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Use a Whole Systems Approach to Transparency and Open Government

One of the major challenges with large initiatives (such as this Transparency and Open Government initiative) and large organizations/institutions (such as the Federal Government) is the lack of integration, collaboration, and synergy that usually result from trying to design, implement, and manage anything this large and complex. They are typically designed and implemented in separate pieces based on the concept that if you break something large, and therefore difficult or impossible to design, implement, and manage, down into its component parts and work on each part separately, that when you put them all back together they will somehow work well together as a complete system. This is a mechanistic approach, or what is known in science as a “Newtonian” approach, to systems that are neither machines nor the static, predictable environments that these traditional approaches treat them as.

 

A large, complex system like the Federal Government is neither a machine nor a static, predictable environment, so traditional approaches just don’t work well. For example, each new piece of legislation and each new regulation can’t just be “plugged in” to the existing “machinery” of the current government without impacting other aspects of the government.

A graphic example of this, that we all have to deal with at least once a year, are the Federal Tax Code and the IRS regulations that try to “Provide America's taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and by applying the tax law with integrity and fairness to all” (IRS Mission Statement).

 How can the IRS effectively and efficiently carry out its mission when the Tax Code is a massive patchwork of laws that have been enacted as separate measures, often driven by political aims rather than the common good?

 How can a Senator or Representative gain sufficient understanding of this jumble to pass legislation that will optimize the entire system of taxes, including their impact on and interaction with all of the different factors and stakeholders, rather than just the small piece they are working on (even if we assume the best intentions on their part of working for the common good)?

 How can taxpayers possibly understand and comply with this mess, especially when it keeps changing all the time and makes little real sense to them even when they can figure out what actions they’re supposed to take?

 

So the government is not a machine; it is a complex, living, evolving system. In fact, any system involving people is by nature complex and constantly changing, since we are so driven by our personal beliefs, needs, feelings, relationships, and reactions to our environment. Trying to design, implement, and manage a transparent, open government for 300 million of us diverse, unpredictable humans is almost unimaginably complex. What we need for this is a proven way to work with complex living systems, what is often called a “Whole Systems Approach.”

 

A Whole Systems Approach considers all the factors and elements involved, including how they relate to each other, how they work together as a whole, what the system needs to develop, thrive, and evolve in its environment, and how the system impacts and interacts with its surrounding environment, including how the system will be able to respond and evolve as needs and the surrounding environment change.

 

For the Transparency and Open Government Initiative this would involve using a whole systems approach throughout this initiative – brainstorming, designing, implementing, and managing the system. This whole systems approach should include:

 

 Look at how the best ideas that emerge out of this effort can come together within the existing government system to collectively produce the desired outcomes of a transparent and open government, as well as the most beneficial impact on the other aspects of the government and the environment in which it operates – this country and the world. The goal is to create synergies that result in a system that is greater than the sum of its parts (these ideas and the elements of the government they involve) -- rather than the other way around, which is the usual result of a mechanistic approach to a complex system. This includes not just synergistic relationships within the Federal Government, but with key aspects of the environment in which it operates such as State and Local Governments, as well as with other current government initiatives such as Economic Recovery.

 

 To address the complexity and uncertainty inherent in this system, a whole systems approach is first and foremost based on a set of principles. These principles guide and shape the whole systems process rather than prescribing a fixed recipe or methodology that details out each step of the process like mechanistic approaches do. What these whole systems principles are varies somewhat among whole systems practitioners and should be crafted collaboratively anyway as part of the initiative’s participative process. But I can provide a couple of examples here to help you envision how they are different from other, more linear, mechanistic approaches.

-- Design for Emergence – This is a concept from complexity science that addresses how to deal with the uncertainty involved with complex, rapidly changing systems. It basically means that you can’t predict in advance everything that will happen within the system, so don’t overdesign everything in the system up front. Instead, design just enough of the system to be able to simulate, prototype or pilot it, observe what happens, and then adjust the design based on your observations of what emerged from the system (thus the term, “design for emergence”). To deal with the complexity of the system, it can also involve implementing the system in stages with each stage adding additional complexity to the previous stages that are already operational and observing and changing the system based on what emerges when you add additional complexity.

