As White House tech talent comes and goes, open government continues to grow globally

Kim Hart and Michelle Quinn published a new trends piece in Politico this morning, covering the exit of technology innovators from the White House. They tap into something important here that her sources, including Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation and Micah Sifry of techPresident, validate: some of the primary drivers of the technology initiatives that marked the Obama administration’s first two years in office have departed. Vivek Kundra, the nation’s first CIO, Andrew McLaughlin, Beth Noveck, Jim Kohlenberger, Scott Deutchman and Phil Weiser have all decided to move on. If you follow Govfresh and the O’Reilly Radar, you know we’ve been tracking many of those stories and people.

For instance, we were the first to report that in January, then White House deputy CTO for open government Noveck returned to teaching – and then to a new role advising the British government on open data. Former deputy CTO McLaughlin also left in January, transitioning to Stanford and the executive directorship of Civic Commons.

What’s the driver of these changes?

One is the normal transition between presidential terms. It’s unusual for senior staff White House to remain for all four years, due to the exhausting, round-the-clock schedule. Another is certainly the culture of the startup meeting the realities of government, as many publications and participants recognize. “I think tech entrepreneurs in government service is a bit of an oxymoron,” Miller said to Politico’s MorningTech. “Someone who is an entrepreneur is able to execute and test and fail. … I can imagine there’s a mismatch in DNA in terms of being able to control and execute as quickly as they can in the private sector.”

If you followed the path of Katie Stanton from Google to the White House to the State Department to Twitter, you’d find a case study in that reality. When Stanton reflected on Washington, explaining to Nancy Scola that “being used to a fast-paced environment that isn’t afraid to fail, where risk-takers are rewarded, government is just a very different environment.” If you pick up Steven Levy’s excellent book on Google, In the Plex, you’ll read a longer discussion of what happened when Googlers go to Washington and come up against the different culture inside the Beltway.

As MIT research professor Andrew McAfee aptly observed, this is Gov 2.0 vs the Beast of Bureaucracy, and it’s not a conflict that is going to be solved in a few years or in any single administration. The bloom is off the rose, in terms of the hopes in 2009 that the adoption of Web 2.0 technologies, cloud computing and strategies from the private sector would radically change the federal government. The issues that plague government IT or Washington in general are a tough nut to crack, even for the brain trust in Silicon Valley. It’s even harder to attract and retain those minds to serve in government, as this Politico article narrates. If the country is going to solve the immense challenges that confront it in the 21st century, attracting and retaining geeks in government should be a national priority. The gap between Washington, VCs, entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley culture will have to narrow, whether through smarter immigration policies or innovation centers far outside of the Beltway.

When Quinn and Hart wrote that tech experts exit the White House, however, they for some reason failed to report that others have stepped up to take their place. I leave it to others to speculate about why that might be. For the moment, let the record show that there will be other techies serving in the White House.

For instance, Daniel Weitzner is the new White House deputy CTO for Internet policy, replacing McLaughlin.

Chris Vein is the new White House deputy CTO for open innovation, replacing Noveck.

And one of the biggest guessing games in government technology right now is who will fill Kundra’s shoes as the nation’s second CIO – a story which Politico itself has covered.

For many open government advocates, the shoes left unfilled that may cause the great consternation are those of Norm Eisen, the White House “ethics czar” that President Obama appointed to be ambassador of the Republic of Czech.)

There will be more tech talent that steps up to help the White House, but it’s safe to say they’ll be realistic about what can be accomplished in an election season where any decision will have political consequences.

Wither open government?

The departure of Kundra has caused a great deal of consternation in the open government community, particularly after a sensationalist op-ed on a Washington Post
by Vivek Wadhwa proclaimed the “coming death” of the movement. While Luke Fretwell forcefully rebutted Wadhwa here at Govfresh, essentially calling him wrong about open government, the lingering impression remains in the community that open government is in trouble. That feeling is part of longer continuum of criticism that reaches back into 2010, when it was already clear that open government was in beta and would continue to be, regardless of new open government platforms coming online or open data success at HHS. Advances and setbacks in open government will continue in Washington.

There will be new tech advisors that come into and leave the Obama administration (Harper Reed, for instance, has joined the campaign side as a CTO) but the future of open government won’t be borne solely upon their ability to innovate inside of government. Ultimately, in a new era of technology-fueled transparency, innovation and open government dawns around the world, it won’t depend on any single CIO or federal program. It will be driven by a distributed community of media, nonprofits, academics and civic advocates focused on better outcomes, more informed communities and the new news, whatever form it is delivered in. Advocates, watchdogs and government officials will have new tools for data journalism and, over time, open government. Globally, transparency movement is growing. Look to the launch of an Kenya’s open government data platform today and the lifted hopes of Kenya’s people for example, or new transparency initiatives in Britain for inspiration.

The growth of citizen science and open data hint at our collective future. Open government is about all of us, whether the White House steps up to the plate to reinvigorate its open government directive or not.