How open government can help states save money

December 10, 2010, 10:23 PM UTC

In California, open government collaboration saved $56 million on the state’s website redesign project. The lessons learned there could ripple savings across every department — and every state.

California State Capitol, Sacramento
The California State Capitol. Image via Wikipedia

By John F. Moore, contributor

One thing about open government is that there’s always more to learn. Carolyn Lawson, Director of eService, Technology Services Governance Division, in California, helped me learn a great deal about how open government efforts were creating jobs in the state of California. Since Carolyn is someone who understands how to balance the delivery of public services with the economic realities of doing business I reached out to her to hear her thoughts on what else California, and other states, should be doing to reduce cost swhile improving services.

Carolyn and I first discussed the role of the volunteer workforce in California’s Best of The Web victory and then decided to dig deeper into the eServices program. This program is responsible for providing strategic guidance and management of California’s statewide web presence and all that goes with it. This program is not even an official program. It is one that has been given a mandate without being given direct authority or resources.

The eServices program, unofficial or not, has been successful due to the entrepreneurial and innovative leadership of Carolyn, her influence, and the passion and caring of the webmaster community in California. Dane Wilson, who works with Carolyn, told me, “we have a group of webmasters that see what we are trying to accomplish and work with us because it makes sense and they can see that we care about them and about CA’s web presence overall.” This works in spite of a lack of authority, not because of it.

What if the eServices program were made official, given authority and resources to focus on their core mission? Hiring staff, defining standards and policies, creating documentation, leading, all costs time and money. This investment, if made, could achieve these outcomes:

  • Easier access to services and information by all California citizens.
  • Reducing costs to operate government.
  • Reducing time spent by citizens and agencies interacting with government
  • Increased government transparency.
  • Jobs being created through an expansion of open data contests and other similar initiatives.

It is definitely worth it if we establish a framework within which success can be achieved. It is worth it if we have inspirational, and fearless, leaders that understand the need to balance business-driven outcomes, technology, and the realities of government. It is worth it if we can make open government a supported initiative throughout government, driving innovation throughout organizations and inspiring employees by ensuring they have:

  • Support to innovate, support to fail while trying to make improvements. In the majority of cases government 2.0 is still being driven by a handful of passionate employees. Even in cities and agencies with support from the top there are layers of management that simply do not support these efforts. The employees doing the work are often doing it as their “night job” and burn-out is occurring.
  • Clear career paths and upward movement. When I was young, children would sit at the “kids table” for holidays. The only way to move up to the adult table was for someone to move on. Government is much the same. Some of our most talented government 2.0 advocates are stuck, waiting for retirements as their only way to progress in their careers.
  • Recognition for effort, recognition for results. .

As Carolyn told me, “The biggest mistake people make is thinking social or collaborative work is about the technology. It isn’t. It is about the humans and allowing the humans to engage with each other, the projects and even the data on a very human level”.

Millions of dollars have already been saved, costs avoided, through the efforts of this unofficial organization and the volunteer efforts of the states web masters. Using the best numbers available, California saved approximately $56 million dollars in its last web site redesign in 2007 vs. what it had cost the state in 2001. This occurred because the eServices team made an investment in developing reusable components that other departments leveraged. By using these reusable components, the departments took less time developing solutions and avoided hiring more expensive consultants. As more sites are created and more content is generated to make government transparent to citizens the cost savings will only increase.

The formal creation of offices like this, along with resources and authority, along with transparency in expenses and savings, could make a huge difference in the success of open government efforts. Our citizens and our politicians are fighting daily to find cost savings, to eliminate waste. Offices like this must be created and held accountable for generating these efficiencies and cost reductions.

We must also not forget the fact that the efforts of teams like this are already generating new business opportunities and new jobs. Formalized eServices offices must have goals for revenue generated by the businesses using open data. These programs can play a role in our economic recovery that goes beyond cost savings alone. The time to formalize these efforts is now.