Obama’s Open Government Initiative


Richard Moore

Bcc: interested parties
As with all of Obama’s agendas, this Open Government Initiative is accompanied by a very appealing PR message. Of course we all want more public participation in policy formation. And in the report below, we see that some very good organizations, well-meaning organizations, are signing up to participate in this initiative. Organizations like America Speaks, who have been successful in creating effective discussion forums among ordinary people on important issues.
In order to anticipate what this initiative is about, we need to evaluate it in the context of Obama’s administration, which has clearly shown itself to be a government of, by, and for the financial-corporate oligarchy. I’m reminded here of the ‘consensus process’ that has been used to defuse the environmental movement. Environmental groups are invited to discuss projects with developer representatives, and the consequence has been co-option.
We read below from the director of the initiative, “We’re interested in what we (the administration) can do for civic engagement organizations, and what we can do for each other.” Which most likely means: we’ll help you organize public forums (ie, much-desired funding), and you can thereby help us legitimize our programs. One can imagine what federally-supported forums will be like. In order to meet guidelines of  ‘objectivity’ and ‘relevance’, they are likely to be sterile affairs, with dialog kept well within the administration-and-media-defined box of ideas. 
The objective, from the administration’s perspective, is to achieve a pseudo-endorsement ‘by the people’ of a pre-existing agenda. Already Obama has an agency to manage his ‘Internet army’, in order to achieve an ‘endorsement’ from the online dialog world, and here we see him seeking to co-opt the face-to-face dialog world as well.

Summary of Listening Session with Obama’s Open Government Initiative    

I was invited by Beth Noveck, the director of Obama’s open government initiative, to attend a meeting last Wednesday (March 11) at the White House Conference Center.  The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy was the official convener of this “informal listening session on the implementation of the President’s Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.”  According to the email inviting me to attend, the session would focus “on the process of crafting the recommendations called for in the Memorandum.   Specifically, we invite you 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.”

There were only about 12 organizations represented at this meeting, so it was quite the honor to be there.  Demos, the Personal Democracy Forum, the Cato Institute, AmericaSpeaks, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, IAP2, the Partnership for Public Service, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), the National Civic League, the League of Women Voters and the National Academy of Public Administration all had representatives there.

The meeting began a little after 3:00 and ended around 4:20 because Beth had to get to another meeting.  After an initial round of introductions, Beth framed the meeting for about 10 minutes.  Then we spent all but the last minute of the meeting going around the conference table one by one, sharing what our organizations could offer the administration’s efforts, and what current efforts we’re involved in that could feed into the Open Goverment Directive she’s in charge of creating.

Michele G. Heffner, Director of the Interagency Policy and Management Division of GSA (U.S. General Services Administration), was present and took the official notes of the meeting.  Robert Flaak, Director of the GSA Office of Governmentwide Policy was also present, as were two other staff whose names I didn’t catch.

Here are my notes from the meeting:

Beth Noveck’s Initial Framing

We’re looking at how we can create a “21st century government.”  We’re interested in what we (the administration) can do for civic engagement organizations, and what “we can do for each other.”  It’s important to figure out what we can do together, because we have a huge agenda, and not enough time, money or staff.  “So you have to help.”

The open governance initiative will soon have a public website where you can submit information to us.  We’ve started an interagency discussion process already.

Nothing I say at this meeting about the .gov side should be taken as final or policy.

We’re looking for ideas and recommendations on how to create a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative government. We want to know about events and happenings we can learn from or be involved in.  We’re interested in principles for this work.  We need to draft recommendations and craft ideas for specific projects in agencies (example: National Academy of Public Administration’s currrent work with the EPA).

We’re currently in a brainstorming period, which is open to all.  In mid-April, we’ll need to drill down to specifics (mechanisms for implementing goals) for the drafting phase of the open governance directive.  Our goal for the finished product is May 21st.

The more detailed and concrete your advice and ideas, the better. We need explicit commitment to participation, collaboration and transparency. We don’t need organizations coming to us and saying “we love transparency!”

We are approaching this challenge from different angles:

  1. Policy / legislative agenda
  2. Technical issues like identity management (sign-ons on government websites, usability issues)
  3. Cultural issues, like getting people comfortable with a participatory agenda, with participation earlier in the decision-making process
  4. Implementation issues. Science advisory boards are an example of an older model that has been replicated widely. “What are the new models of participation?” And how can we best achieve them?
  5. Accessibility – regarding both online participation as well as offline (Beth emphasized that they are not just focused on online participation)

Beth expressed particular interest in hearing (1) what our organizations can offer the open governance initiative, (2) what are our current projects and upcoming events that are related to the initiative, and (3) what ideas we have for collaborative projects with the initiative or projects all the organizations present could work on collaboratively.

