White House asks for feedback on second National Action Plan for Open Government

As the annual Open Government Partnership conference draws near, the White House would like the people to weigh in on building a more open government. The request for feedback parallels the one made two years ago, when the White House engaged civil society organizations regarding its open government efforts, and follows up on a July 3 post on open government on the White House blog.


Here are the questions that they’d like help answering:

  1. How can we better encourage and enable the public to participate in government and increase public integrity? For example, in the first National Action Plan, we required Federal enforcement agencies to make publicly available compliance information easily accessible, downloadable and searchable online – helping the public to hold the government and regulated entities accountable.
  • What other kinds of government information should be made more available to help inform decisions in your communities or in your lives?
  • How would you like to be able to interact with Federal agencies making decisions which impact where you live?
  • How can the Federal government better ensure broad feedback and public participation when considering a new policy?
  1. The American people must be able to trust that their Government is doing everything in its power to stop wasteful practices and earn a high return on every tax dollar that is spent.  How can the government better manage public resources? 
  • What suggestions do you have to help the government achieve savings while also improving the way that government operates?
  • What suggestions do you have to improve transparency in government spending?
  1. The American people deserve a Government that is responsive to their needs, makes information readily accessible, and leverages Federal resources to help foster innovation both in the public and private sector.   How can the government more effectively work in collaboration with the public to improve services?
  • What are your suggestions for ways the government can better serve you when you are seeking information or help in trying to receive benefits?
  • In the past few years, the government has promoted the use of “grand challenges,” ambitious yet achievable goals to solve problems of national priority, and incentive prizes, where the government identifies challenging problems and provides prizes and awards to the best solutions submitted by the public.  Are there areas of public services that you think could be especially benefited by a grand challenge or incentive prize?
  • What information or data could the government make more accessible to help you start or improve your business?

The White House is asking that feedback be sent to opengov@ostp.gov by September 23 and states that it will post a summary of submissions online in the future.

If you’re in the mood to weigh in, there just might be a few other pressing issues that deserve to be addressed in the plan, from compliance with the Freedom of Information Act to press freedom to surveillance and national security.

A note on email, public engagement and transparency

In a post regarding the White House’s call for input, Nextgov reporter Joseph Marks is skeptical about using email to solicit feedback, suggesting instead that the administration return to the approach of 2009, when the transition team asked the public at large to weigh in on open government.

“When seeking advice on open government, it seems natural to make that advice itself open and transparent,” writes Marks. “This could be done using a plain old comments section. Even better, the White House could have engaged the public with a crowdsourcing platform such as IdeaScale, which allows users to vote ideas up and down. That way the public could participate not just in offering ideas but in choosing which ones merit further consideration.”

People who have been following the thread around the drafting of the U.S. “national action plans” for open government know, however, that a similar call for feedback went out two years ago, when the White House asked for comments on the first version of the plan. At the time, I was similarly skeptical of using email as a mechanism for feedback.

Writing on Google+, however, open government researcher Tiago Peixto, however, posited some reasons to look at email in a different light:

My first reaction was similar to that of some other observers: e-mail consultations, in most cases, are not transparent (at least immediately) and do not foster any kind of collaboration/deliberation.

But this comes rather as a surprise. Even though Sunstein might have some reserves towards deliberative models he is a major scholar in the field of decision-making and – to put it in fashionable terms – solutions to tap the crowd’s expertise. In fact, judging from this, one might even expect that Sunstein would take the opportunity offered by the OGP to create some sort of “prediction market”, one of his favorite mechanisms to leverage the knowledge dispersed across the public. In this case, why would they solicit online feedback via e-mail?

Thinking of email as a practical, last-minute choice is a possible explanation. But in the spirit of open interpretation (nowadays everything needs to be preceded by the word “open”), I am thinking of an alternative scenario that may have led to the choice of e-mail as the channel to gather input from the public online:

A possible hypothesis is that Sunstein might have been confronted by something that is no news to federal government employees: they have a very limited number of tools that they are actually allowed to use in order to engage with the public online. Having a limited number of options is not a bad thing per se, provided the options available are good enough. In this sense, the problem is that most of the tools available (e.g. ranking, ideation) do not meet reasonable standards of good “choice architecture”, to use Sunstein’s terms. One might imagine that as Sunstein went through the different options available, he foresaw all the effects that could be generated by the tools and their design: reputational cascades, polarization, herding… In the end, the only remaining alternative, although unexciting, was e-mail. In this case at least, preferences are independently aggregated, and the risks of informational and social influence are mitigated.

Maybe the option of using e-mail to solicit inputs from the public was just a practical solution. But thinking twice, given the options out there, I guess I would have opted for e-mail myself.

From where I sit today, the White House might be better off trying a both/and strategy: solicit feedback via email, but also post the draft action plan to Github, just like the open data policy, and invite the public to comment on proposals and add new ones.

The lack of public engagement around the plan on the primary White House Twitter, Facebook and Google+ accounts, however, along with the rest of the administration’s social media channels, suggests that feedback on this plan may not a top priority at the moment. To date, federal agencies are not using social media to ask for feedback either, including the Justice Department, which plays an important role in Freedom of Information Act policy and requests.

At least they’re using the @OpenGov and @WhiteHouseOSTP accounts:


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