Open Government Platforms in the Executive Branch of the U.S. Federal Government

[updated on 04/15/2014]

I put together a list of open government platforms that I used in my Digital Government class this semester at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. The list is sorted by their contributions to the three dimensions of the 2009 Open Government and Transparency memo (transparency, participation, and collaboration). In addition, for each platform I thought about the main goals, the target audience (or engaged crowd), the process(es), and the potential outcomes.

I included HealthCare.gov even though it is an online marketplace and might not be considered as an Open Government initiative. However, I believe it increased transparency for both the (uninsured) public and journalists, as well as the providers in each state.

Addition: Alex Howard prompted me on Twitter to think about what kind of transparency the platform might provide. I include it in the class, because the platform served as a broker to help citizens understand their local marketplace and provide information about plans as well as providers. I believe it is a valuable and trusted government service and private marketplaces might not have the same level of trust. Take a look at Alex’s article on TechPresident where he discusses private healthcare markets.

I am posting it here as a summary for my class, but also to ask for feedback from anyone interested in this topic. Did I forget an important platform? Is the classification and my analysis of the dimensions reasonable? Should I add more dimensions to describe the platforms? Curious what you think, Internet!

Turkey’s political decision to blackout Twitter

Will the revolution be tweeted in Turkey even though the prime minister has decided to block the microblogging service Twitter? It sure looks like it. However, it seems to have backfired big time as this Twitter map of the hashtag #TwitterIsBlockedInTurkey shows:

An upside of this political decision is, that it has in my opinion increased the digital literacy among the Turkish people. They had to learn about proxies, VPNs, anonymous surfing, and other work-arounds to gain access to Twitter, read about what the world outside thinks about the developments and keep posting to Twitter. In a world where physical access is no longer a hurdle, digital literacy – know _how_ to access content and understand cultural differences of social networking sites has become an important issue. As one of my friends reports from Turkey,  this article on Mashable.com has become an important source to teach people how to reconnect or stay connected.

Even though the Turkish president (who mostly has representative functions) had to sign the law prime minister Erdogan put forward, he himself kept tweeting and posted a memorable update condemning the blockade of social media platforms (translation: “Closing of social media platforms can not be approved of.”

In the past, EMPA students from the Turkish prime minister’s office, other cabinet offices, and the presidential office attended my social media classes at the Maxwell School. Looking back at our class conversations I am still surprised – and I know I shouldn’t – how little political power the president has and how much his office focuses on representative aspects. My students from both offices were eager to learn how to use social media in professional ways to support their bosses, but it was also clear to me that the political elite represented in the classroom was disconnected from the technological and cultural developments surrounding social media. A fact that I also observe when I talk to high-level public managers from other countries or the U.S.

While this certainly does not justify the Twitter blackout, I do believe it is an important factor to understand why government officials may feel threatened by a free and open online conversation they can’t control. The result is that they are oftentimes surprised by what is now called leaks of their own behavior and learn about it when issues are starting to be covered in the press – bridging the boundary between online conversations and mainstream media attention.

eJournal of eDemocracy and Open Government Special Issue: Social Media in Asia

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The eJournal of eDemocracy and Open Government has just published a special issue focusing on governance issues around social media, mobile applications and other new technologies in Asia.

Here is the blurb:

This special issue is aimed at showcasing innovative scholarly works examining various subjects concerning the role of social media, mobile phones, and other new technologies in the formation of democratic citizenship and good governance in Asia. We seek studies that address relevant topics in a particular Asian country, and also welcome comparative research on Asian countries or Asian and non-Asian countries.

