Case Reports and Open Source Work Products in Public Administration

Public administration practitioners can be more successful if we learn from each others’ experience and inventions. We can look to medical doctors and to software developers for two ways practitioners can learn from each other.

The first way is case reports, as are published in medical journals. A case report is a description by a practitioner of a situation she encountered, what she did about it, and the results. Case reports are different than the case studies used in public administration teaching and scholarship. Case studies focus on the information about a case that illuminates a technique being taught or a theory being considered, but one value of case reports is presenting specifics that do not fit any existing framework. For example, AIDS research started with a case report of an inexplicable case of Kaposi’s sarcoma. Another difference is that case studies are typically by a researcher who was not involved in the events, while a case report is by a practitioner who handled the case.

A second way is open source work products. The narrowest definition of open source is disclosing the human-readable “source code” of a computer program. But open source has evolved a broader meaning, in which any type of work product is shared publicly, so that any interested person can contribute improvements to it. The work products that public administrators could make available to each other for open source collaboration include procedures, position descriptions for personnel, statements of work for contracting, and any number of other artifacts we produce and use in our practice. Center for Public Administrators is experimenting with open source collaboration on “annotated work instructions” as an alternative to ISO 9000. (See Project on Annotated Work Instructions.)

For more about case reports and open source work products in public administration, see my article in Public Administration Review (paywalled) or the open access version.

Increasing Citizen Engagement and Access to Information, Part 3

3. Don’t Panic about Guerrilla Government

Among the citizens who are most knowledgeable about an agency’s issues, and likely to care about them, are the agency’s own employees. In the past, government employees engaging as private citizens were viewed as a problem, so-called “guerrilla government”.[1] But technology is making off-the-clock engagement by government employees both inevitable and productive.

It is inevitable because technology makes it easy for government workers to engage across the silos of agency hierarchies. Email lists and on-line forums link workers across government who specialize in accessibility for disabled persons, data science, and any number of other functions.[2] This encourages workers to identify with the mission of their professional specialty, not only the wishes of their supervisors. Technology also facilitates engagement among geographically dispersed workers. In June 2016, 51 State Department diplomats stationed around the world issued a joint memo dissenting from U.S. policy in Syria. While dissent memos in the State Department are not new, the number of employees who collaborated on this one was unprecedented, and gave it more influence.[3]

Engagement by government workers outside their jobs is productive in several ways. They can create innovations on their own time that official channels won’t. For example, the database that allows searching Inspector General reports across federal agencies is not a government project. It is a volunteer project led by a government employee on his own time.[4]

Workers engaging outside their jobs can make an agency more attractive to employees, potential employees, and constituencies. The General Services Administration’s “18F” innovation office is noted for its employees’ copious interactions with the broader technology community through both official and personal blogs, tweets, conference participation, etc. Not all the unofficial communication will be on-message from the agency’s standpoint, but the overall result is to encourage talented workers to join and stay, and to improve the public’s perception of the office.

A government leader observing engagement outside the job by her agency’s employees has some necessary concerns. Employees’ obligation to protect legitimately secret information must be made clear and enforced for their outside engagement just as when they are working. Employees should not give the impression they are speaking for the agency when they are not. But a government leader should not fight a doomed rear-guard action trying to suppress the fact that some citizens have different views than her agency’s official position, even some citizens who work at the agency.

Conclusion

Technology is making the walls between government and citizens more porous. Information flows both ways through the countless channels that the internet enables. For a government official, this is an opportunity to overcome entrenched practices and make her agency more effective and efficient. The risky strategy is to try to hold off disruptive improvement, like taxi monopolies trying to hold off Uber. That strategy would have a government leader sacrifice performance improvements for an illusion of control.

Footnotes

[1] Rosemary O’Leary, The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government (CQ Press, 2006).

[2] An incomplete list is at digitalgov, “Communities,” DigitalGov, November 17, 2013, https://www.digitalgov.gov/communities/.

[3] Mark Landler, “51 U.S. Diplomats Urge Strikes Against Assad in Syria,” The New York Times, June 16, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/17/world/middleeast/syria-assad-obama-airstrikes-diplomats-memo.html.

