Business of Government Stories
Thursday, April 2, 2020
Open government and open data paved the way for current government initiatives around data and evidence – enabling agencies to leverage data effectively is more important now than ever before.

(This post draws its story largely from a prior IBM Center report, Encouraging and Sustaining Innovation in Government, by Beth Noveck and Stefaan Verhulst.)

On January 21, 2009, the first day of a new Administration, President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, committing to “establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration” for government. It was the administration’s first directive on the use of technology and innovation, and aspired to fun­damentally redesign, not just reform, how agencies make decisions by opening them up to the value embed­ded in citizens’ skills, talents and abilities.

This memorandum resulted from significant preceding efforts.  Specifically, following on the work of the prior Administration and other governments on e-government (see prior post here), technology and open government had been important parts of the presi­dential campaign of then-Senator Obama.  Campaign leaders invited ideas via blogging on their website; technologists volunteered to build tech tools; and through listservs and wikis referred to as “Idearaisers,” thousands of experts from across the country discussed ideas and then formed small groups to submit for consideration one-page proposals on technology and government reform.


Tell us about the evolution of the open government movement? - Dan Chenok explains!






Following the election, the transition team set up the first ever presidential transi­tion website to inform and engage the American people in an open manner, as part of the process of planning the first 100 days of the new administration. As had been done with Idearaiser, the transition team invited people to submit both their questions and their ideas as part of a Citizens’ Briefing Book, which helped formulate key agenda items for the new Administration. More than 125,000 people shared 44,000 ideas, building public support for new technology initiatives.

The transition also notably included the first ever committee to design and plan a technology strategy for the first 100 days of the Obama administration called the Technology Innovation and Government Reform (TIGR) team.  I served as lead for the TIGR sub-groups that focused on how technology and open government could build a more innovative and responsive public sector, working under the TIGR leadership team and across other subgroups – many of whom subsequently held key technology and telecommunications positions in the Administration.  Beth Noveck also helped lead our subgroup and then went into the Administration as Deputy Chief Technology Officer (CTO).  Members of the team included Vivek Kundra, the Washington DC CTO who then served as the Federal Chief Information Officer; Aneesh Chopra, the Virginia CTO who became the first Federal CTO; and Andrew McLaughlin and Bruce McConnell who also entered the Administration to lead efforts on technology and cybersecurity, respectively.   The fact that that much of the transition team leadership then took roles driving the initiatives became an important success factor for implementation.

Open Government Activities Drove Agency Change

Key legislation in areas such as open data and prize-backed challenges erased legal hurdles to the adoption of new ways of working.  The leadership team identified above helped to drive a series of key policies on open government around transparency, participation and collaboration— through which agencies could bolster their relationship to citizens and move toward structures to enable greater co-creation and co-production of decision-making, informed by greater public awareness about government.  The Center later wrote about this trend in two reports on the topic: Engaging Citizens in Co-Creation in Public Services and Beyond Citizen Engagement: Involving the Public in Co-Delivering Government Services.

Major open government activities from that period included policies, programs and directives aimed at transforming the relationship between citizen and state and using technology to modernize government:

  • The Open Government Directive, signed later in 2009, which provided U.S. agencies and departments with guidance on how to implement the January 21st memorandum.
  • The May 2012 Presidential Memorandum on Building a 21st Century Digital Government, which sought to improve the digital services available to the American public, and includes objectives on open data, the prioritization of digital services and adopting a customer-centric approach to digital service delivery.
  • A series of open data policies, beginning with the Open Government Memorandum and including a May 2013 Executive Order on Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information. These policies focused on making information about the functioning of government more transparent
  • -- Launched in May 2009 with 47 data sets, the website now makes 236,000 data sets publicly accessible. These federal, state and city-based data sets are searchable and downloadable for free and in raw form.

The US Government was not alone in moving toward Open Government. The Open Government Partnership became and remains a hub for governments looking to leverage open data in improving performance and services.

More broadly, the open government agenda was part of a broader innovation framework that led to structures still in place today, including the US Digital Service and GSA’s 18F program – both began several years later to help agencies close the gap in attracting talent and best practice from the private sector, and still play powerful roles in assisting agencies today.

What Lessons Can Be Learned from the Open Government Era?

The Open Government era offers four lessons for government executives today and in years to come.

Link to Open Data. First, given the critical need for data to understand and track the effects of government action in addressing an unprecedented public and national action, governments can link to open data to help supplement their own efforts.  For example, the government of Brazil used open data to track the course and treatment impact of the Zika virus a number of years ago; similar efforts could help aggregate data without creating large new collection programs.  The US has access to much of the data needed for this kind of response – a key lesson from the open government era is that establishing policy early can help increase public involvement and engagement, and improve the exchange and understanding of openly available data sources.

Leadership. A second lesson comes in the form of leadership.  The movement of key leaders from the Presidential Transition Team into important posts in government enabled success in driving the agenda forward.  Later implementation was facilitated by governance structures and institutional frameworks that continue to help bring innovation forward, such as USDS and 18F.  Given the upcoming election and new leaders that will arrive next year under any outcome, the history from the 2008 transition points to the need to ensure that incoming leaders are both knowledgeable of and well-positioned for the importance of data to achieve major goals.  The Data Strategy goal in the current President’s Management Agenda (see PMA story here) demonstrates how leaders can help integrate data into whole-of government approaches that improve government use of data.

Support Open Data. A third lesson is that open government and open data helped drive the agendas of a number of new non-government organizations to support open data for government improvement.  The aforementioned Open Government Partnership provide a key international resource for collaboration, and US groups like the Data Coalition and the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE) provide governments with key capacity to leverage open data networks.  Open data initiatives also provided context for, and can play a key role in successful implementation of, more recent data-focused statutes like the DATA Act and the Foundations of Evidence-Based Policy Making Act.

Integrate Data and Technology.  Finally, open data is just one part of the “open” paradigm that is also driving change in the technology industry through open cloud and open source software.  The Center is working with CODE on a forthcoming report about this integration, in which open data plays a key role alongside technology in driving an innovation cycle. For more on this lesson and its import for the future, see our prior post

Business of Government Stories

The past 30 years provides important lessons both for today’s leaders and for those of future administrations. Little has been written about the role leaders and teams have played in the evolution of management reforms. We are starting a series called “Business of Government Stories” where we will narrate the stories of many of the most influential events that have shaped government over the past generation. Our series will focus on the people behind this management evolution and feature a podcast with reflections on the stories behind these reforms.

Learn more about our stories and read previous posts.