-- Design for Sustainability - This means you should expect to go through iterations of this process pretty much indefinitely. This is because not only will you need to make changes to the design based on your observations of the initial implementation, you will also need to keep making changes indefinitely to adapt to ongoing changes in the environment. Another consideration in designing for sustainability is to place a strong emphasis on transforming the underlying culture by embedding the new mindset and practices so deeply into the culture that the system will be sustainable through major changes such as a change of parties, personalities, or priorities in the White House.

 

 Ideally, the whole system view should include the following major elements, how they relate to each other, how they relate to the existing government system, and how the whole thing works together as a whole system. Ideas already posted here are shown in (parens) as examples of each element. This big picture view will also enable us to identify gaps, overlaps, and conflicts between the ideas/elements.

-- Strategy – What are the most important questions we need to address with this initiative such as, “What does ‘open and transparent government’ really mean? Why are we doing this? What are we trying to accomplish? What does success look like? What are the most important factors involved in achieving this success?

(examples: “Develop an overall adaptive, participative strategy for Transparency and Open Government”; “Require all agencies to submit a plan for open government”)

-- Culture (examples: “Ask Federal Agencies to Adopt the Core Principles for Public Engagement”; “Create a Government-wide Transparency, Collaboration, and Participation Culture”)

-- Leadership (examples: President Obama’s ongoing leadership of this initiative, starting with his “Memorandum For The Heads Of Executive Departments And Agencies”; “Hold Agencies Accountable for Implementing the Open Government Directive”)

-- Communication (examples: “Promise USA - National Network of Citizen Conversation”; “Convene the American Public in National Discussions ...”, “Use visual recording and mini animations to convey complex ideas”)

-- Processes – (examples: “72-Hour Mandatory Public Review Period on Major Spending Bills”; “Centralize petitions to Congress and the President”)

-- Organization – (example: “Integrate Participation and Collaboration into All Major Systems of Federal Agencies”, “Invite Congress to work with the Administration on this as a government-wide, bi-partisan initiative”)

-- Technology (examples: “Online, visually interactive, one-stop-shop, federal budget website”, “Digitize everything”)

-- Resources/Funding (example: “Fully fund participation and collaboration activities”)

-- External Relationships – (examples: “Encourage State and Local Governments to Become More Open and Inclusive”, “Use 501c3 non-profit member and volunteer-based organizations and community-based initiatives as models/benchmarks for the Federal government”)

-- System Measurement & Improvement – (example: “Process for measuring, widely communicating the measurement results, and continuously improving the transparency and openness of the government”)

 

 Employ proven systems tools to do this. Some of the ideas already presented in this forum are examples of systems tools: widespread, diverse, coordinated participation; ongoing dialogue; weaving the ideas together into graphic maps or models; social networking, collaboration, and information gathering and dissemination technologies, and others. But there are other tools that would also be useful.

 

To begin this Whole Systems process and to illustrate how it works, I took a cursory look at the top ideas posted here so far and visualized the system that would possibly result from integrating them. In doing so, I identified some areas where I felt the composite of these ideas needed strengthening in order to create a Whole System that could meet President Obama’s objectives. As a result, I have added several new ideas as separate postings in this forum. They are meant to come together with the existing ideas to create a more effective Whole System. These have been posted already or will be soon.

 Develop an overall adaptive, participative strategy for Transparency and Open Government

 Create a government-wide culture of transparency, collaboration, and participation

 Invite Congress to partner with the Administration on this as a government-wide, bi-partisan initiative

 Use 501c3 non-profit member and volunteer-based organizations and community-based initiatives as models/benchmarks for the Federal government

 Process for measuring, widely communicating the measurement results, and continuously improving the transparency and openness of the government

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Idea No. 549