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Obama, Public Engagement, and the D&D Community… An (Extraordinary) Half-Year in Review

With the transition to a new presidential administration that focused its campaign on getting people involved in government, 2009 has been a whirlwind year of unprecedented opportunity and possibility for the dialogue and deliberation community and all those working in public engagement.  Below is an outline/timeline of what’s happened so far this year that’s relevant to our community of practice.

On his first day in office, U.S. President Barack Obama issued a memorandum to leaders of executive departments and government agencies calling for a new era of transparency and open government.  In the memo, Obama asserted “we will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration,” and called for an Open Government Directive “that instructs executive departments and agencies to take specific actions implementing the principles set forth in this memorandum” on transparency, public participation, and collaboration.

The memo caused a number of things to be set into motion that have excited, mobilized, and sometimes troubled the entire public engagement community to an unprecedented degree.  Many in NCDD and related networks were concerned that since our field had not yet collectively embraced a standard set of principles or criteria for quality public engagement, people would end up pasting the label of “public engagement” on manipulative efforts that were more about public relations than about learning from or empowering the public.  Others were concerned that the many networks and organizations active in our field would essentially end up competing with each other to be heard by the administration, and that, with our mixed messages, we might drown out each other’s voices in the process.

NCDD, the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), and the Co-Intelligence Institute responded to this excitement and concern by leading a collaborative, open process for members of our networks to develop a set of Core Principles for Public Engagement.  Numerous leaders and thinkers in public engagement were involved in the commenting, drafting, and editing process, and the Core Principles document has since been enthusiastically endorsed by dozens of leading organizations in this work, including the National League of Cities, the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, the League of Women Voters, AmericaSpeaks, Everyday Democracy, Public Agenda, the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), the International Association of Facilitators (IAF), and many others.

The Core Principles for Public Engagement document can be downloaded at www.ncdd.org/pep, where you can also see a full list of organizational and individual endorsers, learn more about the process used to draft the principles, and view the expanded text about each of the principles.

In March 2009, when the Public Engagement Principles project was in full swing, NCDD was one of twelve organizations represented at an “informal listening session” with Beth Noveck and other representatives of Obama’s Open Government Initiative at the White House Conference Center.  In a stunning departure from what we are accustomed to, we were invited to “talk about how your organizations can contribute to fostering civic engagement in connection with crafting the recommendations and to supporting the goals of transparency, participation, and collaboration.” (See my detailed notes from this meeting, and be sure to look over the comments people added!)

In late March, NCDD members AmericaSpeaks, Everyday Democracy and Demos, along with Harvard University’s Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the JFK School of Government, convened a one-day meeting about the Open Government Directive.  The report from this “Champions of Participation” meeting, which involved representatives of 23 federal agencies and offices, includes, among other things, a  recommendation to establish a federal institute for public engagement (similar to the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution) to gather research on best practices, conduct trainings for federal managers, and develop a knowledge-base on participation and collaboration.

While much of the conversation about the President’s commitment to open government has focused on transparency and technology issues, federal managers at the March meeting urged the task force spearheading the effort to incorporate reforms that enable meaningful face-to-face (in addition to online) participation and collaboration.  Also see the report from the follow-up session, Senior Agency Leaders Working Session:  Feedback to the Open Government Directive (May 12, 2009).

An April 16, 2009 article on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s website announced that Sonal Shah, former head of global development at Google.org, the search-engine company’s philanthropic arm, is head of the new White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. (Perry, Suzanne. White House Appoints Head of Social Innovation Office. Chronicle of Philanthropy, April 16, 2009. http://philanthropy.com/news/government/7874/appointment-of-white-house-office-of-social-innovation-head-confirmed.)

In a May 5, 2009 White House press release about President Obama’s plans to ask Congress for $50 million to identify and expand effective, innovative non-profits, it was stated that “the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation will coordinate efforts to enlist all Americans –individuals, non-profits, social entrepreneurs, corporations and foundations – as partners in solving our great challenges.” (www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/President-Obama-to-Request-50-Million-to-Identify-and-Expand-Effective-Innovative-Non-Profits/)

On May 11, 2009, it was announced that the White House Office of Public Liaison is being tasked with an expanded mission, and a new name:  the Office of Public Engagement!  In his video announcement about OPE, President Obama said “This office will seek to engage as many Americans as possible in the difficult work of changing this country, through meetings and conversations with groups and individuals held in Washington and across the country.” (President Obama Launches Office of Public Engagement: A New Name, Mission for White House Liaison Office, White House Office of the Press Secretary. www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/President-Obama-Launches-Office-of-Public-Engagement/)

Then, on May 21, 2009, NCDD’s Director, Sandy Heierbacher, and dozens of other leaders of civil society organizations were invited onto a call by Greg Nelson, the Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, to discuss that day’s official launch of the Open Government Initiative and the start of “online public engagement on the open government recommendations.”  We were told in the email invitation and on the call that the participation of our organizations and our networks in crafting the recommendations is critically important.

