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Open Government -- It is About Time …

About time that government became truly transparent; embraced a culture of full disclosure; partnered with businesses instead of leveraging them; strategically used analytics, and gave up tradition for progress.

by / August 15, 2011
Photo:iStockphoto Photo copyright by iStockphoto

Gordon J. Bruce, M.B.A., is CIO/Director Department of Information Technology, City and County of Honolulu
Open government -- it is about time … that government became truly transparent; embraced a culture of full disclosure; partnered with businesses instead of leveraging them; strategically used analytics, and gave up tradition for progress.

In the past seven years I have personally witnessed a deepening worldwide distrust in government. This is based on my first-hand experience as the Chief Information Officer for the City and County of Honolulu, the 13th largest municipality in the United States. I have met with local, city, state and international officials in my role. The purpose of these meetings in part, was to discuss how technology could be used to better service the citizen through improved services and the streamlining of government operations.  My primary contacts are elected officials (presidents, vice presidents, governors, mayors, council members, appointed administrators, career-government employees and citizens).

I have discovered over these years that there is a pivotal divide between the elected/appointed officials and those who are career-government employees. This comes from a simple but strategically overlooked operational anomaly. Here is how it works. In a democratic society, elected officials are voted into office by a majority of the citizens who vote for them. They, in turn, select those (the appointees) who will serve under them to ensure that the promises made during the election are met. It is up to the appointee to motivate the career civil servant to deliver on those promises. But what if the career civil servant wanted the opponent to win? What motivates them to deliver? The employee may elect to support the initiatives, sabotage the initiatives or take a position of indifference. I have found that indifference dominates and is demonstrated through a unique passive-aggressive mode of behavior. And, what if you are union organized and the union officials wanted the opponent to win? This not-so-obvious dilemma can result in a nightmare for the elected/appointed official.

Now let’s add the issue of time in office. Many have argued the pros and cons of term limits for elected officials. I am very much in favor of term limits. There are many reasons that have been debated for years, but I will base my support for term limits on the growing distrust in government in the United States and the lack of voter turnout. Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election.  After increasing for many decades, the trend has been a decreasing voter turnout in most established democracies since the 60s. Scholars have debated the reasons for years, but my contention, based on the past seven years of first-hand experience in government, is that the issues detailed in this paper represent an overlooked reason of the cause.
Voter Turnout

The Founding Fathers of this country, did not expect the average age of those serving in elected positions to be in their 60s, 70s and 80s. In fact, the life expectancy in 1876 was 47. I believe that if the Founding Fathers of the United States realized that senators and congress would be in their 70s and 80s and still holding office, they would have written term limits into the Constitution. George Washington himself stepped down after two terms even though he was asked to stay!

There are issues to be considered in the term-limited elected official and the career civil servant. Career civil servants dedicate their lives to the job of serving the public. However, their level of active participation depends on who is in power at that time. If they support the elected official who is in power, they are more inclined to support the goals. If they did not support the elected official in power, they are less inclined to help with the successful delivery of the political promises. 

This was clearly pointed out by the career civil servant when I was appointed to the director and CIO position at the City and County of Honolulu. I call it the “A-Team”/“B-Team” Paradigm. Appointees are considered the “A Team” because of their perceived stature and power. Career civil servants see themselves as the “B Team,” because they may be perceived in their minds to be lesser in stature.  And in some cultures, this is in fact the case. I was harshly reminded by the career civil servant that even though they themselves consider themselves to be the “B Team,” they know that they will “B” on their jobs now and “B” there when the elected officials and the appointees “A”re gone. There is also another way to look at this. I have found in some cases that long-term career senior level civil servants perceive that they are in fact the “A” team and that those elected into office or the appointee really are the “B” team and that the “B” team can be heard but may not be heeded and will definitely “B” gone.

So, just considering these issues confronting the elected official, what do they do to overcome them?  It is through...

  • Government Becoming Truly Transparent;
  • Embracing a Culture of Full Disclosure;
  • Partnering with Business Instead of Leveraging Them;
  • Strategically Using Analytics; and perhaps the hardest of them all,
  • Giving Up Tradition for Progress.

It will take courage, and for many may be perceived as political suicide.  But based on what is happening around the globe today -- a necessity.

Open Government True Government Transparency

Open government is the growing doctrine, which holds that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight. In its broadest view, it opposes reasons of state and other considerations, which have tended to legitimize extensive state secrecy. 

Open government is widely seen as a key hallmark of contemporary democratic practice and is often linked to the passing ofr freedom of information legislation. However, I argue that it is the format by which this information is presented that helps to garner evidence of distrust. It is not uncommon for elected officials to pronounce their desires for transparency and openness. Many will do so by announcing the live broadcast of government sessions. They further demonstrate their openness by providing access to data. But this access to data is typically in a sanitized, static and un-useable format. It is this “smoke and mirrors” approach to data transparency that promotes action by such organizations as WikiLeaks, the international non-profit organization that publishes submissions of private, secret and classified media from anonymous news sources, news leaks and whistleblowers. Admittedly, this is the extreme case but it supports my point.

To be truly transparent, government must provide real-time useable data. The City and County of Honolulu is one of those governments that have taken this approach. They have created a website named CAN-Do Honolulu (Citizens Accessing Numbers Discover Opportunities). The initial roll out of useable data was the publishing of the proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2012 for Honolulu. What made this different from the practices of the past was that the data was in easily downloadable format that the citizen could analyze. The past practice was in a text format that was difficult to read and nearly impossible to extract detail. This was the beginning of providing real-time month-end budget and spending data to the citizen. The financial disclosure statements of all appointees were also published. 

