White House asks for public participation to improve draft principles for public participation


If a government commits to developing “best practices & metrics for public participation,” one way to demonstrate that commitment is to then post a draft version of those practices and metrics for public consideration and seek public comment. Today, the White House took the first step on that journey when it asked the public to help shape public participation in the 21st century in a decidedly 21st century way: by posting a blog post on WhiteHouse.gov and publishing a draft of a new U.S. Public Participation Playbook on Madison, an open source platform specifically built for collaboration between government and citizens:

Developing a U.S. Public Participation Playbook has been an open government priority, and was included in both the first and second U.S. Open Government National Action Plans as part of the United States effort to increase public integrity in government programs. This resource reflects the commitment of the government and civic partners to measurably improve participation programs, and is designed using the same inclusive principles that it champions.

More than 30 Federal leaders from across diverse missions in public service have collaborated on draft best practices, or “plays,” lead by the General Services Administration’s inter-agency SocialGov Community. The playbook is not limited to digital participation, and is designed to address needs from the full spectrum of public participation programs.

The plays are structured to provide best practices, tangible examples, and suggested performance metrics for government activities that already exist or are under development. Some categories included in the plays include encouraging community development and outreach, empowering participants through public/private partnerships, using data to drive decisions, and designing for inclusiveness and accessibility.

In developing this new resource, the team has been reaching out to more than a dozen civil society organizations and stakeholders, asking them to contribute as the Playbook is created. The team would like your input as well!

Many of the dynamics that have led to news sites turning off online comments apply to governments trying to crowdsource policy or laws. Given those risks, why post this relatively rough draft online now?

“In order to create the strongest public participation resource for agencies, we didn’t just want to open it for comment after the fact — we wanted collaboration and openness in the DNA of the project itself,” said Justin Herman, the social media lead at the GSA who co-authored the blog post, in an interview. “This approach empowers contributors to understand different sides of each play from their creation, and makes participation more meaningful for all.”

As noted in the White House blog post, this effort isn’t happening in a vacuum or a starting point: the White House and the community of practice at the General Services Administration (GSA) have already seeded the document with ideas and reached out to members of civil society.

Whether this newest effort at crowdsourcing a policy results in a better playbook will rest in part upon whether its owners are willing and able to engage the public regarding it. Two tweets are a start, but only that:

What happens next is much less clear: will White House officials and GSA staff participate in conversations on the document? Will conversations spiral out into partisan rancor or be diverted by online trolls, just in it of the lulz? Will a skeptical, angry and distrustful public even show up to participate? Have the feds learned anything from their mistakes in crowdsourcing comments online?

“We knew from the beginning that we wanted the U.S. Public Participation Playbook to truly reflect that engagement in government has advanced in recent years, and participation can and should result in improved services,” said Herman. “We did a lot of research at first, everything from case studies in government to feedback from experts in the field. We don’t just want a resource that people see the value in — we want a resource they can see themselves in, and our experiences in advancing public participation. We’re also approaching development very flexibly and have a team that embraces that approach, which helps immensely.”

Embracing Madison online

It’s worth noting that the collaborative drafting tool the GSA and the White House have chosen has an interesting pedigree. The tool was originally designed to crowdsource legislative markup and introduced at the first Congressional hackathon. Madison was subsequently used to crowdsource multiple bills by Congressman Darrell Issa‘s office before being spun out to be run and improved a separate Open Gov Foundation. As I noted in last week’s column on networked activism, people interested in the next generation of civic software should keep an eye on the growth of Madison, which recently received a huge grant from the Knight Foundation. While there may be a partisan gulf between Congressman Issa and the White House, the adoption of this tool and a collaborative approach to improving this draft playbook shows that there’s some congruence when it comes to adopting strategies for networked governance.

“The goal was to make this process as inclusive as possible and using a platform like Madison is just one way that we’re welcoming the civil society groups like the OpenGov Foundation to participate,” said Herman. “It’s an example of how we’re not just writing about more responsive services, we’re making the development itself a responsive process. We also are accepting contributions through Google Doc, Word, and in-person meetings, so there are multiple paths to participation.”

Madison is just shy of 3 years old, according to Seamus Kraft, the executive director of the Open Government Foundation, but it’s already been completely rewritten. It now has Hypothes.is and Annotator built into the tool itself and uses the Laravel framework. After originally launching in a closed form, Madison is now open source software.

