Government Technologist: What's the ROI Of Open Government? - InformationWeek

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2/4/2010
02:50 PM
John Foley
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Government Technologist: What's the ROI Of Open Government?

Let's stop dancing around open government and evaluate it based on its hard returns.

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John Foley The Obama administration is bringing some specificity to the president's open government initiative, spelling out expectations and deadlines with the recently released Open Government Directive. But we still need to know how much this mandate for openness will cost, how much money it could save, and what other returns on investment U.S. taxpayers should expect.

Since day one in office, Obama has talked about the benefits of opening government databases to the public and creating more collaborative, participatory government processes and services. "Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government," Obama wrote in a January 2009 memo that set the stage for requirements that agency CIOs are now scrambling to meet.

"Efficiency and effectiveness" are great goals, but how are they to be measured across dozens of federal departments and agencies that together account for $80 billion in IT spending? Unfortunately, the directive doesn't offer any guidance.

With the release of the proposed $3.8 trillion federal budget for fiscal 2011, the opportunity is here for Obama's CXO triad--federal CIO Vivek Kundra, federal CTO Aneesh Chopra, and chief performance officer Jeffrey Zients--to hitch open government strategy and execution to dollars spent and saved. To put a slight spin on familiar cost-return formulas, Obama's tech team might calculate "total cost of openness" and "total return on openness."

CIOs know how to do the number crunching on such projects, and management tools are already in place to do it, so it's a matter of someone with clout--performance chief Zients comes to mind--putting agency leaders and government IT folks on notice that performance must be gauged as they take on database, integration, collaboration, and Web development projects in the pursuit of open government.

At least one government IT exec who's in the thick of planning is already thinking along these lines. "The ultimate measure of success should be improvement in the fundamental efficiency and effectiveness of government," Todd Park, CTO of the Department of Health and Human Services, tells InformationWeek. "We should aim to publish clearer and more comprehensive indicators of government performance, which should be impacted positively by our actions." (For more on what Park's agency is doing to align the mandate for openness with his agency's broader mission, see "A Federal Mandate To Open Up".)

That's exactly the kind of brass-tacks approach that's needed. The federal IT Dashboard, which is geared toward big-ticket IT projects, could serve as a model for reporting how open government initiatives are performing. Federal CIO Kundra told me in December that the IT Dashboard has forced agency CIOs to get a better handle on their IT projects and "feel the pressure" of public scrutiny. Let's stop dancing around open government as if it's some sort of skunk works and treat it as the business imperative--the business of government--that it is.

The information generated by close monitoring of open government efforts would be key to understanding what's effective, and what's not, as agencies push ahead. Projects with ballooning costs or unclear benefits could be phased out, while those with a high "return on openness" would become the top priorities.

President Obama has a stake in how this plays out, of course. With every dollar of federal spending under scrutiny, he must show that open government actually does lead to efficiency and effectiveness, that it's not just lip service. As it stands, the promise is there, but the evidence is hard to find.

John Foley is editor of InformationWeek Government.
To find out more about John Foley, please visit his page.

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