The articles are available for open access on the journal’s website and listed below:

Table of Contents

Editorial

Transformation of Citizenship and Governance in Asia. The Challenges of Social and Mobile Media PDF
Nojin Kwak, Ines Mergel, Peter Parycek, Marco Skoric i-iii

Special Issue

Civic Action and Media Perceptions within the Wall: The (Re) Negotiation of Power in China PDF
Natalie Pang 1-15
A Trigger or a Muffler? – Examining the Dynamics of Crosscutting Exposure and Political Expression in Online Social Media PDF
Soo Young Bae 16-27
Protests against #delhigangrape on Twitter: Analyzing India’s Arab Spring PDF
Saifuddin Ahmed, Kokil Jaidka 28-58
Internet Aggregators Constructing the Political Right Wing in Japan PDF
Muneo Kaigo 59-79

Scientific Research Papers

The Impact of Public Transparency in Fighting Corruption PDF
James Batista Vieira 80-106

Big Data in Government

[Originally posted on NextGov.com: Follow Philly's Lead and Dive into the Big Data Future]

Big data is valuable data in government
Chief Data Officer Mark Headd, City of Philadelphia

Big data” has become one of the new buzzwords and it is quickly making its way into conversations in government. However, it is difficult for government officials to identify what the big data discussion means for their own organizations, what the challenges are, how they can create additional capacity taking on a job that does not necessarily connect to the core mission of their agency and how they have to tackle the issue to respond to requests from the public.

The big data discussion hits government from two different sides: First, big data is created by citizens in their daily online interactions using social media either directly with government or talking among themselves about issues related to government. As the recently released first guidance for social media metrics for federal agencies shows, government is just now getting into the groove of measuring, interpreting and acting on insights they can potentially gain from their interactions with citizens. The other trend has started a few years ago with the newly initiated conversations around open government and the launch of the federal data sharing site data.gov, a public website that hosts hundreds of data sets produced by federal agencies.

Originally, the big data discussion started outside of government, but has direct implications for government as more and more agencies, politicians and citizens are using social media to interact with each other. Social networking platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, allow citizens to directly connect to government agencies, share their immediate sentiments via comments in their own news feed  In doing so, they create hundreds of new data points, that increase the data volume far beyond a single phone call with a citizen request. As a matter of fact, the conversations can go back and forth between government and citizens, but also among citizens. Social media conversations might not even directly involve government, but they are related to ongoing hot-button issues, upcoming policy changes or the cut of a government program.

Keeping track of potentially thousands of externally created data points published by citizens on a daily basis has become an unmanageable problem that is slowly being addressed in the public sector. As a response, some agencies have shut down the possibility to leave comments on their Facebook pages reducing the cost to respond and track, others actively pull in citizen input or moved on to other ideation platforms that focus the conversation on a specific problem statement and streamline the solicitation of targeted responses and input from the public (see for example Challenge.gov).

The second trend that government agencies are facing is the mandate of the Open Government Initiative to release government data sets in machine-readable format for public consumption.  The flagship initiative data.gov has paved the way for state and local governments to respond in a similar fashion. Most recently, NY state has released its own data portal, a website that hosts about 6,500 data sets from state, city and local government sources in NY state.

The challenge for public managers is manifold: they have to identify appropriate data sets, clean them, potentially merge them from different databases, and make sure that they do not contain any individual or personal information that cannot be released to the public by law. Independent of each agency’s individual response, given the multitude of citizen interactions and ongoing conversations in combination with the top-down mandates, additional resources, increased capacity and new positions with a specific skill sets are necessary to appropriately respond. Beyond the internal organizational challenges to manage information streams, big data is much more: Government agencies also need to understand how they can open themselves up for third parties who are reusing the data.

Mark Headd, the newly appointed first Chief Data Officer of the City of Philadelphia, recently spoke to my social media class at the Maxwell School and shared his first-hand insights into the world of Big Data in government.  Mr. Headd was appointed through an executive order of Mayor Nutter in Philadelphia and organizationally embedded within the ICT unit and directly reports to the CIO and mayor. Mayor Nutter made it a political priority to understand and organically implement elements of the open government movement – an advantage that other cities might not have, where Chief Information or Chief Data Officers still need to battle political fights before they can implement change.

