Panelists: Push for transparency must come from the top

Top- and mid-level federal managers must lead the cultural change critical to the success of the Obama administration's efforts to make government more transparent, officials said during a panel discussion in Washington on Monday.

"This city is entrenched in a lot of stuff," said Lindy Kyzer, former social media manager of the Army Public Affairs Office and now an independent consultant, before an audience at Government Executive's Excellence in Government Conference. Kyzer and other panelists agreed that to reverse entrenched attitudes, those at the top must encourage openness within their agencies.

Kyzer said for as long as she could remember, there has been a culture of fear and secrecy surrounding the Army that could undermine transparency efforts. One of the ways the Public Affairs Office is combating this is through social media; the Army has its own Facebook page and many of its leaders have their own personal pages and Twitter accounts. "I now get to know when a four-star general goes to Riverdance with his wife," Kyzer said.

But how do you keep sensitive information safe when, for example, soldiers can Tweet from a war zone? According to Kyzer, ownership and education are essential. Soldiers must understand they are speaking for the Army when they post information on social media sites, she said. Through education, service members will learn how to use social networking in a way that is appropriate and meaningful, she added.

Richard Boly, director of eDiplomacy at the State Department, said to foster cultural collaboration "outside the firewall," agencies must begin from within. In 2006, State created the eDiplomacy Office to promote collaboration and communication among employees and the public. One such program is Diplopedia, a wiki much like the popular Wikipedia, through which department employees can create and edit pages on foreign affairs-related topics. Boly said through learning to collaborate with colleagues, federal employees will become more comfortable with the idea of sharing with the public, and more familiar with the avenues for releasing information. He also noted there is a significant generational gap in knowledge of social media and technology; those who are 15 or 20 years into their careers are likely to be skeptical, he said. Boly stressed that management must be educated on new technology, and suggested that young, tech-savvy employees do the teaching. For years, he said, top-level employees have mentored those below them; he urged managers to take part in "reverse mentoring."

Darren Ash, deputy executive director for corporate management at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, added it is essential to address an agency's particular constituency when fostering a cultural shift toward transparency. It is not merely enough to publish more data, he said. Information must be tailored in a way that is meaningful and accessible to the demographic an agency is trying to reach. Social media, for instance, might not be the best way to share information with older citizens.

"This is the public's business," Ash said. "This is expected of us as an agency."

President Obama announced on his first day in office that open government would be a priority, and outlined specific requirements in a December 2009 directive.

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