Open government: Will it pass the Twinkie test?
From its first days, the Obama administration has whetted the public’s appetite for what has come to be known as open government.
After more than a decade, the concept of the government Web site, made up largely of HTML pages and PDF documents, had grown stale. Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms had given the public a taste of something completely different. Why settle for being a passive consumer of information when you can participate in its creation as well?
So the administration brought together a team of social media enthusiasts and began engaging the public online, looking for their ideas about open government. It turned out to be a messier process than officials had hoped, as the ideal of public engagement met with the reality of online ugliness. But in the end, federal agencies were able to take that input and cook up a first batch of open-government plans, as required by the Office of Management and Budget's Open Government Directive.
Now we are in the taste-testing phase. Are these the real goods? Or are they little more than good government Twinkies — something that can sit on the shelf forever but that no one will ever eat? That’s the question put to Patrice McDermott, director, and Amy Bennett, program associate, at OpenTheGovernment.org, who have analyzed the plans in detail.
Click through the following pages to see the expert view and comments from the community.
4 differences between Twinkies and open-government plans
By Amy Bennett and Patrice McDermott
Agency plans that meet all the requirements of the Open Government Directive could never successfully be compared to a Twinkie.
It is true that OpenTheGovernment.org, in a recent audit, found that no agency met all the requirements of the directive. Still, all agencies made some progress toward meeting most of the requirements, some agencies developed plans that exceeded the requirements in several ways, and agencies are already working to strengthen their plans. The plans are not perfect, but they are a strong first step toward increasing transparency, participation and collaboration.
Let's look at how these plans offer something you can sink your teeth into.
Open-government plans are not easy to buy and forget.
To develop the plans, agencies had to think through their current work processes; plan how to embed transparency, participation and culture into them; and plan for structural changes to agency management to sustain those changes.
Open-government plans have nutritional value.
Researchers, advocates and others have been long been hampered by a lack of knowledge about what data the government holds. The Open Government Directive alleviates this problem to a great extent by requiring agencies to include in their open-government plans an inventory of their data, and it moves agencies to include information beyond datasets in meeting that requirement. The plans also give the public easy access to information about agencies' records management policies and the process they use to respond to Freedom of Information Act and congressional requests.
Open-government plans are not filled with preservatives.
The Open Government Directive requires agencies to produce plans that include details of proposed actions with clear milestones. As those milestones are passed, plans will go stale. Agencies are required to update those plans at least every two years, although many agencies are planning on updating them more frequently — and some are already doing so.
Open-government plans don’t come in a sealed packet.
The Open Government Directive requires agencies to respond to public feedback on their plans on a regular basis. Accordingly, a great number of agencies describe their plans as living documents, and many are actively seeking public comment. The public is actually encouraged to take the plans apart and look at each ingredient before deciding if the plan is a good one or not. The last time either of us tried that with a Twinkie, she ended up being chased out of the store.
At the most basic level, then, the difference between Twinkies and open-government plans is that Twinkies, although probably OK in moderation, are not staples of a healthy diet. Increased transparency, participation and collaboration, on the other hand, are the primary ingredients of a healthy democratic government.
[Editor’s note: Comments have been edited for length, clarity and style.]
Make It Stick
I suggest that the cat is out of the bag and that it could be very difficult to put it back in. I would offer that there are going to be significant speed bumps getting even most government agencies to engage in any meaningful level of transparency. Some of the issues that will have to be addressed, in no particular order:
1. Can the typical citizen be engaged and continue to be so?
2. Can government management (at this time read: OMB) keep the agencies engaged?
3. Can meaningful rewards/punishments for agency participation be implemented?
— Henry Brown
The struggling working class that is losing homes will demand transparency — that is, open governance that defeats old schoolboy associations and revolving doors. The exiting public servants who have become immune to mediocrity will hope transparency does not work and will look for every possible avenue to relegate the plan for transparency into the dustbin. Probably having found succor in their misdeeds, which have gone unnoticed thus far, they are not aware of the mercury rising in the street where the working class walks more. The apathy of these public servants will be met with much adverse reaction from common law-abiding citizens, whom the system has miserably failed.
— Srinidhi Boray
I wonder what percentage of plans people think are useful. 80 percent or 20 percent? I think open-gov plans are a great step but only a first step. People need to move to execution and get some short-term wins.
— GovLoop (Steve Ressler)
The operative question is which people are judging the plans. Invoking the 90/10 rule: 90 percent of the people probably think 20 percent of the plans are useful — and this is a very high number; it’s probably more like 1 or 2 percent — while 10 percent of the people probably think that there is at least some usefulness in maybe 80 percent of the plans, even if pointing out the fact that the plan is not terribly meaningful.
— Henry Brown
Do the Math
The open-government plan is vaporware — period.
How many months in, and what have we seen? The government behemoth continues to lumber forward without change in direction, speed or response.
- 90 percent of the American people don't know what 2.0 is.
- Of the remaining 10 percent, 50 percent are not engaged because it has no direct impact on them.
- Of that remaining 5 percent, 50 percent are journalists, media and watchdog groups.
So we are left with 2.5 percent who are knowledgeable about 2.0, and at that point, we need to assess whether or not they have a dog in the fight — and which dog it is.
I don't fault anyone for a wait-and-see attitude because they know how easy it is to verbalize intent and write policy versus actually initiating, implementing and monitoring change.
— Harlan Wax
A Stout Defense
When you really catalog the initiatives outlined by the agencies, you see that there are many ideas in these plans for making government better. That being said, there will certainly be some fluff pieces out there, including some less-than-inspiring "plans to do planning." I challenge those who throw open gov under the bus to get me another route for the agencies to come together to sign up for innovative initiatives that will make the government a better service provider to the citizens.
Not Free Speech
If I want to discuss government issues or learn what others are saying, I will go to a real — commercial or private — blog to do so, not to some government-sponsored Web site that screens/censors every comment before posting it. I suggest that government entities should do the same. What arrogance on the part of this administration to think that we need government-sponsored social media in order to have an open forum. By the way, censoring responses on government-sponsored social media is probably a violation of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment provision for the right of citizens to petition the government.