President Obama’s Open Government Directive last December described how federal agencies would have to use Web-based information technology to make governing transparent, accountable and understandable to average citizens. It also mandated an online dashboard showing how offices and departments were doing against the benchmarks. More recently, a Massachusetts organization has measured municipal governments against voluntary standards for e-government. Results from both indicate that, at least against these yardsticks, government is doing pretty well at bringing the state’s inner workings into the open via the Internet.
Obama’s initiative is unquestionably the more sweeping. For one thing, it directly affects the estimated 10 percent of the $71 billion federal IT budget devoted to e-government. It also set specific accomplishments to be met by preset dates. And it held agencies accountable, publishing their results on the dashboard. That dashboard shows that only two of 29 agencies were at less than 100 percent of expectations on the first four of six initial goals.
The two laggards were the Office of Personnel Management and the Council on Environmental Quality. They had each fallen down on meeting the first goal, placing high-value, quality data online. The environmental council likewise stumbled on the second, assuring the integrity of data on its Web site. Two other goals -- having an open government Web page with required elements, and creating mechanisms for public feedback -- were met by all agencies. Having a plan for open government and receiving overall ratings are two milestones set to be reached later this spring.
The Massachusetts survey was undertaken by Common Cause Massachusetts, a non-partisan open-government advocacy group. It looked at the Internet presence of all 351 cities and towns in the state, and awarded its 2010 e-Government Award to 181 of them, including 90 who were recognized with distinction. Significantly, those receiving awards amounted to seven-and-a-half times the 24 given in 2006, the first year the awards.
Common Cause had guidelines that were considerably more specific than the White House’s. For instance, to be awarded, cities had to have online the agenda for a governing body meeting held within the two weeks before or after the review period. And in addition to the date, time and location of a meeting, the agenda had to include a list of items to be discussed. In all, there were a half-dozen broad requirements, each of which broke down into similar levels of detail.
The Massachusetts award-winners were generally larger towns, with a median population of 14,285. The ones who weren’t recognized, on the other hand, had a median population of 5,426. Only 25 communities, many of them small, had no Web site, while 23 more had none of the documents on their Web site. Twenty only had one document missing.
Common Cause said that the first three years of its survey found little year-to-year improvement, and that most of the change occurred between the last two surveys. President Obama’s widely publicized commitment to openness in government, which he formalized only a few days after taking office, may be one reason. Another may be that governments are recognizing the advantages to be gained by e-government and openness.
Broadly speaking, e-government can be defined as using information technology to supply public-sector services and interactions. The benefits of this approach are improved services, lower cost, increased effectiveness and greater efficiency. Examples include enabling citizens to renew driver’s licenses online (saving a trip to the motor vehicle office), and filing taxes electronically. Internal government processes such as travel and human resources are also candidates for e-government.
Common Cause lauds e-government for its ability to easily and cheaply provide frequently requested documents -- such as meeting agendas -- to the public. It also likes e-government’s potential for helping educate citizens, and keep public officials accountable. Obama’s Open Government Directive largely echoes these objectives.
E-government sounds great but, even with a push from the government’s highest official, it clearly hasn’t yet taken hold everywhere. Obstacles include lack of internal expertise in Web development in government agencies, fragmented Web development efforts spread over sometimes scores of sites in a single agency and a separate reluctance among government officials to embrace user-participation tools such as wikis and blogs.
Still, in addition to the broad, if somewhat unimpressive, accomplishments in open e-government recognized by Obama’s open government dashboard and the Common Cause Massachusetts e-government award, there exist some remarkable examples of high-return uses of e-government. Some of these particularly emphasize the user participation aspects of Web 2.0 that has proven so difficult for government agencies to adopt.
For instance, USASpending.gov, a database of federal grants and contracts mandated by Obama, was originally supposed to cost $10 million in development funds. Instead, officials adapted a similar service created by private-sector group OMB Watch. That software had been developed under a grant of only about $300,000, was already real-world tested, and has generally performed up to par.
E-government and open government clearly have the wind at their backs these days. They have notched some significant accomplishments and are steadily racking up more. Government IT officials, and those who supply solutions to them, can take comfort in the proven cost-effectiveness and broad acceptance these initiatives are winning in the bare-knuckle world of governing. It’s not likely that they’ll face defeat soon.
An artilce from CIO Zone