researchers from the Open Government Partnership’s Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) shared a new end of term report that detailed both progress and regression in meeting the commitments in the third United States National Action Plan for Open Government between October 2015 and May 2017. To be charitable, the researchers found a mixed record on open government during that time period, with poor public engagement, limited government feedback, and lack of civil society setting the agenda or participating in an iterative dialog with government. Continue reading
This is the week for seeking feedback on open government in the United States. 4 days ago, the White House published a collaborative online document that digitized the notes from an open government workshop held during Sunshine Week in March. Today, Abby Paulson from OpenTheGovernment.org uploaded a final draft of a Model National Action Plan to the Internet, as a .doc. I’ve uploaded it to Scribd and embedded it below for easy browsing.
Thank you so much for contributing to the civil society model National Action Plan. The Plan has made its way from Google Site to Word doc (attached)! We will share these recommendations with the White House, and I encourage you to share your commitments with any government contacts you have. If you notice any errors made in the transition from web to document, please let me know. If there are any other organizations that should be named as contributors, we will certainly add them as well. The White House’s consultation for their plan will continue throughout the summer, so there are still opportunities to weigh in. Additional recommendations on surveillance transparency and beneficial ownership are in development. We will work to secure meetings with the relevant agencies and officials to discuss these recommendations and make a push for their inclusion in the official government plan. So, expect to hear from us in the coming weeks!
In 2010, President Barack Obama spoke to the United Nations General Assembly about open government. “The common thread of progress is the principle that government is accountable to its citizens,” he said, “and the diversity in this room makes clear — no one country has all the answers, but all of us must answer to our own people.”
In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable. And now, we must build on that progress. And when we gather back here next year, we should bring specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement; to leverage new technologies so that we strengthen the foundations of freedom in our own countries, while living up to the ideals that can light the world.
Open government, said Samantha Power, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, could have a global impact.
In 2011, a historic Open Government Partnership launched in New York City, hailed as a fresh approach to parting the red tape by the Economist. “The partnership is really the first time that there is a multilateral platform to address these issues,” said Maria Otero, former under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs at the United States State Department. “The partnership could have focused on countries come in and present best practices and exchange ideas and then just go home.”
“The partnership is really focused on first having countries participate that have already demonstrated interest in this area and have already put in place a number of specific things and the material laid out, if you will, the minimum standards that are being requested. What the partnership really looks for is to provide a mechanism by which the countries can each develop their own national plans on ways to expand what they’re doing on transparency, accountability, and civic engagement, or to start new initiatives for them. That is really what is very different and important about this partnership, is that it is very action- and results-oriented.”
In 2012, the Open Government Partnership became a player on the world stage as it hosted a global gathering of national leaders and civil society an annual meeting in Brazil, with the responsibilities and challenges that accompany that role, including pushing participants to submit missing action plans and progress reports, not just letters of commitment.
In January 2013, Power hailed the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as President Obama’s signature governance initiative:
It’s not about the abstraction about ‘fighting corruption’ or ‘promoting transparency’ or ‘harnessing innovation’ — it’s about ‘are the kids getting the textbooks they’re supposed to get’ or does transparency provide a window into whether resources are going where they’re supposed to go and, to the degree to which that window exists, are citizens aware and benefiting from the data and that information such that they can hold their governments accountable. And then, does the government care that citizens care that those discrepancies exist?
In May 2013, a seminal event in the evolution of OGP occurred when Russia withdrew from the Open Government Partnership:
If the dominant binary of the 21st century is between open and closed, Russia looks more interested in opting towards more controllable, technocratic options that involve discretionary data releases instead of an independent judiciary or freedom of assembly or the press. One of the challenges of the Open Government Partnership has always been the criteria that a country had to pass to join and then continue to be a member. Russia’s inclusion in OGP instantly raised eyebrows, doubts and fears last April, given rampant corruption in the public sector and Russia’s terrible record on press freedom. “Russia’s withdrawal from the OGP is an important reminder that open government isn’t easy or politically simple,” said Nathaniel Heller, executive director of Global Integrity. “While we don’t yet fully understand why Russia is leaving OGP, it’s safe to assume that the powers that be in the Kremlin decided that it was untenable to give reformers elsewhere in the Russian government the freedom to advance the open government agenda within the bureaucracy.”
