufficient to support open government.
Insight instead Oversight: The broad answer of how to address this problem seem clear – in the same way that we are looking to galvanize participation and collaboration with the american public, we too need to do this on the inside. Just as the barriers to informal, non-official communications with the public need to come down, so too do the barriers to using informal communication channels in government. Informal communications in a successful, smooth running open government setting would take place regularly. This would include all levels across the Executive branch to include OMB and the White House. But open government also implies trust. The current model of hierarchy is often built on notions of oversight – meaning it is OMB’s job, for instance, to figure out if each Agency is actually doing what they asked. This approach is replicated at the top of each agency to their lower level components. In practice this means that the lower level organizations are very careful when communicating ground truth. The coordination process towards sending an official communication forward is laborious and time consuming. To truly move to an informal, trust based communication model, the higher-level organizations within agencies and at OMB need to move toward “insight” instead of oversight. This is a change to choosing the carrot over the stick, and a movement towards a risk-based model of governance based on trust and transparency.
Office of Government Engagement: In moving toward a more open and transparent government, I think we should consider something akin to an office of Government Engagement. This office would have the responsibility to evaluate and transform the official communication channels within agency hierarchies and between agencies to become more nimble and responsive. This in part goes back to Kundra’s notion of Outcomes over processes. Our formal communication processes in government have long since ossified, and its probably not productive to look at modifying them in a Lean Six Sigma type approach. A more transformative approach would be to focus on outcomes, and figure out what new process could meet the outcome. So if, for instance, the goal was to have the entire Federal Government aware of a Presidential memo within 48 hours, with concrete steps to address it within two weeks, how would that occur?
The other responsibility this office might have would be to enculturate everyone internally to both accept and use informal communication channels that aren’t dependent upon the chain of command. Yes, many things absolutely require coordination and formal communication, but the problem in Federal government communications is that most everything seems to go through those channels. This has to change if the Federal Government is going to rise to the challenge to be transparent, participative and collaborative with the american public.