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Why Does Open Government Matter?

A new tool helps agencies measure the value of transparency, trust and accountability.

Online initiatives that let citizens help themselves to government data or allow them to collaborate and interact with public officials are popular with policy-makers and constituents alike. But these undertakings don’t always lend themselves to a traditional dollars-and-cents evaluation of results. So how do you measure open government’s value?

To be sure, there’s economic value in putting government spending data on an easily accessible “government checkbook” site -- if it reduces the number of open records requests an agency receives. But open government goals such as strengthening accountability, building trust and improving citizen satisfaction defy simple financial metrics.

“We know open government matters, but the question we kept hearing was, ‘How does it matter?’” says Meghan Cook, program manager with the University of Albany’s Center for Technology in Government (CTG). “There are limited resources to do open government, so business cases are being built -- but not all of them have the strongest financial business case because that’s not really what it’s about.”

In May, CTG released a tool designed to help government leaders make better decisions on open government investments. The Open Government Portfolio Public Value Assessment Tool -- PVAT for short -- goes beyond typical return on investment analysis to measure the social, political, strategic and government-integrity value of open government initiatives.

“It’s not a replacement for ROI -- that will always be done,” says Cook. “But used in conjunction with ROI, it creates a fuller picture of value.”

The tool, which is based on simple Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, runs users through a series of questions about the purpose of an open government initiative, how it ties to agency goals and the groups it will impact. Users also rate the initiative’s importance across seven “public values,” ranging from economic to quality of life. The result is a graphic depiction of the project’s value across a comprehensive set of issues and stakeholders.

PVAT is rooted in CTG’s Public Value Framework, a concept developed by the organization several years ago to help government agencies evaluate the nonmonetary benefits of technology deployments. Cook says the new tool gives agencies a more structured way to talk about the value of typical open government goals like transparency, public trust and citizen satisfaction. It also provides a consistent framework for comparing the value of multiple initiatives to help leaders determine the best investment.

CTG created the tool to help federal agencies comply with the Obama administration’s 2009 Open Government Directive, which compelled agencies to develop open government plans and undertake transparency and citizen engagement initiatives. But it works just as well for state and local government, says Cook, and it’s available for download on CTG’s website.

She admits the spreadsheet technology behind PVAT is hardly cutting edge: “We say the thinking is very now, but the platform is very 1990s,” Cook told Government Technology. But the concept is proving to be powerful. Since its release in early May, PVAT has found a wider-than-anticipated audience. “We’ve had international interest -- a lot of downloads from all over the world.”

CTG even had to quickly retool its PVAT licensing agreement to accommodate a surprising amount of demand from nongovernmental organizations. Some of that demand may be driven by agency managers scrambling to protect programs on the chopping block due to budget pressure. But Cook says PVAT’s popularity reflects a deeper desire to find formal ways of expressing open government benefits.

Everyone assumes open government is a good idea, but -- as CTG notes -- that’s not the strongest foundation for measuring the results of existing initiatives or for planning new ones. In an environment where every budget dollar is under a microscope, CTG’s evaluation tool is worth a look.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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