The NCDD community got involved in force, submitting numerous ideas for the Open Government Directive in addition to adding comments and voting on the proposals that had been posted.  As of June 1, Sandy Heierbacher’s post about the Core Principles for Public Engagement being adopted by federal agencies was sixth in number of favorable votes—out of nearly 1600 posts.  Other NCDD members in the top 20 at the time were AmericaSpeaks’ Joe Goldman and Suzanna Hass Lyons (with proposals that emerged from the Champions of Participation meetings) and Christine Whitney Sanchez, who is proposing a national network of citizen conversation called “Promise USA.”

This was the first of three phases of the Open Government Dialogue (the “brainstorming” phase). The 13-page NAPA (National Academy of Public Administration) report to Beth Noveck on phase 1 of the Open Government Dialogue was released in early June, many in our community were thrilled to see the Core Principles for Public Engagement we created together listed in the report in full. The report on the Brainstorm phase said the “Grassroots/Local Civic Participation/Deliberative Democracy” group (us!) was “the largest and most well-prepared group in the Brainstorm: they were early to the table and augmented their ranks as the dialogue proceeded.”

But the report also included this statement: “Most of the ideas presented by the Deliberative Democracy group do not lend themselves to immediate action; they are, rather, general principles.”

Around this same time, in response to an idea generated during a conference call involving NCDD, IAP2, AmericaSpeaks, and a number of others, our friends at IAP2 set up a ning network at http://opengovernmentusa.ning.com/, open to all who are interested.  The original idea was to find a way to encourage people in our networks to provide feedback and input on the Open Government Dialogue process, though the conversation has not necessarily focused on critique on the ning site.

The D&D community was less involved in the second (“discussion”) and third (“drafting”) phases of the Open Government Dialogue, though we saw some ideas from our colleagues gain impressive amounts of support in all three phases and we hope to see many of our community’s ideas, principles and values reflected in the final Open Government Directive.

For decades, public engagement practitioners in the U.S. have been working outside and around government, having limited success embedding dialogic and deliberative practices into local government and other institutions.  The new developments outlined above are providing those working in our field with an unprecedented amount of hope and possibility, along with a healthy amount of doubt and cynicism.  Time will tell whether public engagement principles and practices will truly become embedded in U.S. governance at the national level.

We will do our best at NCDD to continue to keep this community up-to-date and in-the-know about these developments. In the meantime, we encourage you to get involved in the Democracy Communication Network‘s current op-ed campaign.  NCDD is working with AmericaSpeaks, Everyday Democracy, the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, the League of Women Voters and others to encourage leaders in public engagement to write op-eds and letters to the editor to their local papers  about the Open Government Initiative.  Posts to blogs, newsletters, etc. are also welcome.

This is an extraordinary time for our field, and as the Open Government Initiative nears its end, we have a unique opportunity to emphasize the programs and policies that we hope will be part of the directive – and to raise public awareness of the fact that we are being given an unprecedented opportunity to have a say in how government works. Learn more about this at www.ncdd.org/rc/item/4910 – where we’ll be keeping track of what people have written.

We are also working with these same groups and others to conduct an evaluation of sorts on the three phases of the Open Government Dialogue, and to provide guidance on future online engagement efforts.  Greg Nelson of the White House Office of Public Engagement has already agreed to a meeting with some of us about how we can best provide guidance and feedback.  We will be surveying the community about their involvement in the dialogue and suggestions for improvement soon.

Sandy Heierbacher is the director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD). She co-founded NCDD in 2002 with her husband Andy Fluke. Sandy has an M.A. in International Management from SIT Graduate Institute. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Thanks Sandy for putting this summary together. It helps to have it in one place. The groups with which I'm associated, the Institute of Cultural Affairs and the Technology of Participation Trainer's Network, responded to NCDD's initiative and sent a letter to the Administration, supporting the values for public engagement. Having a clear, consistent voice and an organization that keeps track of actual practice are only two of the many benefits of membership in and supporting of NCDD.

  2. Thank you Sandy and NCDD for your leadership and representation of our membership to the Obama administration and your collaboration efforts with IAP2 and the Co-Intelligence Institute. And I am happy to mention that our own efforts here in the greater-Seattle area were also given a passing acknowledgement in the same NAPA report that reported the Core Principles.

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