Jan 13 2010

IT's Place in Open Government

Federal directive requires nontraditional roles for federal, state and local IT leaders.
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IT's Place in Open Government

In December, federal CTO Aneesh Chopra and CIO Vivek Kundra presented the U.S. Office of Management and Budget's Open Government Directive. In the memorandum for the heads of federal departments and agencies, President Obama outlines three goals for open government: transparency, participation and collaboration.


The directive covers the administration's plan for sharing data and interacting with citizens. As I watched a live video feed of Chopra and Kundra speaking from the White House, I noticed most of their presentation covered the transparency goal of providing information.

Chopra and Kundra's focus on transparency is understandable because they are in key positions to make that happen. But what about participation and collaboration? Do those goals include IT components?

Historically, participation and collaboration have been the jobs of non-IT project teams composed of administrators and staff. This has been true for all levels of government: federal, state and local. I used to emphasize this by asking rhetorically, "Did you ever see the IT director at a town hall meeting?" In a conventional democracy, IT has no such role.

Admirable Goals

Participation is about accessing the content that is derived from transparency. Collaboration is about dialogue -- conversations about the content that occur between and among government and citizens. 

Unlike the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz -- who managed not only the technology infrastructure but also the content and public outreach -- government IT traditionally has had a limited, behind-the-scenes role. 

But in today's Web 2.0 world, IT has a greater role to play -- that of enabler. By enabling processes, IT supports the products and practices that flow from those processes, such as communication and the exchange of information. 

Regarding transparency, the directive states, "Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public." So the initial role of IT is to enable government agencies to collect, organize, manage and report information to which President Obama wants citizens to have access.

As for participation, the language directs agencies to "offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information."  For IT, this means helping agencies structure and manage their online outreach to citizens. 

And for collaboration, the president has called upon "executive departments and agencies [to] use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector." That includes just about everybody. 

The good news here is that attention will be given to internal as well as external collaboration, which is definitely a step in the right direction. Internal processes pose unique challenges to IT and require agency IT staffs to work together. This means establishing IT systems and processes that are compatible. There is no excuse for having systems in the same administration that can't communicate with each other.  

There is much more under the hood of the Open Government Directive that affects IT, such as vendor relations and procurement practices. Still, it's a good first move. By bringing these issues to the forefront for debate, the directive allows IT leaders in state and local government to play a part in solving problems that have long plagued efforts to achieve government transparency, public participation and internal and external collaboration.


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