Agencies need help on public participation standards, report says

Federal agencies are not as skilled in engaging the public and encouraging participation as are professionals at private-sector organizations, according to an industry report.

Agencies could improve by applying industry best practices and standards to achieve high-quality public participation, the report states. It was released Aug. 22 by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and AmericaSpeaks, a nonprofit organization that promotes town hall meetings on public policy issues.

The report was written by Carolyn Lukensmeyer and David Stern, AmericaSpeaks’ president and director of online engagement, respectively, and Joseph Goldman, director of Omidyar Network.

The authors gave high marks to the Environmental Protection Agency, Health and Human Services Department, NASA and Transportation Department for superior levels of public engagement.


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But overall, most agencies are falling short, the report states. After reviewing 29 agencies’ open-government plans with regard to public participation, the authors concluded that most of the federal plans did not meet the standards for high-quality participation used by industry.

The authors view the goals of public participation and engagement as underdeveloped aspects of the open-government plans, which primarily focus on transparency.

The plans were vague about what agencies would do to foster participation and engagement, the report states.

“The low level of detail offered in most agency open-government plans makes it very difficult to know what type of participation is being described and what level of quality will be achieved,” the authors wrote.

The private sector offers a number of best practices that could be used to achieve high-quality public participation, the report states. Specifically, agencies should:

  • Educate participants by providing information on the issues.
  • Frame issues in a neutral, unbiased fashion to foster debate.
  • Involve a diverse group of stakeholders.
  • Involve decision-makers in the process and use the results in policy-making.
  • Facilitate high-quality discussion that ensures all voices are heard.
  • Demonstrate public consensus and shared priorities.
  • Support ongoing involvement via feedback, monitoring and evaluation.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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