Friday, January 6, 2012

My Response: White House asks for OpenGov "Best Practices & Metrics"

Here's my letter (below) in response to last month's White House request for input on "best practices and metrics" for Public Participation as it relates to its Open Government initiative, esp. as an element of the recent "U.S. National Action Plan".

Basically, in the letter I say that (1) after 3 years of "OpenGov" effort, their standard approach to "public consultation" is much less open than all other federal agencies have been doing for decades prior, and (2) if they are sincere about seeking out the wisdom of experts on this topic, then they are welcome to consult with knowledgeable people at the online forum (an email-list that I moderate) called "OpenGovMetrics".

If they do, then that may be a first because, except for interviews with me on OpenGov Radio, the only time over the past 3 years that I've seen the White House's "OpenGov" team participating in anything like an online discussion is when I watch streaming video of one of them speaking to an audience at a conference or other staged meeting.

Feel free to leave a comment (below the letter) and/or join the email-group for a deeper discussion on the development of standard metrics for measuring progress in "Open Government", i.e., Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration.

You don't have to use the website to join the email-group. Just send an empty message to:

Stephen Buckley

P.S. Another option is to follow the tweets at @OpenGovMetrics.

(letter begins)

Via Email:
January 3, 2012

Mr. Aneesh Chopra
United States Chief Technology Officer
Office of Science and Technology Policy
Executive Office of the President
725 17th Street, N.W.
Room 5228
Washington, DC 20502

Dear Mr. Chopra,

This letter is in response to your request on the White House Blog for recommendations for promoting public participation in government, as a part of implementing the U.S. Open Government National Action Plan.  You stated:

"Given the focus of this initiative, we thought it would be most appropriate to invite you to provide input and ideas on best practices and metrics for public participation .."
It is heartening for me to see, almost 3 years after the President signed his "Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government" (1/21/09), that you and others at the White House are more fully understanding what people like me have been trying to tell you since the beginning of the OpenGov Dialogue when you arrived in 2009.

That is, in order to assess the progress of its Open Government efforts (i.e., for more "Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration"), the White House needs to decide on how to measure those three elements. I agree with the AmericaSpeaks report when it says the "Open Government Initiative and most federal agency plans have failed to offer standards for what constitutes high-quality public participation."

The concept of establishing a starting point (baseline) is not hard to grasp. Everyone who's ever been on a diet to lose weight knows that you're supposed to weigh yourself .. in the beginning. The numbers on the weight-scale are in pounds or kilograms (or whatever) that were developed as standard units of measurement. Step on the scale next week so you can see if you're making progress.  Some people, of course, don't want to know the truth.

But compared to weight-loss, the "OpenGov" changes in government culture are incredibly slow and subtle, so you shouldn't be relying on friends to tell you when you're "looking good" (which tends to happen anyway when you work at the White House). You need to discern and gather objective proof because, eventually, people (like your Chief Performance Officer) will say "Show me the data."

So how do we go forward from here? How do we, as citizens interested in Open Government, participate in collaborating with you (and others at the White House) in order to come up with some good indicators of "public participation"?  Although your blog-post mentions last summer's "extensive consultations with external stakeholders", the truth is that only a couple dozen guests were invited by the White House to a few closed-door meetings for input to the U.S. OpenGov National Action Plan. (Yes, the other 99.9999% of the public was later invited to provide input, but then you never asked for feedback on the draft Plan.)

Simply put, the White House's OpenGov team (OSTP and OMB) needs to "improve its game" when it comes to public participation, e.g., public consultation in the OpenGov National Action Plan (see ).

Consider these various levels of government/public consultation (from lowest to highest):

1. No request for public Input prior to Decision.

2. Request for public Input prior to Decision.

3. Same as #2, and also the proposed Decision is offered for public Feedback.

4. Same as #3, and also a summary of how public Feedback influenced final Decision.

5. Same as #4, and additional chances for public collaboration prior to final Decision.

For several decades, federal agencies have consulted with the public (as evidenced in the Federal Register) according to the #4 level.  Of course, the President wants to do better than the status-quo, so you are looking for "best practices" (i.e., more of the back-and-forth collaboration between the public and the government).

However, judging from your office's consistent failure to offer up any of its OpenGov draft documents for public feedback, it does appear that, as you said above, it is "most appropriate" for your office to only ask for public input prior to a final decision. That would put you at the #2 level. And if we compared these levels to an "A to F" marking scale, then that means that your "#2 level" of collaboration (over the past three years) equates to a "D" grade, which is two full levels of collaboration below what federal agencies have been practicing (a "B" grade) for decades!

And, even though D.C. is the capital city of Expediency, you will save time in the long-run if your office slows down to learn to the intermediate steps before you can start operating at (and lecturing others about) the top-level "best practices". Appropriately, this will take a some back-and-forth collaborative participation by your office in an open forum consistent with the President's direction for you to "solicit public feedback to assess and improve [your] level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation."

As you may know, an email-group (a.k.a. email-listserv) continues to be an easy and effective tool for group discussion since long before the Web existed. Therefore, I have set up such a group to discuss "OpenGov" metrics. I invite you, and any other interested people reading this, to join us in a moderated discussion about how we can develop better, objective ways to measure improvements in Public Participation. I know many experts on that topic, who are not invited to your D.C. meetings, would be glad to share their knowledge there with you and/or your staff.

I hope is that joining the group's discussions will help make for a better U.S. report (i.e., blessed by the organizations below) at the "OpenGov" conference in Brazil this April.  Please feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions.

Stephen Buckley

former moderator,
 Open Government Directive google-group
 Open Government Metrics google-group
 National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation
 International Assn. for Public Participation - USA affiliate
(letter ends)