[4] Eric Mill, “Opening up Government Reports through Teamwork and Open Data,” OpenGov Voices, November 7, 2014, http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2014/11/07/opengov-voices-opening-up-government-reports-through-teamwork-and-open-data/.

[You can find the complete paper from which this excerpt was drawn at https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/hws4f/ ]

Increasing Citizen Engagement and Access to Information, Part 2

2. Eat Your Own Dog Food

“Eating your own dog food” is a software developers’ term for using the product that you make. A developer who uses her own software day in and day out will become aware of all the problems users encounter, and will be more motivated to fix them. But the federal government has generally not let citizens engage with the same databases it maintains for its own use. Instead it released special data sets for public engagement, which are often low quality. As one user put it:

“The kaleidoscope of data formats in open data portals like data.gov might politely be called ‘obscure’, and perhaps more accurately, ‘perversely unusable’. Some of the data hasn’t been updated since first publication, and is quite positively too stale to use. If documentation exists, most of the time it’s incomprehensible.”[1]

A government leader who wants meaningful citizen engagement will assure that when her agency’s data systems are created or upgraded, they are built to allow sharing with citizens. This will require that each type of data in the system (i.e., each field) is tagged as to whether it can be shown to the public or must be blocked due to personal privacy, commercial trade secrets, public safety, etc. Making the protection for each type of data explicit will be a big change for agencies who practice “security through obscurity”; that is, making it difficult for citizens to obtain agency information in general, or even to know what information the agency has, on the rationale of protecting the specific pieces of information that should not be released.

Meaningful engagement with government data also requires that citizens can access it in a way that is useful for doing analysis or building services. Making data available as images of printed reports doesn’t meet this requirement, nor do government web sites that only allow users to manually enter searches to obtain a few records at a time. One approach that works is letting citizens download the complete data file, a feature called “bulk download”. A more sophisticated approach is for the government database to provide an application programming interface (API), which allows citizen-built applications to search and retrieve from the database over the internet without any manual steps.

When a government leader makes her agency’s databases shareable with citizens, this will also make the databases more reliable for the agency. Systems that rely on security by obscurity are vulnerable to data breaches. Systems that are poorly documented and use non-standard data formats hold the agency hostage to one or a few individuals who can make them work. Citizens who want to engage with the agency’s data are free consultants to report these problems, if a government leader is willing to listen.

[Next week we will post Part 3: Don’t Panic about Guerrilla Government. You can find the complete paper at https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/hws4f/ ]

Footnotes

[1] Anthea Watson Strong, “Hey Uncle Sam, Eat Your Own Dogfood — TheLi.st @ Medium — Medium,” Medium, September 25, 2014, https://medium.com/@antheaws/hey-uncle-sam-eat-your-own-dogfood-9f0c110c13c8.

Increasing Citizen Engagement and Access to Information, Part 1

The federal government has only scratched the surface of engaging citizens through technology. Most of what we have seen so far is just adding technology to existing forms of engagement: rulemaking comments can be submitted electronically, tweets and on-line chats supplement press releases and speeches.

 The Goals of Increasing Engagement through Technology

The greater potential for engagement is enabling citizens to build new services on top of government systems, and to analyze the same data that government maintains for its internal use. This lets citizens not only comment to government, but co-produce government.

 Recommended Actions

  1. Welcome the Civic Hackers

The citizens who participate in this deeper level of engagement are often called civic hackers. Civic hackers work on public sector projects using technology, but outside the traditional structure of government systems development. While hacking can also refer to criminal activity, civic hacking has gained enough legitimacy for the White House to host several hackathons.[1]

Civic hackers can operate as networks of individual enthusiasts, as nonprofit organizations, or occasionally as businesses. Local government leaders have had some notable successes cooperating with civic hackers to leapfrog the business-as-usual approach of government and its contractors. For example, GetCalFresh.org provides a simpler, quicker online process to apply for food stamps in six California counties. It was developed by Code for America, a civic hacking nonprofit, in cooperation with the counties.[2]

Civic hackers generally do not charge the governments they work with.[3] But for the engagement to produce results, the government may have to discuss its internal processes with the civic hackers at the same nuts-and-bolts level that they are only used to sharing with contractors.