In November 2013, the world may have hit ‘peak open‘ at the OGP annual summit in London, despite the partnerships’ members facing default states of closed.
Swirling underneath the professional glitz of an international summit were strong undercurrents of concern about its impact upon governments reluctant to cede power, reveal corruption or risk embarrassment upon disclosure of simple incompetence. The OGP summit took place at a moment where 21st century technology-fueled optimism has splashed up against the foundations of institutions created in the previous century. While the use of the Internet as a platform for collective action has grown, so too have attendent concerns about privacy and surveillance, in the wake of disclosures by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, where the same technologies that accelerated revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa are being used to capture and track the people advocating for change.
In 2014 the Open Government Partnership has matured and expanded, with France joining earlier in the year and Bosnia and Herzegovina bringing the total number of participating countries to 65 out of about 88 eligible countries worldwide. As OGP turns three, the partnership is celebrating the success of its expansion and looking ahead to its future, with a clearer mission and goals and ambitious four year strategy (PDF). The partnership is finally writing letters to countries that are not living up to their commitments, although the consequences for their continued participation if they do not comply remain to be seen.
The challenges and opportunities ahead for a partnership that provides a platform for civil society to hold government accountable are considerable, given the threats to civil society worldwide and the breathtaking changes brought about through technological innovation. Today, 10 national leaders will speak in New York City to mark OGP’s third anniversary. (I’ll be there to listen and share what I can.)
After the speeches end and the presidents and prime ministers return home, serious questions will remain regarding their willingness to put political capitol behind reforms and take tough stands to ensure that their governments actually open up. Digital government is not open government, just as not all open data supports democratic reforms. As Mexico prepares to become lead co-chair of OGP, one element that didn’t make it into the challenges listed for the country is the state of press freedom in Mexico. As the Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted, open government is not sustainable without a free press. As long as the murders of journalists go unpunished in Mexico, the commitments and efforts of the Mexican national government will have to be taken in context.
Given this blog’s past stance that as press freedom goes, so too does open government, I’ve signed a petition urging the White House to explicitly support a right to report. Every other country that has committed to open government should do the same. Given OGP’s own challenges around the media and open government (PDF), I would also urge the partnership to make sure that press freedom and freedom of expression occupies a prominent place in its advocacy efforts in the years ahead.
Over at Govfresh, Luke Fretwell took note of the White House asking for feedback on the open government section of WhiteHouse.gov. Yesterday, Corinna Zarek, senior advisor for open government in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), where the administration’s Open Government Initiative was originally spawned under former deputy chief technology officer Beth Noveck, published a email to the US Open Government Google Group:
We are working on a refresh of the Open Gov website, found at whitehouse.gov/open, and we’d like your help!
If you’re familiar with the history of the page, you can see we have begun updating it by shifting some of the existing content and adding new tabs and material.
What suggestions do you have for the site? What other efforts might we feature?
Here’s some background on the group and its purpose: The White House’s Open Government Working Group needs to solicit feedback from civil society in the United States on the various initiatives and commitments the administration has made. Such engagement is essential to the providing feedback from governance experts, advocates and the public on the development of new agency open government plans and discuss progress on the national open government action plan.
As a result of a discussion at the working group this spring, OSTP created the US Open Government discussion group to connect White House staff and agency officials who work on open government to people outside of the federal government. According to the group’s description, the goal of this group is to “provide a safe and welcoming arena for government-focused collaboration and news-sharing around Open Government efforts of the United States government.” That “safe and welcoming” language is notable: the group is moderated by OpenTheGovernment.org with an eye on constructive, on-topic feedback, as opposed to, say, the much more open-ended freewheeling posts and threads on the (long-since closed) Open Government Dialog of 2009 or Change.gov.
