Date: 18 Oct 2014

Are 99% of open government experts barking up the wrong tree?

By Amy Pollard

Dr Amy Pollard is Deputy Director at Involve. She has over 10 years experience working on accountability, policy and power, and a passion for using effective public engagement to drive positive change.


Well not 99%, but maybe a decent chunk?

Last week we held a (rather successful* if I say so myself) event with our partners in the Cabinet Office’s Open Policy Making team, as part of our role within the Sciencewise programme.  As part of the session, we did an exercise with 40 or so civil servants and people from the policy profession, to look at the barriers to opening up policy making and engaging with the public – and ask what are the reasons why we wouldn’t be able to work in a more collaborative and open way.

My colleague Rachel Pascual led the participants to discuss the issues in small groups and then write the barriers to more open policy making and public dialogue on post-it notes, which she then organised.  Five themes emerged:

  1. Authority: Permission/Ambition/Culture (10 post-its)
  2. Resources: Time and money (7 post-its)
  3. IT and Tech restrictions (4 post-its)
  4. Concerns on how it will be received (3 post-its)
  5. Capacity: Awareness/confidence/capability (10 post-its)

The full write up is here (thanks to Tom Harrison for deciphering the handwriting).

In my opinion this mapping is an invaluable strategic resource, and essential reading for anyone with an interest in open government, engaging citizens and deepening democracy.  What it tells us, I think, is that the majority of open government experts are focusing their efforts on what is – from a policy making point of view – only a small part of the problem.

To sweepingly (and almost certainly unfairly) generalise, it seems to me that the dominant focus of most open government experts is capacity building.  From those of many different creeds and approaches, and looking at valuable resources like the Open Government Guide, there is a great emphasis on sharing tools and experience.  From guides on digital tools, face-to-face methods and how to combine the two; to archives of case studies, learning groups and mentoring – we place significant emphasis on giving people the tools, skills and knowledge to do engagement well.

But if our (albeit small) group of civil servants and policy makers is any indication, then over two-thirds of the problem is not about capacity.  It’s about political buy-in, time, money, the straightjacket of IT restrictions in government, and the risks of opening up to a wider group.

Perhaps these are problems that it’s not our job to overcome.  We can’t do everything, and if we can build capacity (which is always going to be an essential, if not sufficient, condition for effective engagement) then we should.  It’s a great place to start – and you have to start somewhere.  But we shouldn’t be surprised if we find that two-thirds of the barriers to more open government then prove harder to shift.

Two sets of questions are now on my mind.  The first is around who does have the power to shift those other barriers, and how can different people with different positions, roles, knowledge and skills support that change?  Do we need to change our strategy?  Or do we need to change the way we work with others?  Has Rachel’s exercise unwittingly helped us draw up the bones of a theory of change for the sector?

The second set of questions is around whether capacity building has become the tool of preference because it often embodies the collectivism that open government advocates are aiming to foster?  Blockages of authority can usually only be removed by small groups of elites (often in private); whereas blockages of capacity lend themselves to wide, transparent, community based working.  Have we been trying to promote our favourite hammer by turning everything into a nail?

Very interested to hear any thoughts – or explanations of why my diagnosis is wholly unfair.



*100% of evaluation forms rated the event as good or very good, and 100% said they would recommend similar events to a colleague.


Photo credit Kevin Spencer, creative commons licence, 2008,

14 Responses to “Are 99% of open government experts barking up the wrong tree?”

  1. June 16, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    Tee hee, very good, I like this alot and I think the observation has lots of resonance in other areas too. It is certainly something I have come across recently with stakeholder involvement with research, for example, and stakeholder involvement with business too. Though of course tools are still needed, they just aren’t top of the list of the reasons why it isn’t done in the first place.

    To further, probably unfairly, generalise, three other reasons spring to mind:

    1 Could it be its own mini ‘deficit model’. “If only they understood/had the right tools/etc then they would surely change”?

    2 You can get paid good money for generating tools, the funding streams are there. Advising system and incentive change is less tangible and fundable.

    3 More tools is a quick win. Culture change, as you have identified, is an altogether trickier beast. For culture change to happen, someone important has to want it. This is perhaps not a ‘problem’ for which those in charge see the necessity for a ‘solution’.

    4 All the other stuff is messier & less measurable in terms of its delivery.

    So perhaps do we have to articulate the problem better, to which Open Policy Making is a solution? Or perhaps better understand the risk of ‘closed’ policy making?

    This then becomes change management proper, about incentives, attention, support, job descriptions, IT solutions etc etc. Not easy!

    I’m a great fan of Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch, on change. They advocate, among other things, finding the ‘Bright Spots’ and doing more of what works there. There will be areas, perhaps tiny pockets, where Open Policy Making is working. Seek them out, find out what incentives worked there, what solutions it provided, why it worked and see how that can be applied elsewhere.

