Open Government Initiative – Phase 2: Enhancing Citizen Engagement

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The Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative has been holding its second phase at the blog of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The initial brainstorming phase has generated hundreds of ideas and comments relating to five major categories: Transparency, Participation, Collaboration, Capacity Building and Legal and Policy Challenges. While there have been problems with this first part of the online process (see comments here and here), the brainstorming phase has produced an abundance of good ideas for further discussion and refinement.

That is the purpose of Phase II, which is using the blog structure as a platform for comment. The initial posts by White House staff presented a wrap-up summary for each of the major brainstorming categories. In particular, a series of posts during the week of June 11 sought comments on several aspects of public participation, including one devoted to Enhancing Citizen Participation in Decision-Making. There were more than 60 thoughtful responses to that post. The comments highlighted several basic issues that need to be addressed if public engagement in government is to be really meaningful.

Here is a brief summary of ideas I have pulled together from some of these comments. Since I want to focus on the ideas – and have in several cases linked related concepts from different posts, I will not attribute the ideas in this form to individual contributors. Hopefully, this brief review will encourage readers to look at the comments and ideas in their original form. Future Cross Collaborate posts will take a close look at two projects referred to in the OSTP comments. These are the Australian Citizens’ Parliament and initiatives by Roger Bernier (a major contributor to the blog discussion) at the Centers for Disease Control.

  1. Because people often view governance as something done to them, reconnecting citizens with government should be a high priority. It’s important to find ways to define both the rights and responsibilities of citizens that would allow them to take on the role of co-governors of their communities. An example is the Australian Citizens Parliament that consists of an online component followed by an in-person conference in Canberra. For details see the website of Citizens’ Parliament.

  2. Before addressing methods and techniques of public participation, the discussion should focus first on answering key questions about what it is, why it should done and how and when it should be used. Until there is better understanding of the “big picture,” there can be no agreement of what constitutes best practices or how to evaluate various forms of participation.

  3. There are many forms of public interaction or participation that are too passive and limited to provide really useful information for government decision-making when competing values are at stake. Public hearings, surveys, comment periods or focus groups fall into this category. Public engagement should be the term reserved for meaningful involvement where government does not have the answer and a pending decision can be informed by the deliberation and agreement of citizens. To work, government must want to learn from the public, commit to considering the ideas developed through a deliberative process and provide feedback to citizens to indicate how their contributions have affected the decision.

  4. Both online and in-person methods of engaging citizens have their advantages and disadvantages. The best approach would be to combine both.

  5. Achieving clarity of purpose regarding public engagement is difficult for most government agencies because the officials sponsoring the events and other staff do not agree on the value of involving citizens. An internal process to reach commonality of purpose should be conducted prior to attempting public engagement.

  6. Given the difficulty for many cash-strapped agencies to pay for increased levels of engagement, collaborative approaches are needed to enhance public capacity to facilitate these events. This can be achieved by retaining professional facilitators who commit to training local community members and by creating peer support groups to enable citizens to support each other in building capacity to manage engagement processes.

  7. Citizen capacity to engage with government effectively is an additional need for the enhancement of public engagement. Educational materials on the issues should be provided, but by themselves are too limited to convey to citizens the intensity of controversy. Such materials should be supplemented by facilitated dialogue with groups of many perspectives. These sessions would also be opportunities for enhancing citizens’ abilities to express and support their own views while learning how to listen carefully to others. There should also be more public discussions and debates among public officials to spread interest about key issues.

  8. Public engagement has to fully represent the ordinary citizens who are most affected by a pending decision. The process should not be limited to those individuals already practiced in working with government and trying to influence its policies. Intentional inclusion of a broad range of perspectives and life experiences is more likely to produce helpful outcomes.

  9. Better information contributes to transparency, but improved transparency results when public agencies also assure the clarity of that information. Plain language underlies the faith people have in their government and shapes their willingness to participate. [Plain language is a term of art referring to the use of grammatical structure, vocabulary and style designed to assure access by readers of all educational levels. – editor]

  10. This process is the start of a culture shift toward valuing public participation. The public wants to be engaged but often doesn’t know how. Institutions should be created to support grass roots efforts to increase public involvement. At the moment, most government officials do not make a priority out of encouraging citizen involvement. Both the public and the public sector agencies need to be educated about how to build institutional support to enhance engagement activities.

  11. Most discussion of public engagement assumes that a group of citizens can agree on a policy to resolve a public problem, as if there were a direct causal connection between the two. In reality, a great many issues cannot be dealt with adequately by new policy because they are systemic in nature. We need a good way to distinguish problems requiring different strategies. For the systemic issues, there is a need to assist the public in learning how to take action beyond deliberation regarding policy.

  12. The most important incentive for citizens to participate comes from taking part as policy partners at every stage of the process. The federal government should offer citizen assemblies that bring people together with government officials in every congressional district. This work should be funded collaboratively by the government in partnership with foundations, private business, individuals and institutions of civil society. A process of this sort could institutionalize the engagement of federal policy makers and a cross section of ordinary citizens.

This is just a sample of idea and comments on one dimension of public participation, and that in turn is only one of the five categories that have attracted hundreds of suggestions. It will take a long time for the White House – as well as the rest of us – to sort through this material and determine priorities for implementation. Cross Collaborate will be tracking major developments of the Open Government Initiative in future posts.

Please let us know about your thoughts and reactions to the Open Government Dialogue process.

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