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Open Government and Business Intelligence: The People Factor

Originally published June 7, 2010

Several things have happened over the last few weeks that promise to be important for business intelligence practitioners. They relate to people and policies in the Obama Administration.

We have commented before on the general thrusts coming out of the White House, primarily from the technology and management team at OMB (Office of Management and Budget). From early on, good government was equated with open government, and the three golden attributes of open government were to be transparency, participation and collaboration. Why? Let me quote from the Open Government Directive issued by OMB in December of 2009.

  • “Transparency promotes accountability by providing the public with information about what the Government is doing.”
  • "Participation allows members of the public to contribute ideas and expertise so that their government can make policies with the benefit of information that is widely dispersed in society."
  • "Collaboration improves the effectiveness of Government by encouraging partnerships and cooperation within the Federal Government, across levels of government, and between the Government and private institutions.”
As part of the Open Government Initiative, in effect, all federal agencies are instructed to: 1) publish government information online, 2) improve the quality of government information, 3) create and institutionalize a  culture of open government and 4) create an enabling policy framework for open government. Furthermore, each one of these points is followed by a lot of more specific expected actions with deadlines by which they are supposed to happen.

For those of us that have been working with and around the federal space for some time, it might seem like déjà vu all over again. We have often seen good intentions within the Executive Branch hit the brick wall of statutory constraints, bureaucratic inertia and the impossible barriers of agency cultures. This time, there might be something different: the right people.

On this front, there have been several very promising appointments and confirmations. Needless to say that Vivek Kundra, the federal CIO, and Aneesh Chopra, the federal CTO, have become a dynamic duo of sorts as cheerleading advocates of the new directives. While a bit overexposed in their appearances, they have kept on track and on message with respect to where the Administration wants things to go.

Martha Johnson was an excellent choice to head the General Services Administration (GSA). This was important because GSA winds up serving as the primary implementer of infrastructure and solutions for policies that Congress mandates across the federal government. Hence, when Congress asks for governmentwide tracking of spending, or a database that records all "defrocked" government contractors, or a website that allows the citizen to easily search across all agencies (www.usa.gov), the tasking falls on GSA.

Martha Johnson had been chief of staff for a previous Administrator and knows the agency well. Furthermore, she had served as a top executive at the Council for Excellence in Government and later as the co-lead for the Obama Presidential Transition Agency Review Team for GSA. But it was only this February that she was finally confirmed by the Senate due to a nine month "hold" placed on her nomination by Missouri's Senator, Kit Bond, who was miffed at a Public Building Service decision related to the Bannister Federal complex in Kansas City, MO. When the hold finally broke, Martha was there to take the oath in the middle of the incredible snowstorm that paralyzed the DC area in February.

During Martha's long wait, some of the work she should have been leading fell to some of the other executives that had already been named to other GSA posts. One of the key players was Dr. David McClure, who had been appointed Associate Administrator of GSA Office of Citizen Services and Communications in August of last year. David had also been a chief architect of the Administration's technology policy having served on the Obama-Biden "Transformation, Innovation, and Government Reform Transition Team" that looked at IT plans and status at all the federal agencies.

In addition, he had already worked for 18 years at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducting reviews of major systems development and IT management capabilities throughout the Executive Branch.

In his position in charge of citizen services and communications, he plays a very important role in making government participatory and inviting citizens to communicate with its government.

Just a few weeks ago, Martha Johnson appointed Kathleen Turco, the long-time well respected CFO of GSA, to head the Office of Governmentwide Policy (OGP). This organization plays a critical role within the agency since it is precisely here that many of the databases and initiatives that cut across the whole federal government most often come to be implemented. Someone with Turco's solid leadership, management talent, financial savvy and direct experience with GSA should be able to make OGP a competent implementer of governmentwide efforts.

The latest “people” action deserving mention here was the announcement on May 19th by Vivek Kundra – on the first anniversary of www.data.gov – that the White House had hired "an evangelizer" for that initiative.

For those of you that don't remember our previous comments on data.gov, this is an important website that was set up – running on GSA servers, of course – to serve as a repository for data sets from throughout the federal government, as well as some state and local governments, for that matter. The first year the site seemed to be serving more as a data dumping ground with agencies contributing data willy-nilly just to get their tick mark on the OMB open government check list. That started to change, however, as some functionality to visualize the data and create useful mashups has begun to be provided also within the site.

Ultimately, the name of the game is usefulness, and that means that we will need to have lot of people going in and using data.gov to see what they can do with these data sets. And promoting culture change so that everyone, especially the young, start to engage the government's data in a big way.

This is a role for an evangelizer, and that is exactly what OMB has done. Vivek Kundra has named none other than Jeanne Holm, the former Chief Knowledge Architect at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, who helped oversee the space agency's website during the landing of the Mars Exploration Rover on the surface of Mars in 2004. This was one of the most-viewed events of all time. Jeanne's initial mandate is to push grade school students to do things with this data and thus generate interest in statistical analysis.

At stake is the drive for innovation that will start as citizen-designed applications – similar to the booming iPhone apps marketplace. Some examples of what has already been done have been making the rounds. For example, students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) have come up with an interactive map showing debts over assets from state bankruptcy cases. In another important application, the Sunlight Labs, a non-profit government watchdog group, has developed a site that shows individuals how their neighborhoods rate against their state and the country as a whole on several obesity metrics.

Just think, the more open the government, the more opportunity for business intelligence practitioners to be able to make a bigger contribution with all the data we can get our hands on. And now, there are a number of excellent professionals entrusted with making it happen.

  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel

     

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