Opening Up About Open Government: Do Open Government Initiatives Measure Up?

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Can you easily find the government information you need? Do you feel empowered to share your ideas? Do you think your ideas are being heard and acted upon? Do you believe government is spending our money more wisely?

If you can't answer yes to these questions, then we need to look at what's being done and what can be done to improve our government's credibility and ability to serve the American people.

Data, polls, surveys, contests, and Facebook pages are some of the new open government (OGov) initiatives popping up across the internet horizon since President Barack Obama's first executive action for Openness and Transparency was issued last year as a memo. It's no surprise that less than a year after the president's memo, an open government directive was announced to foster the values of transparency, participation, and collaboration into the culture of every agency. This new directive set some hard and fast deadlines and challenges for each agency. The good news is that each agency was required to develop an open government plan and website with its own unique road map in consultation with the American people and open government experts rather than prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach. Once again, these ideas came directly from the public's suggestions. The agency's plans and websites were just revealed on April 7, 2010. The bad news is that many of those plans didn't include any type of measurement or search strategy to validate their worth.

The two tech-savvy federal IT leaders, CIO Vivek Kundra and CTO Aneesh Chopdra, are leading the charge with initiatives such as Data.gov, which grew from 47 to more than 168,000 data
sets in less than a year; the Office of Management and Budget's IT Dashboard, which exposes federal IT spending and progress on major investments; and Apps.gov, which features pre-approved cloud software services. However, there's still plenty of room for improvement to help users easily find what they're looking for. Although the IT Dashboard has lots of data you can click on to drill down through, there's no search box available to enter a basic or advanced search (i.e., "FDA investments" or "show me all FDA's projects more than $5 million"). It took six tries on Apps.gov to find some type of measurement software using its search box, and even then, the description was vague, and the terms I searched weren't highlighted. This is why many people (like me) first search Google instead of government websites.

I'm not knocking the fact that progress is being made with agencies trying to incorporate a new way of thinking. It is true they are sharing more data, and even incorporating some of those ideas into their policies and initiatives. This change in culture must scare some agencies since flaws and weaknesses are exposed as more transparency initiatives are unveiled (such as the Department of Justice's initiative for each agency to present monthly updates of all Freedom of Information Act data to the public). Making the government more accountable to the people it serves should build more trust between them. To succeed, this needs to be an iterative process of seeking best practice examples from the private sector, eliciting expert advice from visionaries and developing better methods to engage the public and gain its trust. However, if agencies develop new initiatives without including measurement and search strategies at the beginning of each project, it can prove to be ineffective and can cost taxpayers big bucks.

Alex Langshur, a well respected web analytics and optimization expert, is the founder and CEO of PublicInsite.com. He shared an interesting example of an agency he's working with that had developed a lot of online tools to improve people's abilities to engage with their government. However, these tools were created by an IT development shop that hadn't thought about the requirements to measure, i.e., no measurement strategy to evaluate how people engage with them. Thus, the agency's entire fleet of tools needed to be re-engineered to be able to measure their value.

Agencies would do well to learn from Langshur's method of developing a well-defined measurement strategy. This will help them understand the meaning and business value "within the numbers" in order to optimize the connection between their unique mission along with the online behaviors and desires of their most important stakeholders: the American people. His training course, Measuring the Performance of Government Websites and Citizen Engagement, should be a requirement for every agency to gain a thorough understanding of best practices to measure, the benefits and risks of value measurement methodologies, and ways to become more citizen-focused by measuring the outcomes, as opposed to outputs, of the web channel.

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