Report: Agencies face challenges in delivering open government

Outdated website software, privacy worries and a shortage of funding have delayed implementation of President Obama's initiative.

Two years after President Obama announced his open government initiative, federal agencies still face numerous organizational, technical and resource challenges in its implementation, according to a new report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

Obstacles to progress include outdated information technology infrastructure, risks of violating online privacy, relatively weak public engagement, the need to enforce accountability and responsibility, and a lack of resources, wrote the report's authors, Gwanhoo Lee, an associate professor of business at American University, and Young Hoon Kwan, an associate professor of business at The George Washington University.

When the Obama administration in May 2009 officially launched its long-awaited open government initiative, it included ambitious plans for facelifts to federal websites that would offer raw data the public could download and adapt. It garnered encouraging reviews from government transparency activists. Yet implementation has been slow, in part because of perceived risks that agencies might violate citizen privacy.

Last month, the administration issued further open government instructions, directing agencies to develop plans for making information about the enforcement of rules "accessible, downloadable and searchable online" within four months.

IBM's commissioned analysts report that because of the pressure put on agencies, managers might be tempted to launch too many projects simultaneously, going beyond what their current resources can support. Because failure of an open government initiative can yield consequences more serious than monetary loss and damaged reputations, the report said, "Agencies should carefully think through various aspects of leadership, technology, policy, governance and culture before they launch multiple open government initiatives."

An example of weakness in information technology is the fact that some agencies are not ready to deploy social media outlets that allow posting videos, primarily because their network infrastructure cannot support the necessary formats. Online privacy also must be enhanced because the risk of accidentally disclosing confidential information rises with the volume of information exchanged on the Internet, the report said.

Agencies also must generate greater public interest for open government moves to be successful and shouldn't assume the public will automatically come to the sites. If an agency fails to respond to the public's input on social media sites, the analysts noted, then the public will lose interest.

The typical agency budget request cycle of about 18 months is too long to fund open government initiatives in a timely way because many require quick decisions and actions, the analysts said. "Without sufficient funding and dedicated personnel," they added, "government agencies will find it challenging to develop and sustain new engagement tools and programs."