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Updates on Open Gov Activities

As NCDD’s representative to the White House’s Open Government Initiative, I have attended some informative meetings and phone calls in the past month.  The purpose of this blog post is to share information about how you can get engaged and to hear your ideas for how NCDD can help to continue shaping the Open Government Initiative.

The hub of open government activity at the federal level is the US’s action plan of 26 commitments to the international Open Government Partnership. The commitments that are most relevant for NCDD are:

  1. “Promote Public Participation in Government” which includes (a) launch the We the People petition platform and (b) develop best practices and metrics for public participation
  2. “Encourage Communication between Government Officials and Citizen-Experts” which includes ExpertNet.

Before diving into the three commitments, I want to say that I am impressed by the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s dedication to a robust and prolonged engagement with the NGOs that have assembled to provide continued input on the Administration’s action plan. The meeting that I attended two days ago was apparently their 13th such meeting. Most of the other meetings are focused on transparency initiatives such as the Freedom of Information Act (how to speed up the process for making government documents public) and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (a voluntary initiative where governments worldwide to publish the money they accept from oil, gas, and mining companies).

NCDD member Wayne Burke of the Open Forum Foundation has been working with OpenTheGovernment.Org to coordinate NGOs’ collaboration with the Administration on all 26 commitments in the US action plan for the Open Government Partnership.  Here are all the people and organizations who were invited to help with the two commitments related to public participation:

  • David Stern, AmericaSpeaks
  • Phil Ashlock, Open Plans
  • Lucas Cioffi, National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation
  • Anil Dash, Expert Labs
  • Peter Levine, Tufts University/CIRCLE
  • Tina Nabatchi, Syracuse University
  • Tom Steinberg, MySociety.org
  • Carmen Siriani, Brandeis University

David Stern of AmericaSpeaks has done a fantastic job keeping this group on task since it was created in February.

1.a) We the People Petition Platform

This was the first action item that the working group addressed.  We opened up a public brainstorm on what improvements to the White House’s petition site (We the People) which received 24 ideas, many of which were described in-depth.  White House staff were actively watching the brainstorm evolve over the weeks that it was open.  We highlighted some of the key ideas in this summary which we forwarded to the White House.  I wish the We the People platform was a starting point for deliberation, but it’s not intended for that purpose.  Perhaps that will change in the future.

1.b) Develop Best Practices and Metrics for Public Participation

To fulfill their commitment, the White House requested input on best practices and metrics for public participation in December ’11.  I announced that on the NCDD blog at that time.  I requested that the White House publicize the information they received so that NCDD and other organizations can learn from all the good ideas that were submitted.  If they are released, I will be sure to announce them on this blog.

NCDD and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium submitted an 8-page joint statement on January 2, 2012 in response to this request. See the blog post at www.ncdd.org/6591 for full details and for the 20+ comments on the post. The statement includes a constructive critique of the White House’s open gov efforts, as well as direct responses to the questions in the White House request.

I don’t think there will be any additional movement on this commitment.  Do you think there should be more action on this commitment?  The folks at the White House are certainly busy, so I’d have to make the case that it would be worth their time.  Perhaps publicizing the findings would be helpful for federal agencies that are opening up to public participation, but I believe that releasing their findings in more of a raw form to the public would allow organizations like NCDD to filter through the findings and incorporate the best ideas into our resource center and our thinking.

2) Launch ExpertNet

ExpertNet will be a platform for government agencies to harness the expertise that is distributed across America.  This is the commitment that I’m interested in, because it has the potential to influence how we make decisions as a nation.  The concept ExpertNet was proposed and opened to public feedback by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) around December 2010 here.  That link has expired, but OSTP indicated at this week’s meeting that they will likely be able to reactivate the public feedback at that link so that it is visible again.  We found another page that outlines the White House’s thinking about ExpertNet here.

The first half of Tuesday’s meeting was about Data.gov, the platform for releasing raw government data, which I view as a successful program.  The second half of Tuesday’s meeting was about ExpertNet.  I’ll give credit to OSTP for making the meeting productive with an open and honest approach.  I’m not just saying this to be nice; I’ve been critical in previous opengov meetings with other White House offices, but this one was worth applauding.

