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

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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.

2 thoughts on “White House asks for public participation to improve draft principles for public participation

  1. The Playbook in current form is largely about processes of sharing of information between government and citizens. That is important to Public Participation, but it is not the same as Public Participation. People need a place, structure and tools to process information collaboratively, and come to a decision in an agreed upon manner. That is the art and science of democracy.

    A playbook is all about the processes through which participants interact to progress in the game. Likewise, a Public Participation Playbook should be about processes through which participants progress in decision making. This document needs to expand its focus from technical specs of how the government will share information to descriptions of methods (specific to desired outcomes) of bringing people into the game.

  2. Thanks for this article. I’m using it for my research on digital participation. I’ve collected a lot of data on how government agencies use social media. My (barely kept up) blog can be found at DigiDominion.com

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