    Good luck!

  2. June 16, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    I agree in principle.

    By the time open government sessions get to the public, there are parameters set out with senior leadership/the political realm – as well as the visions of departments and public servants who have claimed this space as their own.

    If we’re talking about truly ground-up community building, it needs to emerge from need first and not pre-design of where needs are accepted. Things like journalist FOIPPs, data requests, web analytics, and front-line staff interaction hold treasures of where openness is truly needed. Often times, staff interaction is treated as one-off and patterns and data is not extracted from the millions of touch points happening every day.

    Capturing this is vital – but more important, we need to be enabling those staff to be “double agents” who feel capable of advocating on behalf of the public they’re serving, rather than simply responding to them.

    The goal of every open government strategy should be a 10-year vision where the term “open government” is no longer needed – because the overall culture has changed. If capacity or operations are the goal of an open government strategy, it’s missing the point – the change needed is cultural, and it should be the focus of each advocate to be an agent on behalf of the public to those looking to remain closed.

  3. June 16, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    Useful post, and I look forward to reading more, but the whole point and structure of, for example, the Open Government Partnership – bringing together civil society organizations and reformers within government – is about trying to get political buy-in.

  4. June 16, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    Really intriguing post, thank you. I think the breakdown by post-its maps perfectly to my experience with the field, in terms of relative importance.

    One thought. I’d agree with Alex Howard (who commented over Twitter (@digiphile)) that 99% seems inconsistent with what I’ve seen. But the seeming focus on capacity-building is likely artificially inflated; as an Open Government practitioner, my mandate is X. And it’s almost certainly easier to fit “building capacity” into that mandate than “changing the culture”. To boot, I can build capacity in a professional, non-partisan manner. Dealing with permissions, ambitions, and culture starts to creep heavily into political territory, competing interests, and sweeping principles of government’s role and relationship with citizens. So it’s heartening that other Open Governmentists put those concerns on a level playing field when asked, but easy to see why in practice capacity-building seems more prevalent.

  5. James McKinney
    June 17, 2014 at 4:23 am

    (Originally posted on OGP Civil Society list)

    I’m confused that Involve would claim that 99% (or “a decent chunk”) of open government experts are focused on capacity building.

    Capacity building is the most visible of the listed activities because it is the easiest to share and because it is, in most cases, public. A private Open Gov Guide wouldn’t make sense. A private lobby seeking political buy-in, on the other hand, often does make sense.

    There is a large amount of effort put towards getting political buy-in, freeing up resources, overcoming IT restrictions, addressing anxieties, etc. These activities are often invisible because they are sensitive, hard to generalize, of lower general interest, and slower processes than capacity building; for example, in terms of resources, you can work for years with no visible progress until your efforts suddenly open up a new government funding stream.

    Capacity building may always have 99% of the words on the web; but that’s not a good measure of how open government experts are dedicating their time. If you only read an organization’s blog, you may get the sense that all they do is capacity building; but when I ask peers about those gritty details (e.g. political buy-in, IT restrictions) that don’t get much public attention, I’ve always received thoughtful answers.

    TL;DR: More talk, less reading, if you want to know how open government experts actually spend their time.

  6. william perrin
    June 17, 2014 at 10:32 am

    I stumbled across this piece via twitter. ‘Open government’ work is all well intentioned and everything, idealistic even, but i am always puzzled why people are surprised when it doesn’t work – as your work suggests:

    ‘But if our (albeit small) group of civil servants and policy makers is any indication, then over two-thirds of the problem is not about capacity. It’s about political buy-in’

    In my experience it is usually seen as a long grass exercise. Matthew Taylor captures the balance of idealism and pure political realism well towards the end of his blog post s but i don’t share his optimism about the future.

  7. Amy Pollard
    June 17, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Thanks everyone for your comments – this has been really interesting and very helpful for my thinking.

    I think you are getting at something important, Hilary, in terms of the institutional incentives and structures that will undoubtedly play a part in all this. The mini deficit model point is also very interesting – it’s easy to slip into ‘us and them’ thinking, even with work that’s aiming to bring down the barriers. I wonder if it’s the key to making progress on your double agents point, David.

    We’ve been having some useful discussion of this on the Open Government Partnership email list, and James McKinney and Dave Eaves pointed out that a lot of the more ‘political’ work takes place behind the scenes, so isn’t as visible. I’m sure that’s right, and speaks to your point about the OGP’s partnership work, Alan.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  8. June 17, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    The opinion researcher in me would ask, how representative was the sample of 40? I wonder if policy officials who attend a session on open policymaking and/or work in the field of public engagement with science might be more aware of tools and options than the median, and perhaps more frustrated by issues of access and permission than questions of awareness or relevance.