“It’s grown in a pretty steady line, particularly as we’ve started linking up with partner cities and really understanding what our mission principle means when we say inside and outside of government,” he said, in a phone interview today. “Where are our users today? Where are we starting from? When we were on the Hill, it had to happen and happen fast. We were building for ourselves inside government, and we were already connected to the outside users shut out of the process. Now we’re unpacking that, as we’re understanding what has to happen on the backend for drafting or internal collaboration to happen.”

Over the past 2 years, Kraft said that his team has learned about huge potential upside for helping governments at all levels to address inefficiencies in how government manages its documents on the inside, which the public never sees.

“By making that more streamlined, more efficient, with data formats and schemas to accompany it, we will make government more collaborative,” he said. “Where Madison gets really powerful and really cool is when it’s connected to a presentation environment, like the State Decoded, or to a drafting environment.”

When asked about the challenges of managing or moderating public conversations online, particularly given an increasingly politically polarized electorate and Congress, Kraft was diplomatic.

On the one hand, he said that the utility of crowdsourced contributions by and large increases with more identity information provided. (Madison uses OAuth to enable people to choose what identities to use.) When asked how governments should use Madison to encourage meaningful participation online, avoiding gaming and astroturfing, Kraft immediately allowed that doesn’t have any exact answers, but he has ideas.

“There are a number of ways municipal participation has happened,” he said. “There are different types, different flavors, and different data sets in which incentives differ significantly. What we’ve found, what we’ve learned, is that what drives the most meaningful participation is when the people that we’ve elected or appointed, in our cities, country, states or federal government, take a step by opening themselves up for collaborative opportunities like this. That first step is a cultural shift, which is the coin of the realm towards driving participation. When tested it, we found the best, most meaningful participation was on a draft bill. If you remember the OPEN Act, putting “draft” on it signaled a cultural change, a change in how legislation presented to the public. By doing that, Congressmen and Senators took a step towards their constituents. By
keeping it up for a month for feedback and saying we’re not moving forward until we get your input, they changed the conversation. You can see it here with GSA: that cultural shift is the most meaningful thing, in terms of encouraging meaningful participation.”

That’s a cultural shift embodied by Herman, who is a constant presence online and a driving force involved in various efforts to get federal government staffers to use social media to listen, collaborate and engage, not just broadcast press releases optimized for new media. When we talked, he specifically connects effective public participation and civic engagement with the mission of public servants.

“Engagement, responsiveness, inclusiveness: these are foundations of the public services so many of us proudly work to build every day,” he said. “They are not talking points, as when we look at emergency management, education services, veterans programs and more, we see how public participation can directly lead to improvement in the lives of people. It’s not just important that we help agencies do this better, it’s our responsibility. We hope that organizations from across fields and backgrounds take a look and see what they can contribute, and that all citizens may use this to better understand the importance of their informed participation.”

[Photo Credit: Pete Souza, White House on Flickr]

This post has been updated with additional comments.

President Obama announces forthcoming action on immigration using Facebook

President Barack Obama shared the news that he would address the nation tomorrow night regarding an executive actions he would take on immigration on Facebook before embedding the video on The White House blog and tweeting a link to it.

Even in late 2014, when the use of social media has become part of the warp and weft of American society and political discourse, seeing the president “go direct” to the people online, not through media, on an issue of this magnitude is worth noting. Over the past year, the Committee to Protect Journalists have hammered the Obama administration on transparency and White House photographers have criticized restrictions on access. Even tough critics of the administration’s record on access for photos or transparency, however, acknowledge the role social media and the Internet has now taken on in getting the words of the president out to the people he serves.

On that count, the fact that the “big four” broadcast TV networks in the U.S., CBS, Fox, NBC and ABC, are not airing the speech is noteworthy, as is that fact that Telemundo and Univision will carry it live.

People that want to listen over the Internet will be able to do so at whitehouse.gov/live or radio.

For more on the news, read the Washington Post’s report on the context that surrounds the executive action and a short history from the past 70 years of actions other presidents have taken on immigration, all of which should be considered in the context of the time, Congress and their longterm efficacy.

17 million tax transcripts downloaded through IRS website, reducing offline requests by 40%

irs-transcriptAccording to a post on the White House blog, 17 million tax transcripts have been downloaded over the Internet since the feature launched in January 2014. The interesting outcome is that, according to the post, offline requests are down by 40%.

There was no clear return on the investment provided on what providing this online service saved taxpayers, but if we assume there are processing costs involved with sending transcripts through the mail and that, once online, the Internet service scales, that’s a good result, as is enabling instant electronic access to something that used to take 5-10 business days to arrive in print form.

