Administration Seeks Public Input on Open Government

Starting May 21, the Obama administration began to make good on the president's goal of "work[ing] together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration," as expressed in his Jan. 21 memorandum on transparency and open government.

The memo called for recommendations to the president for an Open Government Directive that will instruct federal agencies how to implement the administration's transparency principles. The memo established a May 21 deadline for the recommendations, but delay occurred due to vacancies among the key appointees responsible for the recommendations' development, most notably the Chief Technology Officer, Aneesh Chopra. On the deadline, the administration instead formally outlined the process by which those recommendations will be crafted.

Spearheaded by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the administration initiated a project called the "Open Government Initiative." In announcing the initiative, the administration stated, "Consistent with the President's mandate, we want to be fully transparent in our work, participatory in soliciting your ideas and expertise, and collaborative in how we experiment together to use new tools and techniques for developing open government policy."

Phase One began on May 21 and was scheduled to run for one week. This first phase consisted of a brainstorming session in which individuals could post ideas and vote on one another's suggestions on a website hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration. So far, more than 1,400 ideas for improvement have been posted across several categories, including transparency, participation, collaboration, capacity building, and legal and policy challenges.

Phase Two, an online discussion of "the most compelling ideas from the brainstorming," is scheduled to begin June 3. According to the administration, the discussion is "designed to dig in on harder topics that require greater exploration or refinement." The discussion will also include ideas generated in an online dialogue with federal agency employees. Comments from federal employees are available to the public on the OSTP website.

June 15 will see the beginning of the third phase: the collaborative drafting of recommendations through a wiki. Once this process is complete, OSTP will craft formal recommendations, followed by a traditional Federal Register notice and comment period.

A major criticism of the process as a whole has been that with such a compressed schedule, reasonable ideas may not be raised, especially considering the first stage lasted only one week and included the long Memorial Day weekend. The administration addressed these concerns on May 28 – the original date for the last day of the brainstorming – by deciding to keep the brainstorm website open until June 19, after the start of the drafting phase. However, it is already selecting the ideas for the next discussion phase and has made clear that ideas submitted after May 28 might not be included.

The administration explained that the rapid process "is designed to ensure that your ideas inform the development of open government recommendations … as soon as possible" and reassured the open government community that "the process of crafting open government policy … is an ongoing effort, and your participation has been and will continue to be essential to its success."

The short time frame for the Open Government Initiative is not the only criticism of the administration's process. There has been an overall lack of clarity about the process as the administration determines how it will work as it goes along. It is unknown at this point whether this is the first iteration of what could be a new model for rulemaking or if this process merely will be tacked on to existing procedures.

Initially, participants in the open government dialogue were not informed of what the effect of voting was going to be. Because registration was not required for voting and people could vote multiple times for their ideas, participants were concerned about the process being used to select the topics for further discussion. The administration later clarified that the voting would be "instructive, [but] it will not determine which topics are discussed in the second phase." This response raised questions of its own: is this a good way to make policy, or is there a better model to reconcile an impetus for greater democratic involvement with expert opinions?

Moreover, the open government dialogue website itself is lackluster. Its search capability is extremely limited, making it difficult to compare similar ideas. If this were improved, it would be easier to build off of the ideas of others, rather than repeating something that had already been posted. Also, little guidance is provided concerning the content of the suggestions, leading to numerous ideas that are complete non sequiturs and others that, while worthwhile ideas for improving transparency and accountability, are not substantively related to executive branch policy.

As of the close of May 28, the top items had little to do with what the executive branch could do to strengthen transparency, participation, or collaboration. The top-rated item was that Congress should have a 72-hour waiting period with public disclosure before considering spending bills. The second-rated item related to making state and local governments more open. The third- and sixth-rated items related to legalizing marijuana. And the fourth-rated item was listed as “End Imperial Presidency.” These results raised the question of whether the brainstorming phase should have been moderated.

While criticism within the openness community was widespread and consistent, the same community also praised the administration for experimenting with a participatory process. This new experimental process may result in more people becoming engaged, eliciting new ideas, and creating strong momentum in developing government-wide policies for transparency, participation, and collaboration.

New Transparency Websites

In addition to the open government dialogue site, two new federal websites have been created. The OSTP Open Government Initiative website allows the submission of longer reports and policy papers. The White House has its own website dedicated to open government, including a blog with updates on the Open Government Initiative, as well as an Innovations Gallery, which highlights some of the independent efforts taken by executive branch agencies toward transparency, participation, and collaboration.

Among the featured sites in the Innovations Gallery is Launched May 21, this website consists of a collection of government datasets and tools for analyzing them. Numerous federal datasets have been difficult to find and access, but through this site, open government boosters hope an increasing number of datasets will be more easily accessible to the American people.

Much remains to be seen regarding what concrete policies will emerge from the Open Government Initiative. However, transparency as an issue is now front and center, and through this flexible and innovative process of soliciting public opinion, new ideas and new voices can be brought to the debate and the policymaking process.

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