Network of experts embodies government by the people
Strategy for collecting expertise from the public takes shape
- By Matthew Weigelt
- Jan 28, 2011
In 1935, the federal government began gathering advice from a range of experts by publicly announcing opportunities for comment in the Federal Register. Now 75 years later, the book has gone online.
Since 1972, agency officials have convened committees of experts under the Federal Advisory Committee Act in an effort to end backroom discussions of policies and other agency decisions.
Now officials have proposed creating a wiki called ExpertNet to allow agencies to tap a larger well of expertise without publishing a book every day or finding a conference room to hold a meeting.
“ExpertNet is the next generation of citizen consultation,” said Tim Young, former deputy administrator for e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget during George W. Bush's presidency and now a senior manager at Deloitte Consulting.
In announcing the ExpertNet concept in December 2010, government officials said their employees don’t have all the answers to solving the issues that the government faces. They need help from outside experts.
“It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know,” wrote GSA officials, quoting President Barack Obama, when they announced the program in the Federal Register late last year.
The expertise is out there
There are specialists who could help, but agencies don’t have an easy way to find them. ExpertNet is an attempt to tap into that wealth of knowledge. The goal is to enable government officials to search for the professionals they need. Agencies will post public notices about opportunities to participate in discussions on a variety of subjects, and experts would share their knowledge via the ExpertNet wiki.
ExpertNet would complement the Federal Register and advisory committees. But it is expected to be a more targeted way to publish notices than the Federal Register. For instance, officials said they want to spread the news through online professional communities that have expertise or enthusiasm for a particular topic.
Agencies won’t invite specific experts to join the discussion. Rather, ExpertNet would inform people of the opportunity to participate by sharing their advice and insights.
ExpertNet can also help enhance performance management, a priority of the Obama administration. In general, the government wants better outcomes while saving money — the keys to performance management, according to a blog post by Aneesh Chopra, federal chief technology officer, and Shelley Metzenbaum, associate director of performance and personnel management at OMB.
Although officials are eager to put crowdsourcing technology to good use, observers say the infrastructure is secondary to ExpertNet’s ability to attract knowledgeable individuals.
In short, the wiki’s questions need to grab the attention of passionate but busy people, said John Kamensky, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. The experts must be intrigued enough to take the time to respond. Without that interest, the questions would go unanswered or get few responses.
“The focus should not be as much about technology as it is on the engagement,” he said. “Answers depend on whether I feel I am both passionate about the issue and I feel I can contribute.”
Young said the questions posed on ExpertNet will need to be clear and brief. Officials should also test the questions with a sample group of experts so they can tweak them before posting them to the general public.
“It’s like fixing the plane before it takes off,” he said.
The importance of passion
Kamensky, who worked with Vice President Al Gore in the 1990s on the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, said officials got lots of feedback on that project because they had a core constituency that wanted to participate. Federal employees were passionate about the subject and intent on making their agencies operate better.
He cited the Transportation Security Administration’s blog as another example of successfully engaging with an audience. The blog allows people to comment on regulations and how TSA operates when it comes to innovations in travel security, technology and the checkpoint screening process — a clear area of interest given that TSA screens more than 2 million travelers every day.
Kamensky said people post comments on the blog because they are passionate about security concerns. They want to give TSA their ideas and opinions — positive or negative — because the innovations could make their own travel easier.
TSA has tried to give its blog a friendly personality, said Sterling Payne, an agency spokeswoman. The bloggers write in a casual voice, avoid technical jargon and acronyms, and use humor when appropriate.
A Government 2.0 experiment that is similar to ExpertNet is BetterBuy. The wiki seeks to get more community input into the acquisition process by gathering insights on topics such as developing a contract’s requirements and writing a request for proposals.
The BetterBuy wiki first asks a basic, overarching question so readers can find their areas of expertise. There are more specific topics under that question where readers can offer comments, said Mary Davie, assistant commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Integrated Technology Services.
The wheat and the chaff
But once officials post engaging questions and generate interest, how do they tell the true experts from the casual commentators?
“They have to balance the wisdom of the experts from the opinions of the masses,” Young said.
Jaime Gracia, president and CEO of Seville Government Consulting, said the main problem ExpertNet faces is finding enough experts who are willing to join the discussion. It’s an ongoing problem in many circles: People avoid public discussions out of concerns about sharing proprietary information or marketing intelligence. They don’t want to give up their secrets.
However, the government is looking for more than information. “Simply asking people for data doesn’t accomplish much,” Young said. Instead, officials must solicit and identify legitimate insights and ideas that help address the question at hand.
Finally, ExpertNet’s leaders have said they are attuned to issues such as conflicts of interest and advice that serves only one expert’s interests.
Objectivity is critical for ExpertNet, Young said. Solutions include peer review of the advice that’s offered and a ranking system in which other experts voice their support for good ideas or debunk bad ones.
Administration officials are excited about the prospects for ExpertNet. “We are eager to see if this kind of technology helps us receive meaningful, manageable feedback,” Chopra and Metzenbaum wrote.
Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.