Here are the important notes that achieved consensus during the meeting:

  • The best way to build ExpertNet will likely be in partnership with the private sector.
  • Existing platforms such as Quora and Stack Exchange should be harnessed, and they prove that the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented.  My thought: those are Q&A tools and it would also be useful to have deliberative tools for ExpertNet along with surveys and tools for brainstorming.
  • There are many existing communities of practice which should be harnessed.
  • There should be a way to differentiate facts from opinions.
  • There should be a way to ensure consistent branding to prevent people from pretending to represent the government when asking the public a question on social networks.
  • Government employees are not used to engaging with the public, so that will have to change to make the system most effective.
  • One way to ensure quality is to enable people to build reputation in the system.
  • Next Step:  Anil Dash is likely to take the next step with ExpertNet by connecting with toolmakers that are interested in being involved in ExpertNet.  To manage everyone’s expectations, I should point out that there is no funding for ExpertNet, and if it is to get built, it will likely need funding from foundations or the private sector.

If more notes are published by other participants of the April 24th meeting, I will link to them from here.

OK!  That’s enough typing for now.  Please add your questions and suggestions.

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Lucas Cioffi
Lucas Cioffi graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Having served one year in Baghdad as an infantry officer, he realizes the need for effective dialogue and deliberation in preventing conflict. He is passionate about advanced online deliberative platforms and is co-founder of AthenaBridge.com.

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  1. Thank you so much for writing this detailed update, Lucas! It’s important to me that we do our best to keep the NCDD community informed about these open gov efforts.

    I find it very ironic that the White House put out a call for best practices and metrics for public participation as part of its open gov efforts, yet failed to be transparent about the data that was received and how the data would be used. Their call for best practices and metrics was so frustrating for people in our field — we were given just a few weeks to respond (and over the holidays, with a due date of January 3rd!), their online form didn’t work so sending them an email was the only way to respond to their call, and no email response was sent to those who did submit something by email. In the end, it seemed like a disingenuous request, and something only meant to fulfill a requirement (or check a box).

    Do you think it would be worth it for us as a community or organization to formally request that their input be shared (even in raw form)? We could offer to help them make sense of it, perhaps. Or just tell them we’ll share some of the best practices and metrics with people in our field for educational purposes.

    It sounds like you already made that request — perhaps verbally at one of the meetings you attended? It’s difficult to know when it’s worth following through with something more formal, and when we’d just be making ourselves look like complainers.

    I’m reminded again about the Core Principles for Public Engagement (www.ncdd.org/pep), and what a useful guideline they could be in situations like this. Asking for best practices and metrics was a mini engagement project. Was it transparent? Carefully planned? Linked to action? The Core Principles could be used to point out in a helpfully (not snarkily) way that the effort may not have met some basic standards for public engagement?

  2. John Backman says:

    Lucas,

    This is a great summary, and I’m so glad you’re engaged in this effort: any opportunity to work meaningfully with the White House seems worth the time and energy to me. I agree with you that ExpertNet in particular has potential, and the points you addressed in the meeting are essential to making it work.

    One question: at the beginning of your post, you mentioned that the purpose was (in part) to “share information about how you can get engaged.” Can you provide some more specific ways that NCDD members can support this effort?

  3. Evan Thomas Paul says:

    Lucas,

    Thank you very much for this excellent summary. It’s immensely valuable for those of us who have projects that could leverage / be impacted by the Administration’s work in this area.

    Evan

  4. Megan says:

    Lucas this was great. Please keep me in the loop on any next steps. I’ve posted some suggestions to the OGP’s strategic planning process that you might like to read over for future meetings. Basically I’d like the process to be more inclusive and to provide a forum for the different Federal Agencies to weigh in, as well as different countries who might like to launch something similar.

    http://blog.opengovpartnership.org/2012/08/open-government-partnership-strategic-plan-comments/

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