Whether a government leader can benefit from civic hackers depends on whether she is willing to participate in disruptive improvement. For example, some state governments have threatened and even sued civic hackers for posting the state’s codified laws on the internet, because the state or its contractor claimed copyright.[4] But when civic hackers wanted to use the District of Columbia code without the restrictions imposed by DC’s contractor, the General Counsel of DC’s legislature found a contract loophole that allowed him to put a copy in the public domain. Civic hackers then created free software for searching, citing and analyzing the code with features the contractor did not offer, which has been used by both the public and the DC government itself.[5]

[Next week we will post Part 2: Eat Your Own Dog Food. You can find the complete paper at https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/hws4f/ ]

[1] White House, “Leadership and Policy Hackathon,” The White House, accessed September 9, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/node/345151; White House, “White House Foster Care & Technology Hackathon,” The White House, accessed September 9, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/node/355016; White House, “Wrap Up: A Hackathon Here at the White House,” Whitehouse.gov, June 3, 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/06/03/hackathon-here-white-house.

[2] Code for America, “California Counties Make It Easier to Apply for CalFresh,” Code for America, accessed September 12, 2016, https://www.codeforamerica.org/featured-stories/counties-make-it-easy-to-apply-for-calfresh.

[3] One exception is that Code for American charges $250,000 to assign a full-time Fellow for 11 months. But their volunteer “brigades” work with governments for free. Code for America, “Partner with Us,” Code for America, accessed September 12, 2016, https://www.codeforamerica.org/join-us/partner-with-us.

[4] Mike Masnick, “State Of Georgia Sues Carl Malamud For Copyright Infringement For Publishing The State’s Own Laws,” Techdirt., July 24, 2015, https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20150723/17125231743/state-georgia-sues-carl-malamud-copyright-infringement-publishing-states-own-laws.shtml.

[5] Michael Grass, “The Ultimate in Open Government: Unlocking the Laws,” Government Executive, July 8, 2014, http://www.govexec.com/state-local/2014/07/ultimate-open-government-unlocking-laws/87997/.

Citizens Deserve to Hear Dissent in Government

Washington needs more dissent channels, according to Neal K. Katyal’s op-ed in the New York Times.[1] He is right about this, but he wants dissent that is hidden from the public, and that is wrong.

Katyal points to a memo from 51 U.S. diplomats that criticizes current U.S. policy in Syria and calls for military action to prevent “dire, if not disastrous, humanitarian, diplomatic, and terrorism-related challenges.”[2] The diplomats submitted the memo to the State Department’s “Dissent Channel”, a procedure in the department’s rules that allows employees to send their views to the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff. The rules prohibit supervisors from retaliating against employees for using the Dissent Channel.

Katyal supports the Dissent Channel, and notes with approval other examples of policy debate within and between Federal agencies, including CIA “red teams” and input to the Solicitor General from Justice Department divisions and other Federal agencies. As Katyal notes, allowing people working in government to express conflicting views helps spot flaws in logic and analysis, and can give rise to more informed discussion and innovative solutions.

But Katyal’s article does not support letting the public hear dissent by government workers. He says the Syria dissent “raises a fear” that the memo appears to have leaked. It certainly leaked; it is on the internet, even though State’s rules prohibit disclosing a Dissent Channel message to unauthorized personnel.[3] Keeping disagreement non-public is the price Dissent Channel users pay for the promise they will not face retribution. But the Syria memo had impact precisely because it became known to the public and reported in the press. While Katyal says leaking “raises a fear”, what we should really fear is that the 51 diplomats who signed the Syria memo, and other government workers who have strong arguments against government actions, are intimidated from presenting those arguments in public.

Katyal says debate within and among Executive Branch agencies provides checks and balances. Such debate has some value, but it is no check on the officials in power at any given time, because they get to pick the arguments that support their own agendas and dismiss the others. By contrast, when information and analysis from government workers are available to the public, they are a more powerful check on the ability of officials to act in ways that an informed public would not tolerate.

