A new Microsoft Excel-based software tool is enabling federal, state and local agencies to quickly assess the public value of their open government initiatives.

Called the Open Government Portfolio Public Value Assessment Tool (PVAT), the evaluation system was created by the Center for Technology in Government at the University of Albany. Released on May 9, the tool provides a series of questions that take agencies through a review of their existing and proposed open government plans to ensure that resources are being used on those initiatives with the greatest promise.

PVAT assigns an Excel workbook to each initiative being analyzed. The initiative is evaluated in the workbook through a multistep question process, which includes making public value judgments, identifying stakeholders and uncovering the impacts that initiative will have on those stakeholder interests.

The method is repeated for all initiatives in an agency’s open government portfolio. When completed, the program pulls together all the information to present the level of public value each initiative provides.

“In order to see the judgments across the portfolio, you can’t have a bunch of words, so we created a way to pinpoint on a scale — from negative to positive — where the assessment of public value for that stakeholder in the initiative falls,” said Theresa Pardo, the Center for Technology in Government’s director. “It really takes us beyond a return on investment analysis.”

Trial and Error

The initial paper-based version of PVAT was created last year through a $110,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The funding paid for the idea’s development and the effort to work with government agencies to refine the assessment tool.

Changes that came out of a workshop with government personnel included the addition of a section describing specific agency strategic goals and how those connect with an open government initiative, and adding the ability for users to describe stakeholder groups in certain categories. But one of the most significant modifications to the initial version of PVAT involved the issue of transparency in various initiatives.

“We had embedded transparency collaboration and participation into another category,” Pardo explained, regarding the questions that make up PVAT. “So we spent a lot of time talking about how they were different and how they needed to be moved to the forefront. We took those ideas and started changing things in the tool while in a conceptual design.”

The feedback from workshop attendees also led to the decision to make PVAT a digital program.

“One of the things we heard was that in terms of usability and utility, they wanted something in electronic form,” Pardo said. “Excel turned out to be the right tool at this point for the job.”

“We say the thinking is very now, but the platform is very 1990s,” added Meghan Cook, the center’s open government project lead, who headed up PVAT’s development.

Looking Ahead

PVAT may be built off an older software program, but Cook and Pardo both stressed that the goal is to ultimately see it flourish into a modern Web-based application. Pardo explained that during the December 2010 workshop, the subject about using a more contemporary platform was broached, but due to a lack of funding they turned to Excel.

“The expectation is that this is version one,” Pardo said. “If it continues to provide value, and we believe it will, we’ll begin to look at ways to do a more sophisticated version on the Web and would reflect what we’ve learned from folks that are using it. So our interest is getting it out there, getting people to use it … and incorporating [their] feedback into the next level.”

PVAT is available for free to government entities. For more information and to download the tool, visit the Center for Technology in Government website.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.