CivicActions
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CivicActions

What “fierce openness” can do for government

How public service teams can embrace transparency to get more good work done

Thanks to Rajeevan MSN for sharing their work on Unsplash.

“About Us” blurbs can cause a lot of anxiety. We write them. We rewrite them. We admonish ourselves for spending so much time on them — and we rewrite them again. Our obsession is not unfounded. It is our one chance to describe why we are, in some form or another, radically different from our peers. Anyone can wax poetic and dazzle with in-the-know buzzwords, but the real trick is to hone-in on what it is about us that you need.

At CivicActions, we are defined by our ‘‘fierce openness”.

I’ve worked in a number of organizations, as both a government insider and contractor, over the past 20 years. I’ve seen organizations of all types with varying ranges of openness and efficiency. Based on my journey, I can confidently say that the open culture at CivicActions is a vast departure from every government agency or contractor that I have come to know. Our openness is won through hyper vigilance and a collective commitment to living outside of one’s comfort zone. With this blog, I ask you to consider the extraordinary efficiency of a “fiercely open” organizational culture and how it may be exactly what you need to transform your agency.

Government resists openness… and efficiency

All organizations seek efficiency and all people seek a sense of belonging derived from shared values and common goals — but government agencies instinctively resist openness. It’s not difficult to understand how they evolved this way. In politically charged, oversight-heavy environments, closed processes feel like the only way to get anything done. Government culture defaults to the notion that fewer eyes on your project mean fewer chances that it will get eliminated, defunded or otherwise killed.

As a practical example, consider the ‘clearance process’. For you non-Fed readers, this is a process where a small group of people in a government agency decide who needs to review a document and who doesn’t. This is a highly-curated workflow characterized by the desire to control information and limit input. The process is usually lengthy and often fails. Failure looks like a policy change that gets killed in the final clearance round because the bureaucracy chose a path-forward that did not jive with the objectives of political leadership.

I’m not focusing on who is “right” or “wrong” in this equation. An equation requires inputs and “x” can be anything. Try not to think too much about what “x” is, or bureaucracy vs. leadership — rather think about the maddening inefficiency of this paradigm. If you were looking to accomplish “x”, you just wasted a boatload of time on something that was doomed from the beginning. If you were against “x”, what type of organization are you leading when so much energy was put toward something that did not align with your vision?

And yes, you may eke some things through the system without the “wrong” people noticing, but for those world-weary Feds who have seen all sorts of ideas come and go — how many initiatives stand the test of time when buy-in was so weak that subterfuge was the only way to get it through the system? Anything that is done, can be undone.

All of this frustration is the result of closed systems. In a workplace where oversight mechanisms are (rightfully) omnipresent, it’s natural to default to a closed culture. It may be natural, but it’s not healthy and you can change it.

What openness looks like

To achieve openness, each process input needs to be examined. I’ll give you some examples of our methods of working that you will almost never see in government:

Open calendars
In our organization, each employee’s calendar is viewable by everyone in the organization. You can look and see what anyone is doing at any given time. This makes for more efficient meeting scheduling and a stronger sense of collective pride in the work each of us is doing.

Open communications
Nearly all communications occur in Slack channels that are open to anyone. You share everything you are working on and others do too. If you need something, you ask for it (on Slack) in a group setting. This prompts group discussions that are richer because they involve the knowledge of multiple team members. We understand that some things in government have to be classified, but the truth is, there are far fewer of those things than there are projects that would benefit from more openness.

Open systems
“Fierce openness” defines both how we work and the work we put out. We use collaboration tools, like Slack and GitHub, that support an open culture. We maintain DKAN, an open source platform that helps organizations share and use open data to improve lives. And we’re vigorously committed to using and building free and open source technologies (FOSS) and empowering governments to do the same. This is more than a preference. It’s a reflection of our shared values.

Shared values
We believe that everything we do should be public and available for collaboration. Open source, open data and open systems are a practical manifestation of our commitment to working together through collective contributions. Our company values, listed below, reinforce this way of thinking.

  • Put the public first
  • Embrace new thinking
  • Be expertly agile
  • Pursue excellence
  • Maintain balance
  • Be fiercely open and transparent

Note that these values have nothing to do with driving revenue, because revenue alone does not drive people.

Finally, we have a collective commitment to positive social impact. Before we pursue any new work, we have three members of our organization complete what we call an “Impact Scorecard”. It’s a scoring rubric to ensure that we only pursue work that we believe in. We answer questions like, “Will we have direct access with users?” “Does this project help improve lives?” “Will the project enable us to share our work via open licenses (either new code or contributions to existing FOSS projects)?” and, finally, “Does completing this project enhance our reputation or serve as a demonstration of our commitment to positive impact?”

These values aren’t just expressions that are posted on the wall in the kitchen. We put premium focus on our values because we believe that a shared vision will define the effort team members extend toward our organization, far more than physical proximity, oversight, rewards or consequences.

How does this work in government?

Admittedly, government cultures have uncommon challenges. Fierce openness will not be created with the flip of a switch — but you can start by trying to move the needle just a little bit. Here are some practical first steps:

  1. Make your data and work products openly accessible to both internal and external audiences to the furthest extent possible.
  2. Encourage inclusivity in the authorship and review of documents. Open access to documents and data should be the default.
  3. Force yourself to avoid keeping your projects under lock-and-key until they are perfect. Your team members exist to help you develop a better product.
  4. Openness must be compelled. Lead by example. Closed communications and actions that are anti-collaborative should be called-out and made more transparent.
  5. Establish and reinforce shared values — and write them together. Keep them in a “Single Source of Truth” where people can point to them easily in times of dissent or confusion.

If you work in a government agency, you probably have ample proof of the innate inefficiency of a closed organization. The simplest truism is that people will resist changes when they are not consulted. You can be “in charge”, but that alone won’t make you effective. You can’t ram everything through and you can’t do anything alone. There may be times when you think you have succeeded, but if you didn’t have buy-in, you will surely meet at least passive resistance somewhere down the line. You can’t quell it on all fronts, and even fear of consequences won’t be enough.

The alternative

Government agencies are nuanced and the incentives to evolve are not always evident — but open cultures with shared values are simply more likely to succeed than the alternative. It is possible to break down silos, trust in each other and promote transparency. In order to succeed, people have to believe in what you are doing and feel like they are part of it. Government cultures can be open. It’s not only possible, it’s the only thing that works and the only way to build anything that lasts.

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We use open source technologies, agile practices, and human-centered design to help government deliver services that build public trust.

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Mary Lazzeri

Mary Lazzeri

Former Obama White House digital technology advisor and bureaucracy hacker working to bring true digital transformation to government.

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