Friday, September 16, 2011

My Letter: Suggestions for U.S. "Action Plan" under the Open Government Partnership

Via Email:
September 16, 2011

Cass R. Sunstein, Administrator
Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs
Office of Management and Budget
725 17th Street, NW Washington, DC 20503

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

Dear Mr. Sunstein and Mr. Chopra:

It is my understanding that President Obama will be making a speech at the United Nations on Sept. 20th about new commitments by the U.S. in the area of "open government". I also understand that you are working on the national "Action Plan", to be released that same day, which will lay out the strategy and methods for fulfilling the President's commitments under the new "Open Government Partnership" (OGP).

The purpose of this letter is to respond to your public request, a few weeks ago, for suggestions in preparing that Action Plan. I realize my suggestions are presented less than a week before Sept. 20th, but I am assuming that your initial version of the Action Plan will be continually improved in light of better ideas and practices. Therefore, please consider the following four suggestions for any future "OpenGov" directions and guidance.

I like you to note that, while the first suggested action is about behavior (of an editorial nature), the other three are concrete actions can be adopted as "specific commitments" of the type that President promised at the U.N. a year ago. And while there are no "silver bullets" for achieving changes in the status-quo, I believe that these actions, more than any other three, will provide the greatest stretch beyond our current "OpenGov" endeavors.

1. Editorial suggestion: Be More Clear about your "Principles of Open Government"

In January 2009, on his first full day in office, President Obama laid out his three principles of Open Government, i.e., Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration. However, after two and a half years, it now looks like that set of principles is going to change.

If we follow the "road-map" of the Open Government Partnership and adopt their "four core open government principles", then "Collaboration" will be removed, and replaced by "Accountability" and "Technology & Innovation". (Shouldn't that last one count as two? But, then, is "Technology" a principle?)

If that is correct, then it looks like a significant shift in your OpenGov philosophy will need an official explanation. Otherwise, many people (especially government employees) will be confused when your existing Open Government Directive, along with the various OpenGov Plans of federal agencies, is changed to show that the set of basic principles of Open Government principles can be unilaterally changed every few years.

(Okay, now I can see why "Collaboration" would be de-emphasized.)

2. Transparency Commitment: Give People Better Choices about Public Involvement

Thanks to modern technology, we can receive a stream of electronic notices about all sorts of events that interest us. But, to avoid being overwhelmed by too many notices, we each try to create a stream that contains only those notices of personal importance to us.

Every year, about 50,000 public notices are issued by federal agencies in which they ask the American public for their opinion about a specific action being proposed. That works out to about 1,000 notices per week which, I'm sure, virtually no one would want to receive in their email in-box. (FYI: Only 10% appear in Federal Register.)

Fortunately, technology does allow us to receive only those notices that match our personal interests. We can be informed about only those jobs that match our talents, and only those people who match our social or professional interests. Unfortunately, this technology has not been used to inform us about those government proposals that we really would like to know more about ... so that we can participate before a decision is made.

Concrete Action: In order for any citizen to receive a customized stream of public notices, their government should require that every official notice to the public be made available in a standard format that allows that notice to be electronically located according to pre-selected criteria.

3. Collaboration Commitment: Make It Safe for Government Workers to Suggest Changes

As a former federal employee who worked at five different agencies, I know from experience that the only way to make it safe for government workers to propose ideas about saving money (or to simply point out waste) is to have an online system that allows them to express an idea BUT hides their true identity. (The existing Inspector-General system does NOT do this.)

Public Engagement and Accountability are improved when government employees work in an organizational culture of openness in which they feel safe in expressing their thoughts and professional opinions with both their co-workers and members of the public ... without fear of repercussions.

Concrete Action: Every government employee should be given access to an electronic system -- like those already required by federal law for large corporations -- which allows that employee to raise a concern or suggestion to other employees about the operation of their agency without fear of his/her identity becoming known.

4. Accountability Commitment: Give Citizens a Simple Checklist for Rating "Public Engagement"

In President Obama's Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, he says (3 times) that federal agencies "should solicit" public input and feedback about improving their OpenGov practices.

However, your offices (OMB and OSTP) did not ask the public for feedback about your "Open Government Dialogue" in May/June 2009. In fact, from all the online experiments in public engagement by the current White House over the past two years, precious little has been learned because there has been no organized survey from those who participated. The only forethought has been, at best, to give out an email-address to receive anecdotal comments. Consequently, there is relatively little data to show any difference in Transparency, Participation, or Collaboration since your offices' efforts began January 2009.

Concrete Action: Every citizen should be offered a simple, standard checklist in order to provide feedback about the quality of any public meeting or online event that they attend. Those results would create an objective survey as to the public's judgement with respect to that event's Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration. A compilation of those surveys would, then, reflect an entire agency's or government's progress (or lack thereof).