Mark Headd

He describes himself as a data evangelist and an embedded technologist who has the task to discover government data, think about ways to make it available to the public and find a match between the data and external stakeholders who can potentially use the data to create public value. Internally, he is focused on cultural change more than on data analysis issues or technological problems: He aims to convince public managers to see the potential value the data can have for the public, start discussions about the reasons to release data and the way government officials view themselves, but most importantly inform them about changing expectations and citizen needs. Mr. Headd then facilitates connections between data sources and potential data users outside of government.

As one of the first Code for America cities in the U.S., Philadelphia’s local tech community of civic hackers has an immense motivation to reuse public information and create valuable applications. As opposed to data.gov, where data sets are mostly available for so-called “elite access” – a small group of highly trained computer specialists and data analysts – the approach in Philadelphia focuses on data that is not highly specialized, already publicly available, such as transit data, day care centers, information about flu shot locations, etc. Most people will consume the existing data through web browsers, either on their desktops or mobile phones. Mark Headd describes Philadelphia’s approach to open data as a focus on the “last mile”. By that he means, that the city invites civic hackers who recombine the existing disconnected data sets in a mindful way to go beyond mere display of data sets, as it is done on data.gov. The city wants to increase value to go beyond merely pushing out data as the main objective, instead they collaboratively want to build new mobile phone applications by recombining data.

Events such as “Code for Philly” in collaboration with Code for America combines members of government collaborating with the local technology community to use data and build new projects that have the potential to create a civic good. Again, Philadelphia comes with a unique advantage: The existing culture, that is similar to citizen such as Boston, Baltimore, is geographically close to NYC has a very active civic technology community with programmers who are passionate about the city, feel a sense of belonging and community, which other cities such as San Francisco which doesn’t have home-grown technologist.  Mr. Headd’s goal is therefore to capitalize on the people’s love of their city.

One example, for Mr. Headd’s success are applications such as CityGoRound.org, which is a clearing house for applications around transit data. Local transit applications are built to help citizens catch their train. In addition, the application and code are also made available for reuse in other cities, by simply plugging in local transit data. Transit authorities agreed to a standard that makes sharing of already existing applications easy – work products don’t need to be reinvented or recreated around the country. As a result, the city and its technology stakeholders are collaboratively building an entire eco-system around government data use. All cities can use the same infrastructure and format to use the data.

One of the challenges Mr. Headd sees is convincing citizens to reuse the data and make use of the applications. One approach Philadelphia has chosen is to advertise the newly created third-party products on public buses (see for example ‘Where I my SEPTA?’). However, the question of endorsing and publicly sponsoring products that were built outside of government is still an unresolved issue.

Another challenge is the cultural change necessary to change existing bureaucratic governance procedures. For Mark Headd the solution is a conversation about effectiveness and efficiency of the current use of government data. He shows public managers he interacts with how they can reduce inefficiencies in responding to a steady stream of Freedom of Information Act-requests (FOIA) to release data to individual citizens or journalists. Every request takes time, is oftentimes burdensome to the unit and labor-intensive to research and respond to. Mr. Headd works together with public managers to look at the top-5 data requests, collaboratively tries to find ways to release the data and at the same time unload the administrative burden off the unit to respond to each request. Responders can simply point requestors to the publicly available data set and save time, resources, and money to research, vet, and formulate responses.

As an example, the Department of Licenses and Inspections receives multiple requests to release data about the number of locations of vacant houses as well as code violations. By releasing the data on a public website, the city allowed developers to create mobile applications and in turn significantly reduces the number of written requests and phone calls. The research activities for similar types of requests are minimized by simply pointing requestor to the new app. Government staff can turn their attention to the core mission, instead of being derailed by FOIA requests. A direct benefit to the release of government data.

Similarly efficient is the reuse of the data on the citizen side: during hackathon events civic hackers are building a service on top of government data sets and are therefore helping themselves, instead of having to reach out to government. A new form of co-delivering public services build on big data.