After almost six months, the open government group, which can be accessed through a Web browser or using an email listserv, has 177 members and 37 posts. By almost any measure, these are extremely low levels of participation and engagement, although the quality of feedback from those members remains extremely high. By way of contrast, a open government and civic tech group on Facebook now has over 1900 members and an open government community on Google+ has over 1400 members, with both enjoying almost daily contributions. Low participation rates on this US Open Government Google Group are likely due in part to lack of promotion by other White House staff to the media or using the various social media platforms has joined, which cumulatively have millions of followers, and, more broadly, the historic lows of public trust in government which have created icy headwinds for open government initiatives in recent years.
So far, Zarek’s solicitation has received two responses. One comes from Daniel Schuman, policy director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) in Washington, who made great suggestions, like adding a link to ethics.data.gov, a list of staff working on openness in the White House and their areas of responsibility, a link to 18f and the USDS.
“Finally, there are many great ideas about how to make government more open and transparent,” wrote Schuman. “Consider including a way for people to submit ideas where those submissions are also visible to the public (assuming they do not violate TOS). Consider how agencies or the government could respond to these suggestions. Perhaps a miniature version of “We the People,” but without the voting requiring a response.”
To those ideas, I’ll add eight quick suggestions in the spirit of open government:
1) Reinstate the open government dashboard that was removed and update it to the current state of affairs and compliance, with links to each. The Sunlight Foundation and CREW have already audited agency compliance with the Open Government Directive. By keeping an updated scorecard in a prominent place, the Obama administration could both increase transparency to members of the public wondering about what has been done and by whom, and put more pressure on agencies to be accountable for the commitments they have made.
2) Re-integrate individual case studies from the “Innovator’s Toolkit,” which was also removed, under participation and collaboration
3) Create a Transparency tab and link to the “IC on the Record” tumblr and other public repositories for formerly secret laws, policies or documents that have been released.
4) Blog and tweet more about what’s happening in the open government world outside of the White House. Multiple open government advocates do daily digests and there’s a steady stream of news and ideas on the #opengov and #opendata hashtags on Twitter. Link to what’s happening and show the public that you’re reading and responding to feedback.
6) Highlight 18F’s effort to reboot the Freedom of Information Act.
7) Publish the second national action plan on open government as HTML on the site, and post and link to a version on Github where people can comment on it.
8) Create a FAQ under “participation” that lists replies to questions sent to @OpenGov
If you have ideas for what should be wh.gov/open, well, now you know who to tell, and where.
18F, the federal government’s new IT development shop, has launched a new look at the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the form of a open source application hosted on Github. Today’s announcement is the most substantive evidence yet that the Obama administration will indeed modernize the Freedom of Information Act, as the United States committed to doing in its second National Action Plan on Open Government. Given how poor some of the “FOIA portals” and underlying software that supports them exists is at all level of government, this is tremendous news for anyone that cares about the use of technology to support open government.
Notably, 18F already has a prototype (pictured above) online that shows what a consolidated request submission hub could look like and plans to iterate upon it. This is a perfect example of “lean government,” or the application of lean startup principles and agile development to the creation of citizen-centric services in the public sector. Demonstrating its commitment to developing free and open source software in the open, 18F asked the public to follow the process online at their FOIA software repository on Github, send them feedback or even contribute to the project.
18F has now committed to creating software that improvse how requests made under the Freedom of Information Act can be improved through technology. Specifically that it will develop tools that “improve the FOIA request submission experience,” “create a scalable infrastructure for making requests to federal agencies” and “make it easier for requesters to find records and other information that have already been made available online.”
According to 18F’s blog post, this work is supported and overseen by a “FOIA Task Force,” consisting of representatives from the Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The task force will need to focus upon more than technology: while poor software has hindered requests and publishing, that’s not the primary issue that’s hindering the speed or quality of responses.
Despite the U.S. attorney general’s laudable commitment to a new era of open government in 2009, the Obama administration received a .91 GPA in FOIA compliance earlier this year from the Center for Effective Government.
While White House press secretary Josh Earnest may be well correct in stating that the federal government is processing more FOIA requests than ever, As the National Security Archive noted in March, the use of a FOIA exemption (protecting “deliberative processes”) to deny or heavily redact requests has skyrocketed in the past two years.
As with the reduced access to government staff and scientists that a group of 38 journalism and open government advocates decried earlier this year, improving FOIA compliance cannot solely be addressed through technological means. To address endemic government secrecy and outright abuse of exemptions to protect against politically inconvenient disclosures, Obama administration — in particular, the U.S. Justice Department — will need to expend political capital and push agencies to actually shift the cultural default towards openness and release uncomfortable or embarrassing data and documents and not redact them beyond understanding.
That’s admittedly a huge challenge, particularly for an administration facing multiple foreign and domestic conundrums, including a scandal over missing IRS emails and obfuscated records in an election year and the most politically polarized Congress and electorate in the nation’s history, but if President Barack Obama is truly committed to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” it’s one that he and his administration will need to take on.
France has seen its share of revolutions, governments and leaders, from Gallic chieftains to Frankish kings, emperors to presidents, monarchy to people’s assembly, fascism to republic. Now, France will be the 64th country to join the historic Open Government Partnership that launched in September 2011.
— Romain Lacombe (@rlacombe) April 16, 2014
Last week, in the 55th item in a joint statement, French president François Hollande and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto announced that France would be joining the Open Government Partnership:
“Persuadés que la transparence, l’intégrité et la participation des citoyens aux décisions qui les concernent sont les piliers de la démocratie, le Mexique et la France ont décidé d’adhérer à l’Initiative pour un Gouvernement ouvert, dont le Mexique assumera la présidence en 2015 et sera siège du Sommet l’an prochain. Forts de leur expérience en matière d’ouverture et de partage des données publiques, la France et le Mexique entendent encourager pleinement cette initiative.»
Roughly translated to English, that is:
“Convinced that transparency, integrity and participation of citizens in decisions that concern them are the pillars of democracy, Mexico and France have decided to join the Open Government Partnership, of which Mexico assumes the presidency in 2015 and will be the seat of the Summit next year. With their experience of the opening of materials and sharing of public data, France and Mexico agree to fully encourage this initiative.”
“France is joining the Open Government Partnership with great determination,” Marylise Lebranchu, Ministre de de la Décentralisation, de la Réforme de l’Etat et de la Fonction Publique, France, said, in a statement. “France is willing to contribute to its dynamism with full commitment and by engaging in a fruitful dialogue with its partners. What’s at stake is innovation and building the public action of tomorrow. It’s not only about being accountable, it is also about deeply renewing the way we design, drive and assess public action.”
Commenting on France joining, the civil-society co-chair of OGP, Rakesh Rajani, said that “opening up government to citizen ideas and oversight is not easy and not always popular. France has shown … that it is willing to take the extra step of joining the Open Government Partnership, and putting citizens at the heart of government reform efforts.”
Minister Kuntoro, the government co-chair of OGP, in a statement, said that “OGP is stronger today with France as a participant, and I look forward to working with them to advance reform efforts in France and globally. The demand from citizens for open, innovative and accountable governments is common across the world. France can help strengthen OGP and inspire other countries to join this vibrant movement.”
Official adoption of gouvernment ouvert and open data by France means that “données publiques” (public data) and “données ouvert” (open data) will become part of the lingua franca of Francophone countries around the world. (Canada started that the ball rolling a few years ago.) Tranparence, collaboration and participation, the three pillars of open government proposed by the White House open government initiative five years ago, need far less in the way of translation, differing only in one letter.
Whether there is much of a discussion of how “libéralisme” — meaning economic liberalism and the market system — relates to données ouvert remains to be seen, particularly given that the Socialist party is currently in power in France. As the relationship between of open data and economic activity has become better established and the potential value of its release valued in the trillions of dollars (or euros), governments around the world have become interested in tapping their own national reserves.
One challenge for France, as it is everywhere the 21st century version of technology-driven open government is being embraced, will be to come to grips with the privacy rights of citizens, from surveillance to public data release, nor put critical infrastructure at risk through open data releases.
Another will be to pay equal or greater attention to the release of “données publiques” that is not only “ouvert” in the sense of format, license and reuse, but also in the sense of making the government more transparent and accountable to the citizens of the representative democratic republic, or to the oversight of their elected representatives, where public disclosures might affect national security, privacy or the trade secrets of companies under regulation.
The most uncomfortable challenge, however, may be reconciling this newfound, public commitment to more “openness” with closed or secret systems of government in France, from intelligence to criminal justice, just as it has true in other participating countries, from the United States to the Philippines.
As the Fifth French Republic submits a letter of intent and joins the Open Government Partnership, the Hollande administration is committing itself to creating a National Open Government Action Plan, following through on a public consultation and collaboration with civil society, and then to working towards milestones and goals in it.
Whether France makes meaningful commitments in its consultation, from publicizing it to giving citizens a real say in the future direction of the country, or follows through on them, will be, as is true everywhere, an open question.
This post and headline have been updated, after official confirmation of France’s intent to join, with statements from government and OGP.
Yesterday, I participated in a short teleconference with Canada’s open government advisory panel considering the next version of the country’s open government “action plan.” As readers may know, I accepted an invitation in 2012 from Canadian Minister of Parliament Tony Clement, the president of Canada’s Treasury Board, to be a member of Canada’s advisory panel on open government, joining others from Canada’s tech industry, the academy and civil society. (I shared several recommendations for open government in the first meeting, held on February 28th, 2012, and in another in 2013.)
In preparation for yesterday’s discussion, I downloaded the Open Government Partnership’s Internal Review Mechanism’s report on Canada, which highlights progress in meeting the country’s (largely self-defined) goals for open government, particularly with respect to open data, and identified significant weaknesses in the public consultation taken to date.
The consultative process during the development of the action plan was weak. The consultation, which was only done online, including a Twitter chat session with the TBS President, took place during a public holiday and no draft plan was circulated in advance for discussion. There was minimal awareness raising around the consultation process, which resulted in low participation.
The IRM researcher found minimal evidence of attempts to engage civil society during implementation of the action plan with the exception of the consultation on open data and the Open Government Licence. Consultation on commitments in these areas was seen as significantly stronger and more productive than the consultations for development of the action plan and the year one government selfRassessment.
Consultation of the self assessment report was carried out online and was not widely publicized, resulting in a limited level of participation.
Based upon this report and my own observations, I made three suggestions on yesterday’s call:
1) Adoption of an open source e-petition platform from the United Kingdom. While many people remain dubious about online petitions, the tool could be seeded with proposed open government reforms and solicit new ones.
2) Acknowledgement of ongoing debates about electronic surveillance. The Harper administration should launch a more proactive public discussion of what the Canadian people have a right to know about how their electronic communications are being collected, stored and used. Any broad consultation around open government Canada will include this issue.
3) More civic engagement with the media. If improving public consultation is a priority, government officials must go onto television and radio broadcasts, along with sitting down for print interviews. Public engagement through social media and government websites are simply not enough.
The Canadian government should also engage journalists who are making information requests, specifically data journalists, as they are key players in the ecosystem around confirming data releases and quality. If the government faces significant doubts, it will have to turn to more trusted third parties to validate its programs and their efficacy.
While officials are bound to take heat from skeptical journalists, if the Harper administration is serious about open, more accountable government, its representatives should do so to address criticisms regarding silencing scientists and eliminating Canada’s long form census, a choice that will ironically weaken the quality of the open government data releases that the government itself touts.
Minister Clement acknowledged my concerns, feedback and criticism.
[Image Credit: Open Government Partnership]
The map above was created on November 20 by researcher Marc Smith using a dataset of tweets that contained “opengov” over the past month. You can explore an interactive version of it here.
The social network analysis is, by its nature, a representation of only the data used to create it. It’s not a complete picture of open government communities offline, or even the totality of the communities online: it’s just the people who tweeted about open gov.
That said, there are some interesting insights to be gleaned.
2) I’m at the center of the U.S. open government community on the bottom left (G2) (I’m doing something right!) and am connected throughout these communities, though I need to work on my Spanish. This quadrant is strongly interconnected and includes many nodes linked up to OGP and around the world. (Those are represented by the green lines.)