I hope that this letter has given you something of interest to consider. I'd be interested in any feedback that you may wish to share, written or verbal. Anyone reading this letter may also comment on it (anonymously, if they wish) at my blog at as posted on September 16, 2011.


Stephen Buckley
sbuckley at
24/7 voice: (508) 348-9090
skype: opengov

P.S. Two years ago, at your request, hundreds of citizens earnestly suggested their ideas to you in the "Open Government Dialogue" to help you develop the Open Government Directive. Five months later, you issued the OpenGov Directive with virtually no explanation of your consideration about many of the serious ideas. So it really should come as no surprise to you when the public's disappointing response to your new request reflects their discouragement from before. Maybe you should go back over those previous ideas with "fresh eyes" to see if any of them have gotten better with age.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

OpenGov at Two Years: Ignorance is Bliss?

It's been two full years since President Obama signed his Open Government Memorandum for federal agencies to be more "Transparent, Participatory, and Collaborative."

At the halfway point in the President's term, this is the obvious time for the most serious assessment as to what progress is being made with the Open Government Initiative.

Two years is plenty of time to experiment and, as a result, learn what parts of your past actions are working ... and what parts are not working as you had hoped.

Having spent 25 years in D.C., I know that this latter part (i.e., public admission of any sort of unsuccessfulness) is a very difficult thing for almost all government people to do ... especially when you work at the highest levels of the federal government in Washington.

It's the part of "how Washington works" that, ironically, is supposed to be changed by the Open Government initiative.  Citizens know certain things that Government does not.  Therefore, Government should more inviting of Citizens to share that knowledge, so that Government can make better decisions.  But yet, we complain when Government admits cluelessness.

And that's the dilemma.

Government officials are paid to be "smarter" than unpaid citizens.  How would it look, for example, if the Secretary of Education admitted not knowing something that was obvious to an ordinary teacher or parent.  And what if that was happening over and over?  For whatever reason, there is a general expectation that the people in Washington are there because they are (supposed to be) smarter than the rest of us "ordinary citizens". 

Therefore, for government officials, there is a dangerously gray area between (A) being more open-minded by considering information and ideas from "ordinary citizens", and then (B) admitting that, hey, a lot of their own information and ideas are not as good as those of "ordinary citizens".

As such, we should not be surprised to see government officials, after testing what they think are the best ideas, consistently declining to discuss and, therefore, learn from those aspects that did not work as they had hoped.  This is particularly ironic for OpenGov experiments because the whole idea is to open-mindedly search (with no guarantee of success at every step) for better ways to collaborate with those outside of government.

Here's what the President's Memorandum said about that:
Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.  Executive departments and agencies should solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation.
So, after of various collaborative exercises over the past two years, has the OpenGov leadership (i.e., in OSTP and OMB) been "walking the talk" of soliciting feedback on its experiments in citizen collaboration?  Let's see.

After the White House's "Open Government Dialogue" (May-June 2009), were participants asked for their feedback on what worked and what didn't?


In early 2010, federal agencies (including the White House's OMB and OSTP) hosted online forums for citizen collaboration on development of agencies' Open Government Plans.  Did they follow-up by asking citizen participants for feedback on what worked and what didn't?


Now, the same officials who asked -- twice before -- for citizens' ideas and collaboration on Open Government have come back once again with ExpertNet (December 2010-January 2011).  Will they now comply with the President's Memorandum about soliciting feedback on collaboration?

Based on their track record, and the absence of any mention about soliciting any feedback about the ExpertNet platform, it appears the answers will, once again, be "Nope."

And, in addition to consistent neglect in asking for citizen feedback, here's another example of OpenGov leadership failing to "walk their talk": they rarely participate in their own collaboration events!

In the ExpertNet section on "Basic Principles", this is THEIR language (scroll down to Item #12 here):
  1. Government officials must actively participate in each consultation for the public to trust in the relevance of the process. Citizen participation demands government participation. To demonstrate that public feedback is vital for sustaining public engagement and interests, government officials must collaborate and the system should define their role clearly.
So when a participant, Tim Bonnemann, asked questions about some unclear aspects of ExpertNet, the White House's "OpenGov"people in charge of the site not answer him there.  Instead of responding to Mr. Bonnemann in ExpertNet's discussion area, they posted a partial and indirect "response" in a totally different location (i.e., on the White House blog)!  

I won't go into it in this posting, but there are plenty of other examples of how the White House's OpenGov initiative, despite cool new tech-tools, is operating in many significant ways as LESS "transparent, participatory, and collaborative" than the federal agencies that they are trying to change.

It's been two years of "self-evaluation" for OpenGov, so it's way past time to start following the President's original task to ask the public to evaluate his administration's OpenGov efforts.

I compare it to the people who convince themselves that their new diet is really working but, yet, they don't want to step on the weight-scale to learn the objective truth.  They'd rather just "self-evaluate" themselves by looking in the mirror.

After two years, OpenGov should be modelling the opposite of "Ignorance is bliss."
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