Of note: it looks like Americans can expect more online services from the IRS in the near future, according to the the authors of the White House blog post, U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Nick Sinai and Rajive Mathur, director of Online Services at the Internal Revenue Service:

“Building on the initial success of Get Transcript, there are more exciting improvements to IRS services in the pipeline. For instance, millions of taxpayers contact the IRS every year to ask about their tax status, whether their filing was received, if their refund was processed, or if their payment posted. In the future, taxpayers will be able to answer these types of questions independently by signing in to a mobile-friendly, personalized online account to conduct transactions and see all of their tax information in one place. Users will be able to view account history and balance, make payments or see payment status, or even authorize their tax preparer to view or make changes to their tax return. This will also include the ability to download personal tax information in an easy to use and machine-readable format so that taxpayers can share with trusted recipients if desired.”

Promising. I hope that the leadership of the IRS explores how the agency could act as a platform to enable more, much-needed innovation around personal data access and digital services in the years to come, enabling a modern ecosystem of tax software based on a standardized application programming interface.

Improving online self-service could have an enormous impact upon every single American taxpayer, from saving tax dollars on the government side to saving time and gray hairs year round in offices and kitchen tables. Per Sinai and Mathur, the IRS currently receives over 80 million phone calls per year, sends out almost 200 million paper notices every year, receives over 50 million unique visitors to its website each month during filing season.

More context and FAQ on how to download your tax transcript here.

In strong endorsement of net neutrality, President Obama says FCC should reclassify broadband Internet providers under Title II

As a candidate, Senator Barack Obama said on November 14, 2007 that “I will take a back seat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality, because once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose. The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history, and we have to keep it that way.” Over the past six years, however, his voice has often been missing from the debate over how the providers of broadband Internet service should be regulated. This morning, however, President, Barack Obama came out much more strongly in favor of net neutrality.

In his statement (video embedded above, text linked) the president outlined 4 “bright line rules” that he wants the Federal Communications Commission to adopt for how consumer broadband Internet providers should behave (no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization, more transparency) and a rationale for how they should be regulated.

On that count, the biggest news comes further down in President Obama’s statement: “…the time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do. To do that, I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act — while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services.”

That position is unquestionably a big win for activists, who are thrilled about the news this morning. If you’re unclear about what “forbearance” means, beyond the dictionary meaning of “holding back,” here’s a good article by Nancy Scola and and here’s a much longer post, by Harold Feld, which has more on the topic, and why it’s contentious among telecom lawyers and policy wonks. Should this plan actually make into Open Internet rules and be voted in, how forbearance is handled what Stacey Higgenbotham suggested watching in her excellent analysis of this net neutrality proposal.” They have the patience and lobbying muscle to ensure that in the process of forbearing them from certain practices that are irrelevant for a broadband era, they can get concessions that may make Title II less onerous for them,” she wrote.

Forbearing from rate regulation, or artificially controlling the price for a set level of service, would address one of the most significant objections to Title II that have been raised by American telecommunications companies. Other countries, like Argentina, are going a different route.

That didn’t stop Verizon from warning that reclassification under Title II would cause “great harm to an open Internet, competition and innovation. The National Cable and Telecommunications Agency released a statement that (former FCC chairman) CEO Michael Powell was “stunned” by the president’s statement on net neutrality and that the matter belongs in Congress.

“There is no substantive justification for this overreach, and no acknowledgment that it is unlawful to prohibit paid prioritization under Title II,” he said. “We will fight vigorously against efforts to impose this backwards policy.”

In a tweeted statement that was subsequently posted to Comcast’s blog, David L. Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast Corporation, similarly said that President Obama’s policy stance would “jeopardize this engine for job creation and investment as well as the innovation cycle that the Internet has generated” and suggested that reclassification this was a matter for Congress to decide:

To attempt to impose a full-blown Title II regime now, when the classification of cable broadband has always been as an information service, would reverse nearly a decade of precedent, including findings by the Supreme Court that this classification was proper. This would be a radical reversal that would harm investment and innovation, as today’s immediate stock market reaction demonstrates. And such a radical reversal of consistent contrary precedent should be taken up by the Congress.

The other key detail in the policy position on net neutrality the White House published today was picked up over at the Verge: President Obama asked the FCC to apply these rules to mobile broadband internet providers as well. In his statement, he said that “the rules also have to reflect the way people use the Internet today, which increasingly means on a mobile device. I believe the FCC should make these rules fully applicable to mobile broadband as well, while recognizing the special challenges that come with managing wireless networks.”

