Public Speaks on Ideas to Open Up Environmental Agencies

2/23/2010

Agencies, including those dealing with environmental and public health issues, are seeking ideas on how to improve transparency, public participation, collaboration, and innovation, and the agencies are receiving numerous suggestions. The challenge for individual agencies is to shape the diverse ideas into the strategies and goals that will comprise their Open Government Plans.

Under the Open Government Directive (OGD), the government began rolling out new agency webpages earlier in February to serve as hubs for their open government activities. As part of these pages, each agency includes a forum for the public to submit ideas, comment on others' ideas, and cast "votes" for or against specific ideas. The agencies are soliciting and grouping ideas among categories generally labeled "Transparency," "Participation," "Collaboration," "Innovation," and a category for ideas on improving the forum website.

A review of the ideas submitted by the public to four agencies with environmental or public health missions reveals that although there are numerous ideas for greater openness, they are often narrow in focus and do not consider actions that would apply across the agency. This leaves it to each agency to translate the public's recommendations into strategies that address broader issues. The open government discussion forums for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of the Interior (DOI), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Department of Energy (DOE) were reviewed for this article.

The open government websites allow users to cast votes for ideas by selecting "I agree" or "I disagree" with each posted idea. Among the ideas with the most agreement are live webcasting of EPA meetings associated with rulemakings, improving public access to Geographic Information System (GIS) data, calculating and reporting the lifecycle costs of environmental problems, improved warning labels to identify harmful chemicals in household products, publishing more research data online, and publishing the list of chemicals in commerce for free online.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA is among the top agencies in terms of volume of ideas and comments received from the public, many of which are insightful and aggressive ideas for improving transparency that will impact the public. For example, EPA received a suggestion to require public notice by a municipality that dumps untreated sewage into any waterway. Although legislation has been proposed to address this gap in the public's right to know, the commenter's idea challenges the agency to use its existing authority to find new ways to communicate health threats to the public.

Another suggestion on the EPA site called for a "One-Stop-Shop model" for data. "Right now the data is all there, you just have to go to three to five different places within the site to find out all the information about a particular [Superfund] site or a group of sites," the submitter noted.

One commenter to EPA's forum explained his belief that agencies can better communicate with the public by creating an intimate connection between the public and the data, as well as providing the tools to make that connection:

I'd start by focusing on things that are tangible to the public …Water quality comes to mind. To start with, the public needs to know that (1) water is only tested for a limited set of pollutants, etc. (2) Then they need to be informed of what the EPA is doing about it. And (3) then they need to have access to tools that will help them to learn about the subject and take on personal measures if desired.

The commenter cites the nonprofit Environmental Working Group's (EWG) online databases as excellent examples of useful tools that relate well to citizens' concerns. EWG's website provides useful information on popular concerns such as drinking water quality, health hazards of cosmetics, and chemical threats to children.

Department of Interior

At the Interior Department, the issue of management of wild horses by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has so far dominated the discussion. Despite the large volume of single-issue comments, many ideas are giving the agency much to consider while developing its Open Government Plan. Commenters are especially concerned about a "culture of secrecy" that has taken hold at the BLM. One commenter suggested that the agency should ensure that "[BLM] employees who resist this culture must have a safe and secure pathway to report grievances, and be rewarded rather than punished for their courage and integrity."

Another popular idea at the Interior Department calls for a "database of databases" – an easy-to-access public registry of all DOI databases. The commenter believes, "When citizens go to these databases, they will be able to decide for themselves whether each division is addressing subjects they care about, and living up to it's mission statement." Other commenters went beyond calling for a simple directory of databases (many of which are now available through www.data.gov) and suggested linking datasets across programs and across agencies, as well as making the data easy to search and understand.

Department of Agriculture

One suggestion to the USDA is to provide easier access to data on violations of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which prohibits various human activities such as motor vehicle use on public lands designated as wilderness (USDA houses the U.S. Forest Service). This particular issue goes beyond USDA because wilderness lands are managed by several units within the Department of the Interior as well, which highlights a challenge of the Open Government Plans – cross-agency issues and data.

The suggestion to disclose the dataset of Wilderness Act violations also highlights another challenge agencies face – identifying which datasets are of high value to the public. The USDA, and other agencies, should consider those datasets mentioned most or even voted most popular for disclosure. In many cases, the public might not be aware of what datasets the government possesses. The USDA Open Government Plan should address how to provide not just the dataset specified by this commenter, but all datasets possessed by the agency and ways to work across agencies to link related datasets.

Department of Energy

The discussion forum for the Department of Energy's Open Government Plan is poorly moderated. Whereas at EPA and DOI, the forum moderators actively keep discussions on topic and encourage productive discussion threads, the DOE site is allowed to be populated primarily by off-topic ideas.

Despite sound, relevant suggestions to publicly webcast DOE meetings and restore access to the unclassified technical report library at Los Alamos National Laboratory, most comments seek to win support and federal funding for the "next big thing" in renewable energy technologies rather than address how DOE can be a more open and collaborative agency. With posts titled "I have an idea for an electric car. However no funding" and calls to "Kill DOE" because the agency is "a worthless enterprise," the forum is not being exploited as successfully as in other environmental agencies.

Although most of the postings by the monitor of the EPA's online forum merely explain why a particular idea or comment was moved to the "off-topic area" of the site, the agency's active use of a forum moderator has helped spread crucial information. One commenter suggested EPA be more involved in online social media, such as Facebook. The moderator replied, "EPA has been involved in FaceBook and other Social Media for some time now" and directed the participants to the EPA's social media website.

Common Themes

Each environmental agency also received calls for greater fiscal transparency, including ways to easily track where grants and contracts are awarded and what goals were met or missed by the recipients. Other ideas that were common to more than one agency include training agency workers in new technologies and methods for public outreach ("The entire DOI workforce needs to be brought up [to] speed from the Managers and Directors at the top down to the employees in the field"), greater release of agency e-mail communications, and improved monitoring of environmental trends and agency progress toward meeting goals.

Expanding use of GIS systems and the public's ability to use such systems also is a popular idea among the several discussion forums. According to one commenter, "As they say, 'a picture is worth a thousand words,' so why not disseminate information contained in the hundreds and hundreds of stove-piped DOI databases, systems & applications, etc. to the public through more complete cross-cutting spatial viewers and portals."

The agencies are accepting ideas until March 19. Users must create an account, which requires an e-mail address and password, before comments, ideas, or votes will be accepted. Each Open Government Plan is to be published on the agency's open government webpage by April 7.