Embrace the Culture of Full Disclosure

Providing this data is a technical as well as professional challenge. The appropriate financial systems must be in place from a common enterprisewide system. The outcomes must be open to audit and verifiable. The agencies themselves must be willing to disclose them. An agency may be unwilling to disclose detailed data about their operations for fear from challenge or identification of perceived errors.  The citizen may also challenge project priorities and demand to know why one district may be getting new or improved facilities over others. Agencies, however, should be prepared not to defend the data and the decisions but to explain and justify the reasoning. Business analytics can provide the support and assist in the preparation of responses. 

Partnering With Businesses Instead of Leveraging Them

Government enters into numerous contractual agreements, everything from the purchasing of goods to the purchasing of services. Values range from hundreds to multi-millions of dollars. Government contracting involves the expenditure of public funds, and as such, it requires a great deal of transparency and accountability. The authority to enter into contracts begins with the authority given to the government through their various laws and regulations. In many cases multiple levels of government and agencies can be involved.  It is this procurement and contract complexity that feeds an “Us” versus “Them” culture. It is this adversarial culture that can cloud the intent of the contract. The result is numerous contract disputes and failures in government projects. Government and business should begin the practice of sharing their data. For example, analysis of cost-and-spend data of past projects, both the successful and not so successful by and of both parties can result in the reduction of project costs, schedule overruns, and scope creep.

Strategically Using Analytics

Analytics and fact-based decision making can make a powerful contribution to the achievement of governmental missions and the accomplishment of corporate business objectives. The strategic use of analytics in both the private and government sectors also requires massive managerial innovation. A recent paper, Strategic Use of Analytics in Government, by Thomas H. Davenport, Presidents Chair in Information Technology and Management, Babson College and Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa, James Bayless / Rauscher Pierce Refsner Chair in Business, University of Texas at Austin, supports this but also acknowledges that the key elements of leadership are missing.

Governments typically do not delve into the area of business analytics.  In this global society where the “hiccup” of one country, state or city, can significantly impact others, it is imperative that analytics become a priority.  It is now time to put the resources into the area of analytics to prepare for anticipated and unanticipated rapid change.

The actual use of analytics in government can be either strategic or tactical.  While the use of analytics for improving efficiency and effectiveness appear limitless, there is much less readiness, clarity and courage in government to use them.  One approach to promoting an analytical orientation could come from the Department of Information Technology.  They could lead this initiative with direct support from top leaders in government and the community.  Technology departments are the keepers of the data and are an independent, objective, third party to the facts derived from the data.
Honolulu has established detailed data sets over the years through the deployment of numerous state-of-the art, enterprise-wide applications such as the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Asset Management, Geospatial Information, Human Resources Management and Payroll to name a few.  Providing data for analytical applications that are separated from transaction systems in data warehouses, single purpose marts are enabling the mining of this data.  Providing this data to the citizen is also paramount in creating a smarter citizen who trusts those elected to serve them.  The end result is a smarter city. 

Government organizations, however, need not only capture and “warehouse” the data, but analyze it, and to assist and ensure prompt analysis make it available to the citizen.  Tremendous opportunity exists within spending and revenue management areas where governments have been particularly faulted for poor analytics and follow through. Honolulu recently completed an analysis of $1 billion of its spending programs. This effort has resulted in a review of numerous contracts and agreements to identify ways to save taxpayer dollars and improve efficiencies.

The enterprise approach to systems deployment and support is foremost to the success. Honolulu is fortunate that it has taken this enterprise-based approach rather than continuing with a fragmented operational model. This ensures consistency in the data, enabling better decision making.

Giving Up Tradition for Progress

This is the polite way of stating that government can no longer do things the way they have done them in the past. Complicated, bureaucratic processes need to be demolished and rebuilt. This is no easy task, especially in union-centric environments. Adding the unions to the “B Team” mix coupled with the “A Teams” temporary role make change a daunting task. Leaders and unions need to have the courage to come forth and force this change. That said, opportunities do exist through the use of technology and we have found a number of technologies that are enabling a gradual-rather-than-forced change to occur. This is an agile forward-thinking strategy that works.

To do this, Honolulu has enhanced its Web presence to include the use of social media. The tremendous growth in this area has resulted in new concepts on how to communicate directly with the citizen.  Facebook and Twitter are now key tools.

Honolulu has also entered into a contract with CitySourced to provide real-time mobile tools for the citizen to report and track problems such as crime mapping, burned out street lights, potholes, graffiti, illegal dumping, and more. Honolulu’s recent grant award from Code-for-America will enable three top information technology trained fellows to be dedicated to the development of citizen-facing mobile and Web applications, mine data for business analytics purposes, and make the results available to the citizen.  Citizens can also submit their applications for consideration.

A further example is the changes that have evolved on how we use the WEB. The use of websites has evolved over the past 20 years to one of true interaction. The static Web page (electronic brochure) of the past will still be available but with less of an impact. Citizens want the data and information pushed to them. They want to decide what and when they get this information and they want to decide on what platform. Smart phones continue to dominate the global markets and are the product of choice with tablets and smart phones pushing laptop computers to the side. 

Another good example can be found in the August issue of Asia Pacific FutureGov where the Japanese City of Takeo in Saga Prefecture plans to shutdown its official website, and completely move to the city’s official Facebook account for greater interaction between officials and citizens.


We have reached the beginning of a new transformation. It is not be an easy undertaking. It will require courage on the part of the politician, government official, union, civil servant and business. It requires active participation of the citizen. It requires a cultural shift of the public servant, and the unions. And last but not least … it requires leadership.

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