Of course some government information, such as battle plans and citizens’ health records, needs to be kept secret. But the Syria dissent memo revealed no such information—nothing in it was classified. Even so, the 51 diplomats would not be protected by whistleblower laws if they had published their memo rather than using the non-public Dissent Channel. Whistleblower laws only apply to reporting narrowly-defined malfeasance, not bad policy or poor management.

Government workers should be able to speak publicly about what government does, without fear of retribution. Rather than more dissent channels that keep information from the public, as Katyal advocates, we need safe harbors for government workers to inform the public without fear of retribution. The safe harbor could be similar to current whistleblower laws, but applicable to any discussion of government operations, not just reporting narrowly defined types of malfeasance. It could prohibit retribution against a government worker for public statements regarding government operations, as long as she does not reveal any information for which disclosure is illegal and does not give the impression of speaking on behalf of the government.

Such a safe harbor would be strongest if it was implemented in legislation, like current whistleblower laws. It could also be created by agency regulation, but it does not seem likely that any agency head would empower employees to disagree with her in public. Another possibility is for the Merit System Protection Board or the courts to build case-by-case precedent that retribution against government workers for legal public statements violates existing civil service laws.

The Syria dissent memo demonstrates that allowing government workers to disagree with official positions is of very limited value if they must hide their information from the public. The memo became significant only when it was leaked. Government workers should not need to leak, or risk retribution, to give the public insights that contradict the officials in power.

[1] Neal K. Katyal, “Washington Needs More Dissent Channels,” The New York Times, July 1, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/02/opinion/washington-needs-more-dissent-channels.html.

[2] 51 U.S. Diplomats, “Dissent Channel: Syria Policy,” 2016, https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2866467/State-Dept-Dissent-Memo.pdf.

[3] U.S. Dept. of State, “2 FAM 070 General Administration – Dissent Channel,” accessed July 13, 2016, https://fam.state.gov/fam/02fam/02fam0070.html.

Annotated Work Instructions: An ISO 9000 Hack presented at Office of Personnel Management

Center for Public Administrators participated in the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s “Stories in Innovation” event on June 24, 2016, with our presentation on Annotated Work Instructions. The presentation showed how a public administrator can build an efficient process for her work, and convince others to comply with that process, even when the procedures promulgated by agency officials are vague, contradictory or non-existent. The deck is at
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0fUKRnu1oAhUTM0TFVSZDZvMWc/view?usp=sharing

Public Administration Practitioners at Academic Conferences: Why to Present and How to Succeed

Most practitioners never attend any of the public administration academic conferences, but it could be well worth your time. And if you attend, it makes sense to give a presentation. My new working paper advises why to present, and how to do it successfully.

Here are some excerpts:

Presenting at a conference is evidence of your expertise. This is especially useful if your job does not provide much opportunity for accomplishments that are recognized outside your organization.

Many people practicing public administration were educated in a different field, so a conference can be an introduction to the public administration professional community..[T]he people you meet…tend to be the most innovative practitioners, the best prospects for collaboration within and outside your job, and the most willing to share information.

A practitioner can present her own experience with techniques she has applied or cases she has participated in. A frank presentation of what she tried, what worked, what failed and what she observed can show other practitioners what they want to copy or avoid, and can show academics a specific instance of phenomena they might want to study more generally…Your new information does not need to be broad in scope to be valid and valuable.

[A]fter your proposal is accepted and your panel is scheduled, you should do outreach to encourage people attending the conference to come to your panel. If you know anybody who will be at the conference, then contact them personally to invite them to attend your panel. If somebody on another panel is speaking on a topic related to yours, then contact them to say you are looking forward to attending their panel and suggest that they attend yours.

I also give examples of presentations by practitioners at the 2015 Northeast Conference on Public Administration (NECoPA), which I helped organize.

The working paper “Public Administration Practitioners at Academic Conferences: Why to Present and How to Succeed” is at
http://ssrn.com/abstract=2765800