Polishing the keys to open government

How to make government transparent without encouraging partisan attacks

President Barack Obama’s commitment to creating a more open federal government has inspired a slew of experiments in online dialogue and engagement by the White House. However, effective methods of online participation will come from a painstaking trial-and-error process that requires patience from Americans and their government.

More than 2,000 technology experts and vendors posted and ranked ideas for analyzing economic stimulus spending at Recovery.gov. Nearly 100,000 people rated questions for the president to answer in a virtual town hall meeting. Regulations.gov hosts an online portal for federal rule-making. And the most elaborate experiment is a three-phase dialogue asking the public to help develop the president’s Open Government Directive.

Those initial forays probably mark the beginning of much greater use of public involvement through online methods. Already, the Homeland Security Department has announced its own approach to encouraging public involvement.

The Obama administration’s Open Government Dialogue has generated many useful and interesting ideas from experts, interest groups and ordinary people. The three-phase structure of the dialogue began with brainstorming, moved on to discussion about key ideas and will conclude with a collaborative process to draft recommendations. That sequence acknowledges that different tools are needed for different kinds of engagement. The nonpartisan panel of experts from the National Academy of Public Administration that manages the dialogue adds credibility to the process. Unlike almost all other channels of public participation in the federal government, that dialogue allows transparent access to the ideas under consideration.

But the process has also been plagued by problems that have hampered other recent efforts. First, groups mobilize to support particular positions. [In the interests of full disclosure, please note that the authors have posted several ideas on the Open Government Dialogue site and mobilized support for them]. Mobilization around good ideas is constructive. But, and this is the second problem, off-topic and sometimes fringe postings — most notably from conspiracy theorists demanding access to Obama’s birth certificate to prove his eligibility to be president — have achieved prominence through mobilization.

Good design makes the difference between high- and low-quality participation. Some principles for designers to remember include:

  • Dialogue requires common ground. Participants must share a broadly common goal. Otherwise, the forum becomes a clash of interest groups rather than a dialogue.
  • Crowd sourcing requires a crowd. Public outreach to diverse groups is essential and requires as much emphasis as designing the platform itself. Otherwise, there is a tendency toward manipulation by organized interests with large mailing lists or unusually active constituencies.
  • The site must have clear, visible ground rules and enforce them. Moderators should flag off-topic submissions and move them to a space where interested participants can continue the conversation without derailing the main dialogue. Moderators must earn the trust of participants to be able to enforce those rules.
  • It shouldn’t be easy to pack a virtual room. Sites should avoid assigning unique URLs to each idea so that organizations with large mailing lists, like ours, are not able to campaign for or against ideas in the discussion.

About the Authors

Archon Fung is the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Joe Goldman is the Vice President of Citizen Engagement at AmericaSpeaks.

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