Mr. Headd shared a few insights on how other Chief Data Officers can tackle the issues in their own cities. He says “Nobody wants to be first, so point people to other success stories in other agencies.” He is constantly evangelizing about the value of big data, but is also informing local and city government and making his colleagues aware of what is going on around the U.S. (and the world), which helps them understand the benefits of releasing data. He suggests to show public managers tangible benefits, instead of talking about less tangible benefits such as openness or accountability which are very difficult to quantify, especially in budget-driven conversations.

Mark Headd sees limitless applications for the release of government data and the analysis and reuse of big data: Budgets, spending, crime or transit data enable people to see how well city employees are doing their jobs and help them make aware of the improvements or new focus area. The big data discussion can help here to talk about high performing government and all the things that work very well in local government. Most of the coverage government receive is unfortunately focused on things that are going wrong – big data can change the focus.

Lastly, social media and government data can then come together to create more personalized connections to citizens by communicating success stories. Citizen engagement will stay the major challenge: Similar to voting, Philadelphia has identified about 40 other processes in which citizen feedback is needed, engagement is low, and new experiments to increase feedback are needed. An application was recently launched to pull citizen opinions into the policy-making processes: Textizen.com allows citizens to send in their feedback by cellphone – without needing an expensive smart phone to actively participate in the policy-making process. By institutionalizing easy to use tools to which every citizen independent of their age group, income or technological literacy has access to, tools like Textizen can become part of a government’s future planning process and can automatically generate input without hosting town hall meetings at which limited numbers of people are participating.

The example of Philadelphia’s success is certainly an outlier: The city is blessed with a unique combination of advantages that other local governments might not have:

  • a political mandate that supports and mandates reuse of public information,
  • a technologist who understands managerial as well as technological and cultural issues in government, and
  • a unique tech community who loves its city and pushes the envelope to innovate.

However, all cities around the U.S. are invited to simply reuse existing applications without reinventing the wheel on a daily basis. Get going with resources that are already freely available and dive into the future of big data in government.

New Public Administration Review article: A Three-Stage Adoption Process for Social Media Use in Government

Together with my co-author Professor Stuart Bretschneider I wrote an article that was just published for early view in the Public Administration Review (PAR). In this article, we develop a model of social adoption in the public sector. Here is the abstract:

Social media applications are slowly diffusing across all levels of government. The organizational dynamics underlying adoption and use decisions follow a process similar to that for previous waves of new information and communication technologies. The authors suggest that the organizational diffusion of these types of new information and communication technologies, initially aimed at individual use and available through markets, including social media applications, follows a three-stage process. First, agencies experiment informally with social media outside of accepted technology use policies. Next, order evolves from the first chaotic stage as government organizations recognize the need to draft norms and regulations. Finally, organizational institutions evolve that clearly outline appropriate behavior, types of interactions, and new modes of communication that subsequently are formalized in social media strategies and policies. For each of the stages, the authors provide examples and a set of propositions to guide future research.

Full reference:

Mergel, I. and Bretschneider, S. I. (2013), A Three-Stage Adoption Process for Social Media Use in Government. Public Administration Review. doi: 10.1111/puar.12021

Implementing Cross-Agency Collaboration – New IBM Report by Professor Jane Fountain

IBM – Center for the Business of Government just published a new report in their collaborative governance series on “Implementing Cross-Agency Collaboration”. Based on Professor Fountain’s in-depth analysis of collaboration projects in the U.S. federal government, the report provides insights into two main factors that support effective collaboration in government:

  1. people skills to develop trust, norms, and connections, and
  2. organizational processes that allow cross-agency actions to be sustained over time.

Much of the existing research, either focuses on specific roles that are needed or the resulting inter-organizational structures. What is largely ignored are the resources and processes needed as well as informal networking and governance mechanisms that need to be allowed outside the existing formal hierarchies to allow cross-agency collaboration.

This is a timely report, that is helpful for public managers to understand that even in a bureaucratic hierarchy, innovations, knowledge and resources to fulfill broad mandates, need to involve new roles in government, such as the recently established Government Innovation Officers. These new GIOs need to be boundary spanning individuals who tap into the resources they can get access to from their own networks, but also have the freedom to connect with other public managers across organizational boundaries.