As the president also noted, that “the FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately this decision is theirs alone,” but there’s no question that the President of the United States has put his thumb on the scale here, finally, and that it will put some pressure on the two Democratic commissioners, along with the man he nominated to lead the FCC, chairman Tom Wheeler.

Here’s the statement released by Wheeler this morning, in response to the President’s position:

The President’s statement is an important and welcome addition to the record of the Open Internet proceeding. Like the President, I believe that the Internet must remain an open platform for free expression, innovation, and economic growth. We both oppose Internet fast lanes. The Internet must not advantage some to the detriment of others. We cannot allow broadband networks to cut special deals to prioritize Internet traffic and harm consumers, competition and innovation.

As an independent regulatory agency we will incorporate the President’s submission into the record of the Open Internet proceeding. We welcome comment on it and how it proposes to use Title II of the Communications Act.

In January, a federal court struck down rules that prevented Internet Service Providers from blocking and discriminating against online content. In May, the Commission sought comment on how to best reinstate these rules to protect consumers and innovators online while remaining within the parameters of the legal roadmap the court established. The goal was simple: to reach the outcomes sought by the 2010 rules. We sought comment on using Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, as discussed by the court to protect what the court described as the “virtuous circle” of innovation that fosters broadband deployment and protects consumers.

The purpose of the Commission’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposal was to elicit comments. In the past several months, we’ve heard from millions of Americans from across the country. From the beginning I have pledged to finally bring to an end the years-long quest for rules that are upheld in court. In May we sought comment on both Section 706 and Title II and I promised that in this process all options would be on the table in order to identify the best legal approach to keeping the Internet open. That includes both the Section 706 option and the Title II reclassification. Recently, the Commission staff began exploring “hybrid” approaches, proposed by some members of Congress and leading advocates of net neutrality, which would combine the use of both Title II and Section 706.

The more deeply we examined the issues around the various legal options, the more it has become plain that there is more work to do. The reclassification and hybrid approaches before us raise substantive legal questions. We found we would need more time to examine these to ensure that whatever approach is taken, it can withstand any legal challenges it may face. For instance, whether in the context of a hybrid or reclassification approach, Title II brings with it policy issues that run the gamut from privacy to universal service to the ability of federal agencies to protect consumers, as well as legal issues ranging from the ability of Title II to cover mobile services to the concept of applying forbearance on services under Title II.

I am grateful for the input of the President and look forward to continuing to receive input from all stakeholders, including the public, members of Congress of both parties, including the leadership of the Senate and House committees, and my fellow commissioners. Ten years have passed since the Commission started down the road towards enforceable Open Internet rules. We must take the time to get the job done correctly, once and for all, in order to successfully protect consumers and innovators online.

Whether this very public position by the White House leads the FCC to act any differently will be open to debate over the next month, as the deadline to get rules made and circulated to the commissioners before the last open meeting on December 11th grows near. It certainly gives them more political cover.

If the FCC does reclassify, expect the incoming 114th Congress and Republican majority to seek to shape that regulatory choice, perhaps by legislation, and that regulatory wrangling over net neutrality to end up in the courts. Again. (Conservatives concerned about the impact of applying Title II to the Internet may find this post by James Heaney of considerable interest.) Speaker of the House John Boehner was unequivocal in a statement released in response to President Obama’s position, asserting that “net neutrality hurts private-sector job creation“:

“It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the Obama administration continues to disregard the people’s will and push for more mandates on our economy. An open, vibrant Internet is essential to a growing economy, and net neutrality is a textbook example of the kind of Washington regulations that destroy innovation and entrepreneurship. Federal bureaucrats should not be in the business of regulating the Internet – not now, not ever. In the new Congress, Republicans will continue our efforts to stop this misguided scheme to regulate the Internet, and we’ll work to encourage private-sector job creation, starting with many of the House-passed jobs bills that the outgoing Senate majority ignored.”

Evidence for the Speaker’s assertion regarding the impact of net neutrality laws on jobs is scant, as Carl Brooks, an IT analyst with 451 Research, noted: “Connection markets are robust and competitive in [the European Union] for business; for consumers, prices are dramatically lower.” (The European Parliament enacted a strong net neutrality law earlier this year.) “Net neutrality in the EU is explicit policy to encourage competition [and] benefit consumers on the backs of state telecom,” he went on.

Regardless of the political outcome in Congress, close observers of the FCC expect the rules to be delayed until 2015. What the American people get for a holiday present online is — reclassification or some form of tiered services — remains, for now, something only St. Nick knows.

This post has been updated with more statements, links, media and analysis.