Implementing an Open Government Department

Three years ago, I published Open Government: A simplified scheme as a way of presenting the three tiers of open government in a practical, reality-based way:

  • Transparency.
  • Participation.
  • Collaboration.

Two years later, in Open government: where to begin with? A showcase I suggested some ways to initiate the road towards open government, especially at the local level. In that case, I combined the former three tiers of open government with five stages of decision making:

  • Diagnosis.
  • Deliberation.
  • Negotiation.
  • Vote.
  • Assessment.

My experience during the last year is that these initiatives can work, but sooner or later they need to be mainstreamed into the very structure of the organization. That is, that the Department of Open Government becomes the Department of Public Administration and the Department of Public Administration becomes the Department of Open Government. Otherwise, while the Open Government Department only deals with open government stuff, it will hardly prevail and/or hardly have any impact. In fact, open government strategies will find themselves at odds with public administration strategies, especially in those fields where tradition or inertia is strong and people’s mindsets do not embrace (or are against) change and new values — not to speak about specific personal or party interests.

These conflicting strategies between open government and public administration rely on the fact that they talk about very different spheres. On the one hand, open government deals about how, while public administration deals about what to do, which can be summarised as:

  • Planning and monitoring: what do we want to do.
  • Staff and organization: what are the resources that we got.
  • Relations with citizens: what is our relationship with citizens depending on what they need.

How to put implement an Open Government Department that takes into consideration the principles of open government while it adheres to the needs of public administration organization? Let us try and combine the three tiers of open government (transparency, participation, collaboration) and the three tiers of public administration (planning, resources, citizens).

The image above highlights the nine sectors resulting from intersecting open government with public administration. What follows is a list of functions to be performed by an open government department. These functions can be performed by a single body or several ones, not necessarily coinciding with the list of functions. Indeed, some of them can be performed by the same body, while others will be split or developed across different bodies, some of them not even being part of the public administration:

  1. Data: (public) decision-making should be based on evidence. Caring for the gathering and production of evidence begins with caring for the gathering and production of (public) data. Data protection, open data and official statistics should have a common strategy, including creating protocols for anyone producing data at the public sector: hence, data governance.
  2. Planning: strategic planning, monitoring and evaluation and assessment should have the concurrence of all relevant actors. Participation in policy-making should begin at the design level, which at its turn begins with a good diagnosis where everyone can name and frame the issue at stake.
  3. Evaluation and assessment: there is a part of evaluation and (especially) assessment that necessarily needs to be performed outside of the Administration. It can take the form of an independent evaluation agency or not, but at least the Administration should open and facilitate external evaluation from relevant stakeholders and, when possible, establish binding relationships with such external evaluations. Some Administrations already have an independent body for such tasks.
  4. Ethics and accountability: ethics is to public servants (especially top executives) what planning is to policy-making. One should plan how their teams will be, and that plan is ethics. Transparency is how one tells the citizen how policies were designed, executed and evaluated. Accountability is how people did that, which brings us back to ethics. Transparency in open government can only come after a deep commitment with ethics at the people level and vice-versa.
  5. People (and their tools): this is probably the core of implementing an open government department. It is unlikely that any kind of open government strategy takes place without a transformation of how public servants work. For open government to settle and mainstream it is essential to adapt the way people is recruited, the way people work (do their own work and work with others), they way incentives are drawn or the kind of tools people and teams use (including procedures, protocols, a culture of work, etc.). And, of course, nothing of this will happen without the appropriate training and professional development. Open government begins with internal participation by the public servants themselves.
  6. Capacity enhancing:
    • Public procurement: when talent and tools cannot be found inside the organization, they have to be sought outside of it. This can be accepted as an unavoidable externalization, or as an opportunity to establish public-social-private partnerships/networks of collaboration. The kind of ethics applied to these relationships will determine the balance between a mere client-contractor agreement or a real partnership.
    • A skilled pool of public servants: Seems like a good idea that someone, outside the Administration (or just besides it) tries to keep up with the upfront of public administration theory (and practice) through research and training. A School of Public Administration could be such someone.
  7. Talking with the citizen: talking to and talking with the citizen are different things. The second approach requires a lot more empathy. That is what an open government culture should bring. Open Government seen as putting much more mere information in the hands of the citizen is probably not open government, but sheer fulfilment of one’s duty.
  8. Listening to the citizen: we’re told, from our earliest days, that one should listen before speaking. Well, that’s it with participation in open government. It is easier said than done. That is why it should become transversal to all policy-making. That is way it should be mainstreamed in everything public administration does.
  9. Working with the citizen: the last tier of open government, collaboration (co-design of public policies, co-management of initiatives, a devolution of sovereignty, etc.) is hardly possible without the former advancements or transformations in how public administration works. It is about the Administration stepping back from the arena and instead of leading it, facilitating it, making collective decisions possible among citizens without interfering but enriching them.
  10. This list of functions had in mind mainstreaming open government across a whole public administration. And it had in mind how most public administrations are structured nowadays: with a whole department devoted to the internal organization of the Administration (receiving names like department of Interior, of Public Administration, of Governance, of Interior and many other denominations, even Presidency). The goal of this proposal was to put together the values of open government within the usual tasks of an actual department managing public affairs such as strategic planning, personnel and citizens.

    But, to achieve total mainstreaming, the managing offices of all other departments should, to some extension, mimic the same structure. As there is a department that manages the budget (Treasury, Public Economics, Public Finance, etc.) and an office in each department to manage their budget, same should happen when it comes to open government: each managing office of each department should take into account planning and monitoring, staff and organization, and relations with the citizen. And do it with the transversal values of open government as it has been explained above in a coordinated and consistent way with the proposed Open Government Department.

    If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

    Peña-López, I. (2019) “Implementing an Open Government Department” In ICTlogy, #190, July 2019. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
    Retrieved month dd, yyyy from https://ictlogy.net/review/?p=4688

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