The heart of any large scale change like this Transparency and Open Government initiative is the culture of the organization or institution (my definition of culture is included below). To have any hope of sustaining the changes implemented through this initiative, the culture of the Federal government needs to undergo a transformation. Without changing the culture, only surface changes will occur and the system will revert back to the old way of behaving. Only by embedding the new mindset and behavioral norms of transparency and open government deeply into the culture will the changes implemented through this initiative be sustainable through subsequent changes such as a change of parties, personalities, or priorities in the White House.
But you can’t just announce, “we’re going to change our culture” and expect it to happen, even with so-called “change management programs.” I have found that cultural change takes place most easily and most deeply when people change their own mindsets and behaviors rather than being told they have to. This takes place in the same way we change the way we think and behave in our personal lives. Email, the internet, and cell phones didn’t become integral parts of our culture because people were told they had to use them. Most people chose to use them because they were “early adopters” or because their friends and peers were using them. Some people were first told by their employers that they had to use them but eventually grew accustomed and even dependent on them just by using them frequently for an extended time.
This is how real change takes place, including for this initiative. Cultural change within the government needs to address all these ways people change: early adopters who will change just because they like to; followers who will change based on what they see their leaders and peers doing, as long as they have a choice and it makes sense to change; and reluctant adopters who will change first by being told to do so but eventually because it’s just “the way things are done around here” and they become accustomed to it. You know the change is embedded when it becomes harder to go back to the old ways of thinking and behaving than to keep the new ones.
There are already many ideas posted here that will help to bring about this cultural change if they are sustained over an extended period of time and they “make sense” to the people who have to implement and perform them. A number of the ideas involve ongoing dialogue and other means of encouraging more active participation by the public in government activities. I have found that one of the best ways to create a culture of transparency and participation is to make ongoing dialogue a core competency of the organization and a fundamental aspect of the operations of the organization. Another example of an idea that will help to bring about a change to the culture is “Integrate Participation and Collaboration into All Major Systems of Federal Agencies.” If these ideas are implemented in a way that makes sense to the people who have to perform them after working with them for a while, there is hope that they will become accustomed to them and adopt them as the new “ways that things are done around here.” This idea is meant to provide an “umbrella” that ties these other ideas together so that the conscious, deliberate intention to change the government culture becomes a key driver of making the implementation of these other ideas sustainable over the long term.
What is “culture”?
As an organizational anthropologist, I find that “culture” is one of those concepts that is always mentioned when talking about organizational change, but is usually not well understood. It has become more of a catch phrase than something that carries a common meaning.
I like to think of culture as being certain visible and underlying aspects of a group of people, including a formally structured group such as an organization or an institution. The way culture manifests itself visibly in a group can be summed up as “how we do things around here.” This can be viewed in the group as: the individual and collective behavior we can actually observe within the group, such as in a meeting together or talking on the phone; the rituals and symbols that seem to hold some special meaning for the group and are therefore used frequently by the group in their interactions with each other and with their external environment, such as how the group acknowledges its successes and mourns its setbacks (including the lack of any group means of expressing it); the ways people are motivated or de-motivated to follow prescribed procedures and behavioral norms, such as rewards and “punishments”; and the “artifacts” the group produces in its activities, typically “information artifacts” like documents, web pages, meeting notes, email messages, and other forms of documentation and communication. Understanding these information artifacts can be as important to understanding an organizational culture as archaeological artifacts are to understanding an ancient culture.
But underlying this visible culture is what drives how things are done – the essence of the group or organization. This essence shapes the mindsets of the individuals working within the group. It includes their collective: identity (who they are); vision or aspirations (who or what they dream of becoming); purpose (why they exist); and values and beliefs (what they believe in and hold most dear). What the group espouses as their essence (as evidenced through their documentation and communication) vs. what they actually practice (as evidenced through their actual behaviors) is another underlying aspect or driver of the group’s culture.