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Another Inconvenient Truth: Organizational Dynamics and Their Impact on Open Gov

Here in the Washington area, the much-beleaguered local transit agency, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (a.k.a. Metro), has been running a sponsored message on the local NPR affiliate, WAMU. It goes something like, "... announcing new buses, new routes, and a new corporate culture based on responsibility." Now I am not trying to pile onto Metro, as this is clearly copy that came out of their PR shop, but the last bit always makes me laugh. Like one could institute a new corporate culture the same way one can order a new vehicle. 

The fact is, changing a corporate culture is incredibly important and in most cases, also incredibly difficult. It is noble, but absurd, to act as if cultures can be turned off and on based on a single pronouncement. So what if I put forth this similar-sounding bit of copy: "... announcing the Obama administration, with new policies, new administrators, and a new corporate culture based on making all content open and accessible," Anyone get the chills? Viola: enter the Open Government Initiative.

Of course, no one is acting like Open Government is going to be easy and/or accomplishable overnight. However, despite the fact that many acknowledge it will be a challenge, there has not been much conversation about the organizational dynamics of federal agencies or how they pose a threat to successfully achieving Open Government objectives. Such considerations should be added to the ever-growing list of possible challenges that need addressing in order to ensure that the promises of Open Government are realized.

Many organizations have evolved over the years to value control of information — their "corporate" cultures are based on this. Control of information has been central to promotions, access to decision-makers, and other forms of power. Information has been a form of currency. This doesn't make anyone who contributed to this a bad person. Everyone was acting within the unstated rules of the game, and it doesn't necessarily mean the agencies were/are poorly run. Rather, the characteristic is bigger than any single administration or administrator. Agencies are not at all alone in this dynamic, either. Numerous other kinds of organizations have evolved similar cultural characteristics. Organizations develop all kinds of unspoken structures and norms and these can often trump the formally stated rules and reporting lines. This reality is as old as society.

Therefore, an agency putting together an Open Gov plan needs to acknowledge its own organizational dynamics — culture and norms, true incentives, skill sets, and formal structures — and incorporate organizational change management into the plan. It is not going to be enough to create a means to share content (e.g., a new or improved web site). Done in a vacuum, the agency may be left with a sparse property that staff see as an albatross. There will need to be matching work done to identify organizational changes such as new processes to ensure timely publication of open content, skills to create appropriate content, incentives to reward sharing and openness, new teams to support the processes and types of content, and, most importantly, a path toward instilling a culture that places high value on transparency and sharing.

Organizational change management is the process of planning and implementing changes such as these, and it needs to be part of all Open Gov responses, at some level. Change management is hard. It takes sustained focus and leadership support over a significant time (years), but the reward is incredibly powerful. Done right, it ensures that the strategies for openness and transparency agencies create become not just a headache du jour, but a lasting means to fulfill their missions and better serve the American people.

The Open Government Initiative is an important and noble initiative and I think many in the government want to make it work. Getting the organizational dynamics right will ensure it does.