As the new Open Government paradigm is spreading around the world, this report can also help open government activists to understand, build, and evaluate the processes and roles needed to successfully collaborate with all stakeholders: activists, nonprofits, public sector organizations on all levels of government as well as contractors to implement innovative platforms.

New article “The social media innovation challenge in the public sector”, in: Information Polity

Albert Meijer, Frank Bannister and Marcel Thaens edited a special issue of “Information Polity” with the topic “ICT, Public Administration and Democracy in the Coming Decade”. They put together a tremendous group of international e-Government researchers and today the special issue was posted online. The articles included in the special issue include:

  1. ICT, Public Administration and Democracy in the Coming Decade, by Albert MeijerFrank Bannister and Marcel Thaens
  2. Forward to the past: Lessons for the future of e-government from the story so far, by Frank Bannister and Regina Connolly
  3. The Information Polity: Towards a two speed future? by John A. Taylor
  4. E-Government is dead: Long live Public Administration 2.0 by Miriam Lips
  5. Surveillance as X-ray by C. William R. Webster
  6. Towards a smart State? Inter-agency collaboration, information integration, and beyond by J. Ramon Gil-Garcia
  7. The social media innovation challenge in the public sector by Ines Mergel
  8. A good man but a bad wizard. About the limits and future of transparency of democratic governments by Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen
  9. The Do It Yourself State by Albert J. Meijer
  10. Five trends that matter: Challenges to 21st century electronic government by Hans Jochen Scholl
  11. Why does e-government looks as it does? looking beyond the explanatory emptiness of the e-government concept by Victor Bekkers
  12. Big questions of e-government research by Mete Yıldız

My own article focuses on the innovation challenges government agencies are facing when they are implementing social media:

Abstract: The use of social media applications has been widely accepted in the U.S. government. Many of the social media strategies and day-to-day tactics have also been adopted around the world as part of local Open Government Initiatives and the worldwide Open Government Partnership. Nevertheless, the acceptance and broader adoption of sophisticated tactics that go beyond information and education paradigm such as true engagement or networking strategies are still in its infancy. Rapid diffusion is challenged by informal bottom-up experimentation that meets institutional and organizational challenges hindering innovative tactics. Going forward governments and bureaucratic organizations are also facing the challenge to show the impact of their social media interactions. Each of these challenges is discussed in this article and extraordinary examples, that are not widely adopted yet, are provided to show how government organizations can potentially overcome these challenges.

Full reference: 

Mergel, I. (2012): The social media innovation challenge in the public sector, in: Information Polity,  Vol. 17, No. 3-4, pp. 281–292, DOI 10.3233/IP-2012-000281

Feel free to email me (ines_mergel (at) yahoo dot com) in case you can’t access a digital copy through your library!

PA Times article on the use of social media during the 2012 election

I wrote up a short piece about the impact of social media in the 2012 election. It will come out in print this month and I wanted to share it here as well.

New article out: “Connecting to Congress: The Use of Twitter by Members of Congress

Abstract:

How do political elites, such as the Members of the U.S. Congress, decide to use innovative forms of Information and Communication Technologies, such as social media applications? Communication between elected officials is guides by outdated rules and regulations that are focusing on paper mailings. The apparent lack of formal guidance and outdated rules are not reflecting the changing online landscape and the requirements on Members of Congress to interact with their constituents where they prefer to receive their information. New forms of highly interactive online communication tools, such as the microblogging service Twitter are challenging the existing information paradigm. Using the first year of tweets posted by Members of Congress in combination with qualitative interviews with congressional offices show that the Members are mainly using Twitter to complement their existing push communication style and automatically distribute vetted content via Twitter, using the Microblogging service as an additional communication channel for their individual appearances and issues. The awareness network among tweeting Members specifically shows that the potential for interactive conversations are not harnessed. Finally, Twitter’s potential as an innovative mode for future democratizing interactions is discussed.

