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5th DCN Topic: The Open Government Initiative

This was the fifth topic focused on by the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in dialogue and deliberation to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of collaborative media campaigns that raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see all the great articles that were written in association with this project. Also see the General Tips for Writing Op-Ed Articles.

For our fifth round of letters to the editor, members of the Democracy Communications Network are writing to their local newspapers about the White House’s Open Government Initiative.

Introduction

In his first three months in office, President Obama committed to create an Open Government Directive for all federal agencies, hosted the first virtual town hall from the White House, directed the Attorney General to develop new guidelines for agency responsiveness to FOIA requests, created the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, and experimented broadly with the use of online technologies to increase transparency and participation.

These are exciting times for advocates for a stronger democracy. As the process for providing input to the President’s Open Government Directive nears its end, we have a unique opportunity to celebrate the process and emphasize the programs and policies that we hope will be part of the directive. We are being given an unprecedented opportunity to have a say in how government works. What does this mean for our country, our work? What are the opportunities? The pitfalls? Now is the time to bring what primarily has been an on-line input process into the mainstream media. Please join us in writing op-eds, letters to the editor and blog posts about the efforts of the federal government to redesign itself according to democratic principles.

The Context

On his first full day in office, President Obama called for the creation of an Open Government Directive that would require all federal agencies to become more transparent, participatory and collaborative (www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/TransparencyandOpenGovernment/). In May, the Open Government Initiative launched an unprecedented public process to involve the public in shaping the directive (www.whitehouse.gov/open/). The three-step process is coming to a close at the end of June.

Now is a great opportunity for democracy reform advocates and champions to raise awareness about this important effort and emphasize the importance of including reforms that will create comprehensive change in how our government support public participation and collaboration.

You can also download a list of Open Government FAQs we prepared about the Open Government Initiative.

Sample Messages for Your Op-Ed or Letter to the Editor

It is up to you to write about whatever key message you would like.

In general, our hope is that articles will not be critiques about the Open Government Dialogue itself, but rather that they use the close of the Open Government Dialogue as an opportunity to talk about the importance of the president’s commitment, our vision for what government can and should be, and the reforms that must be made to reach that change.

To help jog your thinking, here are examples of messages that you may wish to focus on…

1. CELEBRATION: The President’s Directive is an Exciting Step Forward

Historic Commitment: On his first full day in office, President Obama committed to make the federal government more open and transparent through a directive that will require all federal agencies to do more to involve the public in planning and policy making. The President should be congratulated for demonstrating his commitment to open government by using an unprecedented process to solicit public involvement in the development of his Open Government Initiative through an online dialogue that will conclude at the end of this month.

Change in Tone: After eight years characterized by secrecy and claims of executive privilege, it is refreshing to see this new commitment to open up the government…

Importance of Involving the Public: The founding vision of our country – to create a government of the people, by the people and for the people – has floundered in recent years as the number of people who believe our government represents their interests has dwindled to embarrassing depths and the ability of our leaders in Washington to find common ground positions on our greatest challenges has virtually disappeared. While historic events, like the aftermath of 9/11, have occasionally bought the nation together and temporarily restored the promise of our democracy, the institutional barriers that divide the public from the nation’s governance process have only increased over time. The President’s commitment to create a more open and participatory government has the potential to reverse these trends.

2. CAUTION: The Directive Should Not Focus Solely on Technology

Focus on the Internet: To date, most interest in open government has focused on the Internet. Indeed, the web’s potential to increase transparency and create new venues for public involvement are exciting. Already, the incremental experimentation by the White House for using the Internet to expose the public to government data represents a great leap forward for how the Federal government can interact with the American people. A continued commitment by the new Administration to provide easy access to information about decision making and opportunities for public input is an important component of the change we need. But it is not enough.

The Change We Need: True reform of our government will require the federal government to offer the public with opportunities to get involved that go beyond the Internet for at least two reasons. First, not everyone has equal access or ability to participate online. Second, some of the best forms of participation and collaboration can’t occur online.

3. VISION: Reforms that Should be Part of the Open Government Directive

Changing the Culture of Government: To create a more open federal government, it will be necessary to change the culture of agencies. All too often, federal employees believe that reaching out to and involving the public will create more work for them and offer little value. New programs to train employees in the skills of public facilitation and collaboration are needed, as well as incentives to encourage federal managers to take chances by performing their jobs in new ways.
Hold Agencies Accountable for Reaching the Goals of Open Government: Every federal agency should be required to spell out what programs and policies it will put in place to reach the President’s goal of an open and transparency government. Agencies and federal managers should be held accountable by the White House for enacting these plans and rewarded for meeting their goals. An annual award should celebrate innovators in the federal government who have gone beyond the call of duty to engage the public.

Encourage Greater Participation by Local and State Governments: Many important policies and decisions that impact people’s lives occur at the local and state levels of government. The Open Government Initiative could make a great contribution to strengthening our democracy by offering resources and guidance to local and state governments for becoming more open. The creation of an Open Government Commission, for example, could offer local governments with a set of criteria for qualifying for an Open Government Seal of Approval that testifies to the steps they have taken to engage the public.

Remove Barriers that Prevent Public Participation and Collaboration: Many agencies are have a difficult time involving the public in their shaping their programs and policies because of how various federal laws and rules are interpreted, like the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The Obama Administration should conduct a comprehensive review of all laws and rules that are barriers to open government and identify actions that can be taken to address these barriers.

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