Open Government Initiative provides plenty of lessons

How Lena Trudeau would do things differently the next time the government seeks citizen engagement

President Barack Obama’s Open Government Initiative states its mission simply: create a two-way dialogue between the American people and their government and develop policies that benefit from the diverse perspectives of an engaged citizenry.

An experiment in online policy development

The first work order for the Obama administration’s Open Government Initiative is to develop a formal directive that will establish the ground rules for a more open and transparent government.

One method chosen to help complete this task was itself open and transparent: a three-phase series of public online forums, each featuring a different collaboration tool and each with its own goals.

  • Phase I: Brainstorm. Members of the public were invited to share their ideas on how to make government more open. Site visitors could post ideas, discuss and refine others' ideas, and vote the best ones to the top.
  • Phase II: Discuss. Blog posts generated online responses and discussions about the best ideas identified during the brainstorming phase.
  • Phase III: Draft. Participants could use a wiki — think of a collective word-processing document — to collaborate on policy proposals to address the challenges identified in the discussion phase.

But first, the administration wanted to have a public dialogue about how future dialogues might best take place. The meeting spot they chose for the kick-off confab was online, through a series of three Web-based forums during a six-week period starting in May.

But a funny thing happened on the way to collective enlightenment. People have a lot on their minds, and given a platform to say it, particularly a national one, they will say it, whether it’s on topic or not.

Last week, Federal Computer Week asked three experts to assess the methods and results of OGI’s preliminary experiment in online public engagement.

In this issue, we get an inside perspective from Lena Trudeau, vice president of the National Academy of Public Administration, which hosted the first phase of the experiment. That segment, designed for brainstorming, was the most freewheeling — and controversial — part of the project.

Trudeau is no stranger to the government’s use of online tools. As a founder of NAPA’s Collaboration Project, an independent forum of leaders committed to using Web 2.0 and other collaborative technology to solve the government's complex problems, she has spent considerable time studying what works and what doesn’t in this area.

She came away from the OGI experiment encouraged by the results and has some thoughts about what the government can do better next time. Here is her conversation with contributing editor Brian Robinson.

Federal Computer Week: How successful was Phase I?

Trudeau: We had over 30,000 visits from around 20,000 unique visitors, 4,000 registered users and 1,129 unique ideas, so in terms of the volume of ideas and the number of people who came to the site, I think it was very successful. It certainly received a lot of attention and a lot of activity.

As far as the actual ideas that came to the site and the extent to which they were truly innovative, that really depends on your perspective. It seemed to us that a number of the ideas proposed through the site were ideas that were posted by folks who knew about the subject matter already and were prepared to respond on short notice.

But there were also a number of inputs from people who were clearly new to this sort of initiative, so from that perspective, it invited new people into the process, and I think that also was a success.

FCW: How do you keep people focused on what is relevant? In the first phase, for example, there seemed to be a lot of people who wanted to talk about the legitimacy of President Obama’s birth certificate.

Trudeau: Initially, the idea was to leave this first brainstorming session open for one week. But because there had not been a lot of notice prior to this going live, and it did include the long Memorial Day weekend, [the Office of Science and Technology Policy] and NAPA were asked to leave the brainstorming site open for a longer period of time.

However, toward the end of that initial week, there were a number of people in the community who felt their input was complete, and so a portion of that constructive and robust community left the site and went on to Phase II. At the same time, there was a Web site [WorldNetDaily] that had taken on the issue of Obama’s birth certificate [and that] had announced to their readers that they wanted them to wage a concerted campaign about it and for them to put their ideas up onto the Open Government Dialogue site.

We did not feel we could moderate those ideas — many of which had been respectfully submitted — away from the site.

But part of the theory behind the site was that the community would help moderate it. Well, the challenge that you have is, when a large part of the constructive community goes away, you’re left with people who may not have the full context of what you are trying to accomplish or they may have their own agendas. And that’s just something we need to know and understand if we are going to be using more of these tools and approaches in the policy evolvement process.

FCW: But how do you keep the discussion going in a meaningful way when these kinds of contributions could drive other things out just by sheer volume? How do you strike a balance?

Trudeau: First and foremost is the work you do upfront to build a diverse and robust community. The more diverse a community is, the more it will balance itself out as different interests come into the discussion. So doing the work upfront to build a really diverse, engaged and energetic community is critical.

The second thing is the platform itself and the role that the functionality of that platform has. One of the challenges we faced with this particular phase was there were no means by which we could take the ideas that seemed to be off topic and move them to some sort of parking lot. People could then see their ideas were still there and hadn’t been deleted and censored but that they had been moved away from the central part of the dialogue to enable the conversations that answered the questions that were asked and that needed to continue in a meaningful way.

And I guess the other piece of it is that the context you provide for people is also critical. In other dialogues we’ve held, we’ve provided a lot of educational materials about the subject matter at hand, links to other sites with more complete information and so on. To the extent that you can provide people coming to the site with context for what you’re asking them to do and that can educate them on the process, that’s really important.

FCW: How do you make sure that people who are not familiar with the government policy-making process but who might have valuable contributions are part of the new process?

Trudeau: Understanding the issue and the communities you need to build around that issue is the first step. Then having a concerted strategy for reaching those people is really important and allowing the time it takes to reach them with the appropriate communications and helping them understand the context in which they are being invited to participate in a discussion — and then ensuring that when you do invite them to the discussion they understand what’s in it for them, what’s the value exchange.

FCW: What about being able to use that kind of dialogue for more specific agency policy-making?

Trudeau: I think there is a broad applicability for this kind of approach to a number of different aspects of governance. The Environmental Protection Agency is a great example of that because they serve as the lead agency on all sorts of different rulemaking initiatives.

So you can see a situation over time emerge where, given a particular rule, you could bring together a pretty robust and knowledgeable community that would be able to inform the rule development at the front end. You have all of those inputs as research that folks in government can then take and craft an appropriate rule around. Then they can put it out for more public comment and debate. But rather than have it subject to many edits that would take it back to the drawing board, perhaps they would just need to refine it around the edges because they were able to get that input at the beginning.

FCW: What have been some of the lessons learned so far?

Trudeau: This particular initiative had a big platform because it was being promoted by the White House, and so in many ways, I think that gives it exposure that others would not necessarily have. For other government agencies, I think it’s really important to do that work upfront to build that thoughtful, diverse and robust community.

If I were to do this again, I would really encourage more time for communicating in advance. And in terms of the functionality of the site, I think I would have made a few tweaks in advance there as well. But overall, I really do think that this first-of-its-kind effort is a success in a lot of ways.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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