Legal marijuana? Whistle-blower protection? It's all about open government.

Comments on government Web site span a broad range

Some think more protection for whistle-blowers will make government more open and transparent.

Others think legalizing marijuana would lead to an open government.

Commenters have offered those ideas and thousands of others on the Open Government Dialogue Web site, which the Obama administration created to collect ideas from the public that could help agencies make the government more transparent, participatory and collaborative.

Visitors to the site also can comment and vote on whether they like an idea. The Web 2.0 technology is a new way to involve the public in creating policy, and it could be a model for engaging people, said Archon Fung, a Ford Foundation professor of democracy and citizenship at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Because the technology is relatively new, Fung said the effort should be looked at as an experiment that can be improved upon.

Ideas that might seem off-topic, such as legalizing marijuana or publicizing information about unidentified flying objects, are probably there because of pent up demand for ways of communicating with government, Fung said.

“Some people are treating the site as a political forum in which to advance their political view and mobilize supporters,” Fung said. “One challenge going forward is figuring out how to distill the very useful input that’s already on this site in crafting the directive.”

The Obama administration and agencies need to establish ground rules for moderating the site so people do not use it as a vehicle for political mobilization.

The Open Government Dialogue Web site is so new and different that it shouldn’t be looked as a model but rather as a bellwether, said Andrew Rasiej, founder and publisher of techPresident, a blog that looks at how presidential candidates used the Web.

“It is not easy for the Obama administration to take a federal bureaucracy that was basically designed in the 20th century and has seen very little innovation in the first 10 years of the 21st century and expect them to be up to the state-of-the-art capabilities that the private sector is using every day,” he said.

The effort should be judged on the quality of ideas or how they are used to create policies, Rasiej said. Rather, the most important part of the project is that the administration is attempting to interact with the public in a new way.

“It is not replacing everything else or suggesting it is better than everything else,” Rasiej said. "It is simply an obvious attempt by the by the administration to get the executive branch to catch up with the rest of the world’s 21st-century tools and techniques."

Web 2.0 technology will not — and should not — replace other communication methods, such as letters, phone calls and e-mail, he said.

One of the biggest challenges government will face is keeping the Web 2.0 efforts transparent, said Kim Nelson, a former assistant administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency and now Microsoft's executive director for eGovernment.

For example, forum moderators should be identified so the public can determine if the moderator is impartial or pushing an agenda, she said.

More transparency is needed on the voting function, too, she said. A controversial issue could receive equal numbers of high and low votes, which would average to a middle of the road score. A mediocre idea might get lots of average votes but nothing very high or low.

“And if that is the case, then you have two ideas that are rated the same,” Nelson said. “What does that tell you if you’re trying to determine public policy?”

And if people are not required to register to vote on ideas, a minority group could potentially manipulate the results with an organized effort to vote a certain way on an idea, she said.

Another hurdle that Web 2.0 tools and public engagement face is the large number of people participating, said Paul Ferber, chairman of the political science department at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

“In the large jumble of ideas, some are obviously going to fall by the wayside, and some people are going to see their suggestions ignored,” Ferber said. “That's not necessarily disillusioning, if the participants regard the process as having given their bright idea a fair hearing. Others, however, may think that this was not a fair process.”

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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