    It’s the kind of thing I was blogging about here – ultimately, I’d observe there’s a bit of a ladder that people climb when engaging in open policymaking:

    • Amy Pollard
      June 20, 2014 at 7:43 pm

      Thanks very much for this Steph. Agree we probably can’t be too confident about representativeness. I actually tried to get a cross-departmental survey off the ground earlier this year, but tech and bureaucracy got in the way. Ironic, if only in an Alanis Morissette kind of way.

      Your post was very interesting. I wonder if there’s a hidden first step on your ladder: ‘Purpose: Is there something that could be better?’. I suspect those who aren’t attracted by tools per se start with being embroiled in a specific problem, rather than the potential of an approach.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  9. June 17, 2014 at 2:56 pm

    Here was my reply to the OGP civil society online group:

    For “open government” to impact public agenda-setting and government
    decision-making it should focus not on political buy-in, but pragmatic
    political usefulness with direct connections to representative bodies
    and processes.

    While we can certainly help stakeholders better execute government
    decisions/priorities with online tools (I called it “public net-work” where engagement is mostly related to
    implementation ) in the executive/administrative branch and government
    agencies can certainly engage interest groups and the public online
    directly – city councils, county boards, school councils, state
    legislatures, and parliaments are set up as representative bodies to
    listen to and respond to the feedback/demands from people on what
    should be *different.*

    In many ways, elected officials should be viewed as one of the chief
    beneficiaries of more systematic openness from administrative
    government as they are empowered to know more about how government
    decisions or programs are impacting their district and constituents.
    I often ask “what information/tools do they need” to better represent
    us and how can we make sure the tools/info they get are also
    accessible to all (and not just exclusive to them).

    As a “political person” coming out hybrid of campaigning (head of the
    youth wing of a political party 2+ decades ago) and legislative work
    before shifting into work in government and then
    non-profit/non-partisan “e-democracy” efforts, providing pragmatic
    political value is key with open government buy-in.

    I think we are dealing with a reality that 85% of folks in politics
    are natural information controllers (they let it out in drips based on
    continuous political calculations in their mind) and 15% or so are
    more democratic “information guides” willing to lead us through the
    sea of information with their hand on the rudder pointing out what
    seems important to note along the way. So, rather than us being
    pirates on this ever expanding information sea, we should be ship
    builders that help the democratically spirited folks in politics be
    more effective and make it more likely that the next generation of
    political leaders swing toward the more engaged and open.

    On a related note, a big term 15 years ago was “online consultation”
    … it assumed that government agencies were hosting time-limited
    online events to gather public input. I was advising those few early
    adopter governments willing to take a risk online and ask the public
    what they thought. While it seemed risky to many, the reality was that
    the government still got to choose the frame and the questions. I
    would often meet with those in the government assigned to make the
    online consultation happen. Except for the number of tools and
    widening of activities beyond time limited events, these top ten tips
    still seem to apply:

    The summary:

    Online Consultation Top Ten Tips

    In summary …

    1. Political Support Required.
    2. State Purpose, Share Context.
    3. Build an Audience.
    4. Choose Your Model and Elements Carefully.
    5. Create Structure.
    6. Provide Facilitation and Guidelines.
    7. Disseminate Content and Results.
    8. Access to Decision-Makers and Staff Required.
    9. Promote Civic Education.
    10. Not About Technology.

    Two sections related to the discussion here:

    1. Political Support Required.

    Online consultations with strong and sincere political support are the
    only ones worth hosting. There must be a political desire for input
    and a willingness to consider that input in the decision-making
    process. Expecting that an online consultation will dramatically
    change the outcome of decision-making process is not generally a
    requirement. Political listening is a first and reasonable step. We
    are talking about evolution, not revolution.

    8. Access to Decision-Makers and Staff Required.

    This is a key lesson that has been learned the hard way by a number of
    governments. Before an online consultation starts, establish a system
    for responding to questions and statements of participants in a rapid,
    timely, and comprehensive way. During the event (online conference
    style events in particular) the following types of responses may be

    A. Informational Question Responses
    B. Context Provision and Informational Corrections
    C. General Policy Query Response
    D. High-Level Policy Challenge Response
    E. Politically Controversial Query Response

    … lots more on #8 from:

    Thanks for the opportunity to tap the archives!

  10. June 19, 2014 at 2:02 am

    I tend to agree with you Amy. I’ve had first hand experience running an #opengov #wikipolicy #placemaking project ( and that was absolutely my experience. Here is by project retrospective in an easy to read form:

  11. Amy Pollard
    June 20, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    Thanks very much Steven. What you are saying seems like a really good example of how, in practice, all the different approaches we might take (capacity building; IT solutions; political buy-in) tend to be intermingled.

    Interesting that the work you were doing 15 years ago seems still quite pertinent. Have you noticed much shift in the nature of the problem, during that time? How much progress do you think there has been?

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