May 2009

"The goal of electronic government is not just to substitute one delivery system for another...Rather, it is important to think of technology as a "game-changer" that transforms the culture, organization, and functioning of government."

Darrell West, Director of Governance Studies at Brookings Institution

The focus of the Spring 2009 Intergovernmental Solutions Newsletter was Transparency and Open Government. The introductory article, republished here with permission, introduces the topic and the rest of the Newsletter. It provides an overview of current initiatives in both the United States and other parts of the world. Other articles from the Newsletter are referenced here by page number.

Government Accountability

Newly elected President Barack Obama has taken bold steps to inaugurate an era of government openness and transparency. In one of his first official acts, the President issued a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, affirming his commitment to achieving an "unprecedented level of openness in government". Making known his belief that transparency is a fundamental responsibility of a democratic government, he called for the creation of an Open Government Directive that would require agencies to reveal their inner workings and make their data public.

A commitment to government accountability is at the heart of this message. By allowing citizens to "see through" its workings and investigate whether or not their leaders and organizations have met their expectations, the government brings the public into its inner circles and empowers citizens to contribute to decision-making. As citizens gain knowledge and understanding, their trust in government begins to grow.

Providing government data to citizens in a meaningful way will require a culture change, away from one where data are stored away for internal purposes to one that looks broadly at how data can be made accessible for re-use by the public. The federal website Reveals Details of the Stimulus Spending (page 5) on the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It will put the data out in useable form so that people can slice, dice and mash it up to gain meaningful information about how government is working.

These data feeds create opportunities to look at government programs in new ways that could never have been imagined by the data collectors. The District of Columbia's Apps for Democracy Contest drew upon the public's imagination to make D.C. data more useful to constituents. Under the leadership of then-CTO Vivek Kundra, the District sponsored a contest seeking creative applications that use D.C. government data. The results were astonishing. The 47 entries submitted to Apps for Democracy within only 30 days "produced more savings for the D.C. government than any other initiative", according to Kundra, who has since been named federal CIO.

Making government data available is just the beginning of the process. To reach the President's goal, agencies must solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public, expanding citizen participation in public policy decision-making. It will bring a new wave of remarkable technological applications that will have government and citizens working together in partnership. The resulting network within which citizens and their government can work together to solve problems, will change the way citizens and governments interact.

Democratization of Data

Information technology has made data available to everyone. This democratization of data unveils the internal workings of government and sets in motion the wheels of transformation. Unfettered Access to Data that Can Transform Government (page 6) examines the government's need to look beyond transparency and accountability when delivering data to increase worker productivity and citizen engagement. Technology as a Game Changer (page 7) looks at the transformational possibilities of inviting greater participation and collaboration from citizens. Information as a Public Good (page 9) presents examples of Web based geospatial technologies that are leveraging government data as a public good. The results of a survey conducted by Rutgers University on the different dimensions regarding what citizens are looking for in the way of transparency are detailed in Citizens' Views on Transparency (page 11).

Practices at Work in Government

Web 2.0 practices are changing public services now. Governments are providing citizens with extraordinary tools that inform them and others with similar interests. One of the fastest growing trends in state and local government is to provide citizens with timely, easy to understand information on how their how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. Texas Websites Improve Accountability (page 13) describes the state's three initiatives aimed at improving government accounting, spending and transparency. The State of Georgia's gateway to information and key documents about how the state spends tax dollars and other revenues is outlined in Georgia's Commitment to Customer Service and Good Government (page 15).

New Zealand is moving strategically to use online tools to engage citizens and learn their views on matters important to them. Online communities are viewed as partners working to improve the quality of government in Transparency 2.0 (page 16).

Recognizing the need for a new approach in the maintenance of federal records, E-discovery, Transparency and Culture Change (page 19) lays out a framework for changes that will enhance access to public documents. Current methodology for measuring eGovernment progress is nearing the end of its usefulness. Measuring E-Government 2.0 (page 17) presents a new benchmarking approach for measuring e-government's return on investment. The Association of Government Accountants (AGA) establishes a baseline for understanding public attitudes with regard to transparency and accountability in AGA Opens the Doors of Government to Citizens (page 21).

Shedding Light on Corruption

Increasing transparency and citizen participation goes a long way toward undermining the problem of corruption. Transparency in the oil, gas and mining industry has been gaining traction over the last decade. Fighting Corruption while Building Energy Security (page 26) looks at the paradox of resource-rich countries that are impoverished because of corruption and conflict.In India, land records are vital documents for both farmers and the government. They are used to prove ownership and are required for numerous administrative functions. India: Revolutionary Land Records (page 23) reveals the incredible impact computerization of land records has had on the livelihood of small farmers.

Openness and transparency are necessary for effective government oversight and accountability. The idea that transparency does not guarantee accountability is explored in Through a Glass, Darkly: What do we mean by Transparency in Government? (page 28) The need for government to tap into the expertise of others and withstand public scrutiny is discussed in Transparency in Government Begins Outside (page 29). As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis so aptly put it "sunlight is the best disinfectant".

Collaborative Government

The issues of culture and policy need to be addressed before major progress can be made toward a truly collaborative government. Beyond Transparency in Government (page 31) speaks to theses challenges and the need to engage citizens to solve today's complex problems. Get Ready for Wiki-Government (page 33) looks at the millennial generation's use of social networks. This generation will change the shape of America's governing processes to one where some decisions will be made by crowds.

Government in ancient Athens was conducted in the public square. People met there to debate civic issues and drive policy decisions. Building the Digital Public Square (page 35) describes how the District of Columbia is re-creating the public square to bring people closer to their government using collaborative technologies. Even today, Open Government Serves Citizens (page 37), as Maryantonett Flumian, the founding head of Service Canada illustrates, offering numerous examples of transparent government from the public and private sectors in the U.S. and around the world. Following her lead, this newsletter offers more of the many stories of how cooperation and innovative technology are being used to confront the huge changes required to create an open and participative government. The range of subjects is just the tip of the iceberg, and shows how better communications "on all levels" must be a key priority for government in the future.

President Obama's January 21 open government memoradum calls for transparency, participation and collaboration in government. These three concepts have been underlying American democracy since the start, but never have they been so central to a presidential vision. With advanced technologies and creative use of the Internet, a commitment to open government will go a long way toward giving the public control of the levers of power, and encouraging widespread participation in the civic life of the nation.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2009 Intergovernmental Solutions Newsletter on Transparency and Open Government. The Newsletter, a semi-annual publication from the GSA Center for Intergovernmental Solutions, focuses in depth on a topic of particular interest and current relevance to the intergovernmental IT community with articles and analysis from government officials and academic, non-profit, and industry organizations.

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