One year ago, President Obama kicked off a bold experiment with the aim of making the federal government more open and participatory. The administration’s Open Government Directive required federal agencies to tell the public how they will become more transparent, participatory and collaborative.
Over the past year, federal agencies have made significant progress toward these goals, but there is still a long road ahead. They will need additional support and direction from the administration to become more accountable to the public. But we believe the process the administration set into motion can be a transformative one.
The primary success of the Open Government Directive to date has been the development of infrastructure that supports making information more available to the public and provides more opportunities for people to provide agencies with input and feedback.
The administration required agencies to develop open government plans that laid out specific steps each agency will take to build openness and participation into standard operations. Most agencies updated these plans within six months to reflect feedback from open government groups, the public, and their own self-assessments. The administration has also established an Inter-agency Open Government Working Group composed of high-level officials from every agency, which meets monthly to share successes, discuss implementation challenges and successes, and exchange ideas.
Moreover, the administration has sent the clear message that citizens deserve a voice in the public decisions that shape their lives beyond merely voting every two years.
President Obama’s deputies have encouraged agencies to host forums to solicit ideas from the public about how to better fulfill their mission. (See www.opengovtracker.com for a partial catalogue of online forums that federal agencies have run.) Thanks to these efforts, important legal processes, tools, and best practices that are needed to support public participation are evolving within agencies and federal contractors.
More visibly, agencies have also opened up their data warehouses, allowing researchers, developers and civic hackers to build innovative web and mobile applications using government data. And they have launched regularly updated Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, empowering the public to interact with the government in comfortable settings.
Still, in our experience, people find it all but impossible to identify, find, and use basic types of information about government activities and have their voices heard to influence decisions.
For example, information about whom public officials meet with or who wins government contracts, when available, is often hidden deep on agency websites or posted in unusable formats. People have also yet to see real two-way conversation between government and citizens that enables the public to have genuine impact on policy in all phases of its development.
The low-risk, low-profile experimentation undertaken to date has proven the American people can provide valuable ideas worthy of serious consideration. Yet there are few examples of the feedback contributed online influencing policy in a significant way, and none that have been well publicized. Further, the limited participation and lack of diversity in these online engagements makes it difficult to justify giving their results real weight.
To succeed in making the federal government more accountable, the administration should set a standard for open government. The public should not have to ask for information that helps them find out how the government is spending its resources, who is influencing public policy decisions, what information the government is collecting, and so on – then wait months for the government to respond to that request. Such information should be proactively released.
Government leaders with high public profiles need to personally invite, monitor, respond to, and incorporate citizen input into policy. Successful examples of this occurring must be broadly publicized in order to show the public that this conversation is meaningful and that their voices truly matter.
Over time, this will promote the evolution of an ecosystem of participation in which both policymakers and the public see well-intentioned partners in those on the opposite side of the table. To guide officials interested in promoting real policy discussion with the public, qualitative and quantitative metrics must be established around the involvement of top decision-makers, levels and diversity of participation, and focusing of public attention on instances in which policies have been significantly influenced by the public.
As advocates of open government we commit to continue working with the administration to establish real standards and targets for greater openness and more meaningful participation, serving as both allies and constructive critics in the effort to achieve them. We look forward to celebrating the accomplishments of the Open Government Directive’s second year.