Open-government initiative marks two-year milestone

Expert Don Tapscott shares insight on what he believes should be the transparency initiative's future.

Two years ago Friday, on his first day in office, President Obama issued a memo aimed at making government operations more transparent. While open government advocates have largely panned the effort over what they call toothless policies, a regulatory compliance initiative announced Tuesday is giving some of those critics new hope the administration's transparency objectives eventually might be realized.

The new guidance, which is separate from an executive order on regulatory review released the same day, directs agencies to develop plans for making information about the enforcement of rules "accessible, downloadable and searchable online" within four months. White House officials then must pull those performance statistics into a central website that makes it easy for the public to compare agencies' records on compliance.

"After some criticism, and after considering different approaches to data prioritization, this is one strategy that's emerging: to force agencies to focus on their core regulatory functions and disclose that information better," John Wonderlich, policy director at the government transparency organization the Sunlight Foundation, said in a blog post on the group's site.

Nevertheless, he continued, "Plans to make more plans for forming nonbinding working groups aren't an appropriate response. Each agency is capable of publicly auditing all of their regulatory compliance data, to create a plan that reflects the agency's unique ability to lay out what is knowable about their work, and chart a course toward better disclosure of their core functions."

To gather additional perspective on the future of Obama's open government effort, Nextgov interviewed Don Tapscott, co-author of the new book Macrowikinomics (Portfolio, 2010), a sequel to the 2006 best-seller Wikinomics. Macrowikinomics examines the way networked communities are transforming the way governments operate.

Here is Tapscott's take on what the Obama administration should do next:

Nextgov: Beth Noveck, the White House's open government chief, returned to academia earlier this month. How will the open government initiative change as a result of her departure?

Tapscott: She did a wonderful job leading this initiative. No one understands the problems of open government better than she does. I'm sorry to see her go back to academia. Those will be big shoes to fill.

But I hope the goals and commitment for the open government initiative remain the same. Governments face a reality in which they are more and more dependent for authority on a network of powers and counterinfluences of which they are just a part. Whether streamlining government service delivery or resolving complex global issues, governments are either actively seeking -- or can no longer resist -- broader participation from citizens and a diverse array of other stakeholders.

The first wave of digitally enabled e-government strategies delivered some important benefits. It made government information and services more accessible to citizens while creating administrative and operational efficiencies. But too many of these initiatives simply focused on automating existing processes and moving existing government services online.

The next wave of innovation -- which is just beginning -- presents a historic occasion to fundamentally redesign how government operates, how and what the public sector provides, and ultimately, how governments interact and engage with their citizens. Governments can and must rise to these challenges. It is truly a time when either government plays an active and positive role in its own transformation, or change will happen to it. The transformation process is at the same time exhilarating and painful, but the price of inaction is a lost opportunity for government to redefine its role in society and help launch a new era of participatory government.

Nextgov: Do you expect enforcement of open government at agencies to decline, as the White House turns its attention to reducing the deficit and accountability?

Tapscott: There is no need for the goals of deficit reduction and open government to conflict. Indeed, proper open government will result in a much more effective and efficient government. Open government enables citizens to do much more for themselves rather than relying on government services and programs.

Nextgov: California Republican Darrell Issa now heads the House committee that oversees White House open government and IT contracting. How might he alter the way feds use IT?

Tapscott: This should not be a partisan issue. The open government objective should enjoy support from across the entire political spectrum.

Nextgov: How will eDiplomacy, which encourages digital information sharing, change in the wake of the WikiLeaks debacle, in which a soldier allegedly handed over masses of sensitive diplomatic cables?

Tapscott: It's not in the public interest for all diplomatic correspondence to be public, but clearly we live in the new age of hyper-transparency. WikiLeaks is just the tip of the iceberg. People everywhere have at their fingertips the most powerful tool ever for finding out what's really going on and informing others. So government must be more careful. But it shouldn't curtail initiatives such as Diplopedia [an internal unclassified online encyclopedia continuously updated by agency personnel], which has become a key resource in the State Department. As department staff is shuffled from country to country, Diplopedia captures knowledge that would otherwise likely be lost.

Nextgov: What are you working on now that might give federal employees some insight into how their job responsibilities will change in the next two years?

Tapscott: Within individual agencies and some extent central agencies it's clear we need the rollout of a more collaborative platform. E-mail and PDFs aren't sufficient in a 21st century public sector. Tools such as industrial strength social networks, wikis, blogs, jams, microblogging, news feeds, and a new generation of project management tools and collaborative decision tools are key to moving forward. This will help to break down the silos, help share knowledge and foster collaboration.