Notes from Participants’ Comments

(not representative of what was said; just some things I took note of)

Lara Shane, Partnership for Public Service
– we can help with creating a system of measurement for programmatic success
– we are involved in inspiring the next generation of service

Chris Gates, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement
– the foundations that are members of PACE have a long history of looking at proposals, and looking at what’s effective
– we are about to publish a document about civic engagement experiments in local government
– knowledge about a variety of new methods of civic engagement

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, AmericaSpeaks
– have experience in the convening role. Convened 45 federal managers in 2007 and we are about to hold another “Champions of Participation” gathering during last week in March, bringing them back together and adding some new people as well (invited Beth to be part of this, and even be the official convenor if interested)
– also involved in federal web managers conference at end of April
– can help you use existing networks to further extend what you’re doing (Carolyn pointed to NCDD as another group that can do this)
– people in the field are “ready to be partners of the administration to make this happen”; we recognize the incredible opportunity here for our field, and how different this is than what we’re used to
– we have the experience to help you think through design choices in public engagement efforts
– we’d love to do a pilot project on a pressing issue (example: food security) working across all agencies

Archon Fung, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government
– Sorry!  I was next, and was too busy deciding what I was going to say to take notes on Archon’s comments (though I noticed they were intimidatingly good!)

Sandy Heierbacher, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation
– I’ll summarize my comments below

Mica Sifry, Personal Democracy Forum
– we’re doing work on the cultural side of things, so we wouldn’t contribute to the technical side or drafting
– PDF conference at the end of June (29th and 30th) in New York, called “we.gov”
– we’re at a moment where what the President does is symbolically of high impact and import
– they’re joining up with The Nation and the Washington Times to create an open communication platform called Ask A Question (to the president), which will send a representative to ever press conference to represent “the people” by asking the most popular question identified.  A joint article will come out on March 18th.
– May 4-10 is Public Service Recognition Week, so there might be some opportunities for collaboration there

Jim Harper, Cato Institute and washingtonwatch.com
– we had a “just give us the data” conference, so that should give you an idea of our priorities
– washingtonwatch.com is like the Library of Congress’ THOMAS database site, but with a friendlier skin; I admit there is a natural self-selection process for people who don’t trust government
– wants to see good, clean access to data
– concerned about privacy issues with identity management (privacy-oriented people won’t participate if they feel the government is tracking them, so anonymity should be an option)

Gloria Rubio Cortes, National Civic League
– All American Cities awards event in Tampa June 17-19 (recognizing local government gives people a “civic booster shot”)

Miles Rappaport, Demos
– this is a remarkable moment; we’ve always been asking the question “how do we take this to scale?” and having this work marbled into our government processes is always the answer – but it’s never been within our grasp before
– a civically engaged government would take leadership in eliminating barriers to voter registration, and other things that make participation difficult
– we need to “institutionalize this ongoing relationship between the administration and this field of practice” (yay, Miles!)

Grant Mclaughlin, IAP2 and Booz Allen Hamilton
– we can offer quality training to public officials and others
– good people in government who want to do the right stuff often fall into the decide-announce-defend mentality because it’s easier, and they just don’t know how to lead effective participation efforts

Nancy Tate, League of Women Voters
– Sunshine Week next week (March 15-21) is a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information
– we can offer a kind of “observer corps” that ensures accountability

Lena Trudeau, National Academy of Public Administration
– we focus on how government works internally; how government is able to innovate and solve problems
– NAPA fellows program (several fellows were in the room)
– The Collaboration Project, which brings people together across government who are doing things effectively. Collected cases which outlined the problem being tackled, the approach used, what was learned, and what ROI they are able to document.
– March 26th from noon to 2:00, presentation followed by moderated discussion at their offices in DC
– Collaboration Project website can be sectioned off for private work
– have a national dialogue platform that they used to run a national health IT and privacy dialogue (worked with AmericaSpeaks) (www.thenationaldialogue.org)

Summary of My Comments

1.  NCDD is an active network of process leaders who are VERY interested in helping and have the needed expertise and skills (over 1100 members, including leading organizations in the field).  We keep in touch monthly with over 25,000 people involved in public engagement and conflict resolution work, so we can help get a lot of people signed up as facilitators and convenors when the administration calls for national dialogue.

2.  NCDD is a network of not only the leading organizations in public engagement that people are familiar with (accomplished organizations like AmericaSpeaks, Everyday Democracy, Public Agenda, National Issues Forums, etc.), but also many people doing cutting edge work that hasn’t yet established a clear track record or gained national renown.  If the administration is really interested in NEW methods of participation, we can help them look beyond just the “usual suspects” so this is an opportunity to launch the public engagement field to a whole new level.

3.  Our website houses a resource database of over 2000 case studies, dialogue guides, various dialogue and deliberation approaches, resources on tackling specific issues, etc., so we can work with the initiative to provide whatever resources it needs on public engagement.

4.  NCDD has a collaborative spirit and strong connections in this field. We’re often working with organizations like IAP2, which might ordinarily be seen as our competitor.  We’re currently working with IAP2, the Co-Intelligence Institute and others to identify a set of principles for public engagement we can all get behind.  With new attention and emphasis on collaboration, participation, and transparency thanks to the leadership and vision of the Obama administration, we feel it is more important than ever to provide clarity about what we consider to be quality public engagement.  (I passed out copies of the latest draft, and invited everyone to participate in the project atwww.thataway.org/2009/pep_project).