Washington, DC’s recently released open government directive has a lot of us in the open government community stoked about the mandate we are finally being given, collectively and formally, to make government more transparent and accessible.
The three tenets of participation, transparency, and collaboration are particularly relevant because, while they are couched in specific deliverables around the /open requirement for all agencies (that is, each agency must create /open); if you look closely, they are focused on process– as much as, if not more than, on outcome. This reflects the fact that open government is not somewhere we arrive or something we check off on a task list, but it’s about how we go about the business of governing ourselves.
When I saw we, I don’t mean “we” the people who work for government– I mean all of us. “We” as a residents of the United States, and citizens of the world. For me, open government encourages us to think of the government not an entity separate from the “us” or the “we.” If you work for the government, that doesn’t mean you are not also a recipient of its services, its policies, or its limitations.
That’s why the most exciting aspect of the the Directive was actually not the recognition and codification of those three tenets, since many of us were already operating with those in mind. It was the 4th and final step, to “Create an Enabling Policy Framework for Open Government.”
That section of the Directive recognizes that, “Emerging technologies open new forms of communication between a government and the people,” and that, “It is important that policies evolve to realize the potential of technology for open government.”
When I first started working at Ames, we had several meetings discussing how to create an environment where new ideas are valued and encouraged. We identified, with center leadership, that the current culture is often a “Culture of No”. The safe answer, the one least likely to get you in trouble, is to say “No”. Saying yes is associated with more work, and with risk. Since the Culture of No exists all the way up the management chain, that work burden and risk are personal ones, ones that involve putting yourself on the line. It’s clear why people are dis-inclined to do so.
When we first tried to create blogs on government websites, people said “No” because there was no clear policy about public comments. What if a derogatory public comment was interpreted as a statement of the US government? “No” to blogs.
When we tried to put open source code on public repositories, people said “No” because it opened up the government to liability if others misused that code. Instead, employees were going home and building collaborations, and even posting code, in their personal time, to avoid this bureaucracy. That’s another dis-incentive, because you have to be willing to take some of the policies into your own hands.
We decided to propagate at new saying: “Culture of Yes”. We wanted to cultivate an environment where people’s answer to new or crazy ideas was “Yes,” or maybe even “Yes, but…”. But not “No” or “No, and…”. One where you are actually rewarded for those ideas, and where it is, eventually, procedurally more expensive to say “No.”
The Open Government Directive explicitly outlines that within 120 days, existing policies will be reviewed with an eye to, “identify[ing] impediments to open government and to the use of new technologies.” As the people “on the ground,” how do you think openNASA members and our open center initiatives could support agency leadership in identifying these policy obstacles?