White House crowdsources open-government playbook

The Obama administration is “walking the walk” on government transparency by asking the public to help write a guide for agencies on ways to engage the public.

“This resource reflects the commitment of the government and civic partners to measurably improve participation programs, and is designed using the same inclusive principles that it champions,” wrote Corinna Zarek, White House senior adviser for open government, and Justin Herman, SocialGov lead for the General Services Administration, in a blog post announcing the Public Participation Playbook.

The playbook stems from the administration’s most recent pledge to give the public a greater say in how the federal government operates. GSA has made a draft of the playbook available for public comment on a digital platform called Madison. It plans to release in January an edited version of the playbook that agencies can use and further refine.

The playbook should strip agencies of their excuses for not engaging the public, said Daniel Schuman, policy director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW.

“This holds the hands of those agencies that are still trying to figure it out,” he said. “Now if you want to engage with people, you can’t say you didn’t know whether it was approved or appropriate.”

He enthusiastically submitted comments the first day the document went online, suggesting the current draft was too dense and might overwhelm agency managers.

Many agencies stand to benefit from using the playbook because they don’t have the resources to develop their own framework, said Sunlight Foundation federal policy manager Sean Vitka.

“But my biggest concern is that there’s actually buy in,” he said. “So much of this is about staff, personalities and capacity.”

The playbook in the most recent in a series of attempts by the White House and GSA to improve the government’s interaction with the public through a series of simple how-to’s.

“The plays are structured to provide best practices, tangible examples, and suggested performance metrics for government activities that already exist or are under development. Some categories included in the plays include encouraging community development and outreach, empowering participants through public/private partnerships, using data to drive decisions, and designing for inclusiveness and accessibility,” wrote Zarek and Herman.

Thirty federal leaders already have contributed to the guide, they said. Like an earlier playbook intended to help agencies improve their digital services, this one contains 13 tips, beginning with agencies’ clearly defining and communicating their objectives. