Mixed reviews for the Open Government Initiative

Experts weigh in on the initiative and the future of online public engagement

The Open Government Initiative, the Obama administration’s six-week experiment in online public engagement, was bound to be a blockbuster.

In recent years, the federal government has made numerous attempts to open a dialogue with the public through the Web, but never on such a large scale.

And this initiative had an elegant symmetry about it: In seeking ideas and practical advice about how to make government information and operations more transparent, why not use a transparent process?

So the administration, with the help of the National Academy of Public Administration, created a series of online forums through which they could:

  • Solicit ideas from the public (Phase I: Brainstorm)
  • Generate discussion about the best ideas (Phase II: Discuss)
  • Enable participants to collaborate on drafting specific policy recommendations (Phase III: Draft)

By the time the project wrapped up last week, OGI had received more than 6,000 contributions via a brainstorming application, blog and wiki. The net result was more than 300 recommendations on how to improve transparency, strengthen public participation, and enable collaboration among government agencies and between the public and private sectors.

However, the various forums also received a lot of public input that was clearly off point. The contributions included a slew of comments that question the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency. Those latter participants were outraged further when forum moderators removed some comments after other users flagged them as off topic or redundant.

However, not all of the on-topic comments were useful either. Assessing the effectiveness of OGI requires answering two different questions:

  • Did the Obama administration use the appropriate tools and processes to facilitate the dialogue?
  • Was the end product — the actual policy recommendations — worth the effort required by the dialogue?

Federal Computer Week asked three experts to share their perspectives on OGI and the future of online public engagement at the White House and within other agencies and levels of government.

Kim Patrick Kobza is president and chief executive officer of Neighborhood America, which develops social-networking technology for corporate and government organizations. He analyzed the technology and processes behind OGI and suggests how future dialogues might be managed.

Glenn Schlarman

, a former chief of the information policy and technology branch at the Office of Management and Budget, looks at it from the perspective of a policy writer and someone who engaged in a rudimentary version of an online dialogue more than a dozen years ago.

Andrew Rasiej is founder of Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference and Web site that covers the intersection of politics and technology. He approached the initiative from the public's perspective: Is this an effective venue for government and citizen engagement?

— John Stein Monroe

Kobza: Promising premise but problematic execution
Three stars

The Open Government Initiative underscores the need for a thorough understanding of the success factors necessary to achieve on-scale public engagement. It also underscores the complexity of the challenge.

Government agencies represent a myriad of business problems — some focused on developing policy, others centered on gaining internal efficiencies through collaboration. Each business problem has its own unique challenge. The way that we invite participation to solve one problem might be very different than how we invite participation for another.

The initiative also reminds us that the purpose of participation is also central to effective outreach. The purpose is generally not to perpetuate voting. It is rather to discover new solutions and anticipate reasons that an initiative might fail — information often held in minority positions or those not commonly accepted. When we fail, it is often because we did not consider the views least commonly shared (Recommended reading: “Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge” by Cass R. Sustein).

And finally, the initiative emphasizes the important difference between creating necessary conditions for success, and creating sufficient conditions. Like most complex processes, small changes in user expectation and experience often lead to material differences in outcomes. Consider the example of a rocket launch. One might successfully achieve 19 out of 20 necessary design conditions, but that alone is not sufficient to guarantee success. We have to get them all right. And so it is with citizen networks — also complex systems.

In that light, how did the three phases of OGI measure up? There are several apparent takeaways.

First, the initiative experimented with several tools to create different user experiences. So, on that score, there was a clear effort to diversify methods for different phases — and purposes.

However, we might ask whether a more robust public-comment process could have made the brainstorming phase stronger. Public comment in advance of ideation could have been used to identify discrete solution possibilities.

This would have had the added advantage of minimizing social fear of citizens in making contributions. It also would have limited the number of solution possibilities to a credible number. Generating tens of thousands of unmoderated solution possibilities is not credible.

Second, some tools are better suited for internal collaboration than external citizen participation. The wiki used in the third phase and the federal employee contributions both generated constructive results.

The wiki encouraged a reasoned dialogue with topic-centric discussion. It stood in contrast to the use of the ideation tool that enabled a free-for-all nomination of off-point ideas and unmoderated, anonymous comment in an unmanageable number of topic categories.

This underscores a third success factor: the need for moderation. When government solicits opinions from citizens, employees or other stakeholders, it is incumbent on the government to create a trusted, credible environment.

Government should not create talk show like “food fights” that can be taken over by smart mobs. Why? Because it defeats the purpose of inclusion of all citizens — of creating constructive discussion targeted to achieving meaningful results. Those conditions would never be tolerated in a public hearing — so why online?

These are not the only sufficient conditions that should be given consideration. For instance, clearer expectations, recognition of user contributions, and more focused efforts to capture social attention are both behavioral and design conditions that would have made the effort stronger.

Going forward, government will be most successful when it differentiates among the many roles and networks that it represents. Government has responsibility for internal and external outreach for many types of problems — projects, issues, events, rules and legislation. Each has different success factors, and most important, sufficient conditions to make outreach and collaboration effective.

Success in Gov 2.0 is dependent on our ability to earn trust, a theme advanced by Stephen Covey in his well-known book "The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything." Covey posits that earning trust requires not only good intent and being current, but getting results. In a Gov 2.0 world, this will be government's most difficult challenge. And as Covey also says, once lost, it will be difficult to regain.

What we have learned from OGI is that in the future, trust must be earned incrementally by careful, thoughtful use of new technologies and, just as importantly, sensitivity to the behavioral complexity of the participation challenge. Not easy — but a goal that we have to achieve.

Schlarman: Great hype, lousy content
One star

I’ve long been an advocate for government transparency and openness and have followed the Obama administration’s initiative with mixed emotions – envy (If I hadn’t retired, I’d be right in the thick of it) and skepticism (Wikis? C’mon, they’ll never work).

My thoughts crystallized the day my playlist shuffled to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's “Déjà vu.” The line “We have all been here before” did it, and here is one example why — in both substance and process, today’s initiative is strikingly similar to a two-week online meeting coordinated by the Office of Management and Budget back in 1995.

That old-school meeting, “People and Their Governments in the Information Age,” combined for the first time e-mail, FTP and Usenet newsgroups — remember those? — and the still-fledgling Web as a means to interact with the public.

Our topics were essentially the same as today’s, but we distilled them to just five to try to provide focus. Ten thousand folks participated, about 100,000 tried, and we got 3,000 largely useless comments. We also had T-shirts (Hah! You Obama guys have T-Shirts?).

What I learned back then is particularly germane today. Here are some comments to the folks leading the current initiative and some free — and worth it — practical advice.

1. Engaging the masses with new technologies feels good to all involved. But seriously, I’ve read the comments, and they are thin in numbers — no masses — and thinner in usefulness. Social media, like most technology, isn’t magic after all. I hate to say it, but although the process might be producing some noise, it is generating precious little heat and leaves me cold.

Sure, you need to know what concerns folks and where problems might be, but policy-making is more about leadership, focusing the discussion, filtering out the noise, and — sigh — often choosing less-than-perfect but cost-effective and sustainable solutions to complex problems.

2. Until openness initiatives are promoted by the agencies and not the Executive Office of the President, they will be only marginally successful.

New policy memos, even from the president, seldom convert nonbelievers and thus work only until the next policy memo arrives. And agencies balk when told to do anything within existing resources. So, to prevent the seeds of greater openness from being choked out, you will need to provide new dollars, force redirection of existing dollars or clearly prove how openness is mission enhancing, not distracting.

3. Don’t let the excitement of the process cloud substantive reality: Manage the public’s — and your own — expectations. Although most government activities and information can, should be, and already are transparent and open, much must also remain opaque and restricted.

Let’s be intellectually honest here. Thirty-four years in government showed me that — beyond rhetoric and style, and except at the margins — when it comes to openness, both parties end up in the same place once they get in the White House. Career employees know what I’m saying; appointees will learn.

Although I hope additional government transparency and openness are possible, the question is how much can be accomplished in a cost-beneficial way. You won’t find the answer in the comments you’ve received so far, but please don’t stop looking.

Good luck and I mean it. All together now, “We have all been here before.”

Rasiej: Risky business pays off
Four stars

Citizens have always had the ability to voice their opinions about government policy through traditional means, such as sending letters, calling agencies or even sending e-mail. But OGI signals that this president is serious not only about expanding the avenues through which citizens can comment on policy but also is interested in using new and emerging technology to improve the quality of the policy itself through citizen engagement.

Any evaluation of this effort must take into account that that this is only the White House’s first attempt at changing the process. Also, citizens themselves must be educated about the new facility being offered to them before we can judge whether the process works. However, even recognizing these factors, it is clear that the relationship between government and citizens is being dramatically improved if from nothing else than the willingness of government to experiment and therefore its willingness to fail.

Crowd-sourcing ideas and information has its pros and cons as Wikipedia has proven. But over time, the pros outnumber the cons because, like a pendulum, the center is eventually reached. As citizens being led into this new relationship by invitation, we could certainly quibble with some of the mechanics of the process. For example, the platforms used for the engagement, notably IdeaScale and Mixedink, are graphically not uniform or intuitive to use unless you are a regular computer user.

However, “the perfect should not be the enemy of the good,” as Beth Noveck, the White House deputy chief technology officer for open government and the lead architect of this collaboration, said at the recent Personal Democracy Forum held in New York. As citizens, we should be ecstatic that we are being given an opportunity to participate in meaningful ways — and that we are being asked to make suggestions as to how to improve the process of our participation as well.

Like democracy itself, this initiative was a bit messy as the calls for more information about UFOs and Obama’s birth certificate were a distraction and potential turnoff for first-time users. However, the communities of participants were given the opportunity to police their own platform, and the results were better because the process itself was transparent and inclusive. The real test will come when the administration — hopefully — takes similar steps to open up the policy-making for health care, energy, education and financial regulation.

The White House also could have done a better job of getting the word out when the dialogue was under way. Imagine how many more people would have participated and how many more ideas would have been generated if the president himself had promoted the effort in his press conferences or on the Sunday talk-show circuit. But maybe it is better that he didn’t, so as not to wake up the special interest groups and their accompanying lobbyists. No doubt these groups, who are used to influencing and directing the policy-making process through the dual levers of money and access, cynically would try to dismiss the effort, with hopes of maintaining the status quo.

Although organized minorities always will tend to have more power than disorganized majorities, the potential of technology as demonstrated by OGI is helping organize a majority of regular everyday citizens in a way that gives them the power to continue fulfilling the promise of our forefathers for more perfect union. By extension this gives us as citizens a chance to realize that Obama’s promise of change isn’t just up to him but is also up to us.

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