Suggested citation:

Mergel, I. (2012): “Connecting to Congress”: Twitter use among Members of Congress, Zeitschrift fuer Politikberatung – Policy Advice and Political Consulting, 3/2012, pp. 108-114.

Link to the open access version on the journal’s homepage.

New book: “Social media in the public sector field guide”

Today, my co-author Bill Greeves and I received our first copies of the “Social media in the public sector field guide” we wrote for all newcomers to the productive and professional use of social media in government. We started to work on this project in 2011 to capture the legal, procedural, and contextual challenges that are waiting for those brave innovators in government who are willing to venture out and make new technologies and the accompanying behavioral changes work. The book includes several case studies written by our colleagues in government who have been innovators for a long time and are providing their insights into the use of social media in their own agencies. They include: Bill Schrier, Dustin Haisler, Steve Ressler, Pam Broviak, Kristy Fifelski, Chris Moore, and Stephanie Slater.

In 2012, my co-author Bill Greeves, CIO Wake County, NC, was named the most social CIO in the U.S. by the Public CIO magazine. Congratulations, Bill!

Here is the blurb and the endorsements we received:

This hands-on practical guide (and companion to the Social Media in the Public Sector) offers a ready-to-use reference to help readers move smoothly through the development and deployment of effective new media strategies and policies within their own organizations. The book is filled with illustrative examples, screenshots, diagrams and graphics. Written to be engaging and accessible, the guide has minimal technical jargon, acronyms or “govspeak”. The guidebook includes case studies in the words of those who have implemented new media strategies and an accompanying community-driven website with links to the authors’ blogs and practitioner social networks.

Endorsements

“As the poet LL Cool J once said, there is a difference between doing it and doing it well. Same is true with the use of social media in government – there can be a stark divide between agencies dabbling in it and those agencies executing well. 10,000 fans/followers vs. 100. 15 comments and RTs vs. an empty ghost town. Driving real mission results vs. being a gimmick. If you ask most senior leaders in government, they understand they need to be in social media but they don’t know how to do it well. Instead they leave it to an intern and end up with an unsuccessful program. Every day on GovLoop.com, our network of 60,000 government leaders, people share best practices and ask questions of social media in government. I’ve often been asked by members of a good reference book to get going for their federal, state, or local government social media programs. I never had an answer – now I do: This field guide is the go-to resource to ensure your social media programs deliver real mission results. Ines and Bill are experts in the field – a blend of research and real-world experience to get you to where you need to go.” — Steve Ressler, Founder and President of GovLoop.com

“In the local government sector there seem to be three schools of thought regarding social media: “I’ve got a Facebook page – let’s jump right in!” – “Not happening on my watch!” and “Who cares?” this field guide is perfect for any of the above, as it provides practical applications and rationale for why local government needs to connect with people where they are – which is on the internet. Our association of nearly 500 innovative local governments knows that Bill Greeves and Ines Mergel are the perfect authors for this must have tutorial. Bill collaborates with us as a top notch trainer and both of these authors know the topic very well.” – Karen Thoreson, President & Chief Operating Officer, Alliance for Innovation

“Bill Greeves and Ines Mergel are expert users of Facebook, Second Life, Twitter and other social media to help local governments better interact with real people. In this book they distill that knowledge into a practical guide for government officials and employees. Twitter and Facebook and Blogs, Oh My! In this bewildering new field of social media, Bill Greeves and Ines Mergel expertly provide practical advice for governments to harness the power of these new online services.” — Bill Schrier, Deputy Director, Center for Digital Government, eRepublic.com; Former CTO (CIO) City of Seattle

“This is simply a must-read book for anyone interested or involved with social media in the public sector. The authors take a refreshing and original approach supported by excellent examples regarding the evolving role social media is playing and can play in government. Having worked and known both Bill and Ines, I cannot think of two better-experienced authors to help guide us through the new realities of social media in government.” – Dr. Alan R. Shark, Executive Director, Public Technology Institute and Assistant Professor Rutgers University School of Public Affairs & Administration

Available online at Amazon or Jossey-Bass/Wiley.