3) Other communities include regional networks, like Spain (G4) and Spanish-speaking (G11) open government organizations, Germany (G3), Italy (G12), Canada (G7), Greece (G5) and Australia (G9), and ideological networks, like the White House @OpenGov initiative (G8) and U.S. House Majority Leader (G6). These networks have many links to one another, although Mexico looks relatively isolated. Given that Indonesia has a relatively high Twitter penetration, its relative absence from the map likely reflects users there not tweeting with “opengov.”
4) The relative sparseness of connections between the Republican open government network and other open government communities strongly suggests that, despite the overwhelming bipartisan support for the DATA Act in the House, the GOP isn’t engaging and linked up to the broader global conversation yet, an absence that should both concern its leaders and advocates in the United States that would like to see effective government rise above partisan politics. This community is also only tweeting links to its own (laudable) open government initiatives and bills in the House, as opposed to what’s happening outside of DC.
5) You can gain some insight into the events and issues that matter in these communities by looking at the top links shared. Below, I’ve shared the top links from Smith’s NodeXL analysis:
Top URLs in Tweet in Entire Graph:
Top URLs in Tweet in G1 (Open Government Partnership):
Top URLs in Tweet in G2 (US OpenGov Community):
Top URLs in Tweet in G3 (Germany):
Top URLs in Tweet in G4 (Spain):
Top URLs in Tweet in G5 (Greece):
Top URLs in Tweet in G6 (GOP):
Top URLs in Tweet in G7 (Canada):
Top URLs in Tweet in G8 (@OpenGov):
Top URLs in Tweet in G9 (Australia):
Top URLs in Tweet in G10:
As I looked back at the annual Open Government Partnership Summit in London, I was struck by how much technology continues to dominate discussion, particularly when many of the issues that confront people and governments around the world are political or systemic, and thus resistant to simply “fixes.”
Given that so many of the new country commitments for the partnership either involve improving the use of technology or are enabled by technology, it’s tempting to frame the release of government data and other digital efforts as efforts that will primarily serve elites, not the poor, and to warn of the encroachment of commercial interests in that delivery.
The years ahead will be messy, full of anger, violence, ignorance and the worst of human nature, expressed in political conflicts and entrenched institutions and industries fighting against a rising tide of populism and industrial disruption fueled by an explosion of connection technologies.
Near the end of 2013, the majority of humanity is living through the consequences of wars, natural disasters, disease, food shortages or inequality in access to resources. On many days, access to healthy food, electricity and clean water are critical needs. Access to information, however, has rapidly become critical in this new millennium.
That such information will be delivered through the Internet and mobile devices is clearly one of the megatrends of this decade. Similarly, access to one another through those same devices, mediated by social media and video, is shifting how we all can understand, document and experience the world.
While 56% of American adults now own a smartphone, the rest of the world hasn’t hasn’t caught up yet. That’s changing quickly, however, as the cost of mobile hardware continues to drop. There have now been over 1 billion Android activations worldwide. As cheaper smartphones and tablets become available, and more wireless Internet access rolls out through ISPs, mesh networks and perhaps even Google blimps, the pressure to provide digital services will only increase.
Why all the hullabaloo? Isn’t this just “e-government redux,” with phones? It would also be a gross mistake to view digital government as simply rebranding or scaling the existing approaches to buying, building and maintaining government IT.
Unfortunately, the bad news here is that government technology around the world is dominated by regulations, tangled hiring practices and procurement policies that get in the way of building important software, along with politics and poor management. The good news is that the example of the United Kingdom’s new Government Digital Services team shows a potential way forward for building a digital core for 21st century government online.
Adopting a digital government strategy is not the same as moving to a system of government more open and accountable to the people, as a comparison of the democratic accountability in countries as diverse as Singapore, Denmark, Iran and Brazil demonstrate.
Given that technology can and will underpin many efforts to reduce corruption, improve accountability and empower citizen activism and public engagement, dismissing the importance of public-private partnerships or digital government initiatives as inherently “ephemeral” would be a mistake in this young century.
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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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:
— Open Government (@OpenGov) September 4, 2013
— The White House OSTP (@whitehouseostp) September 3, 2013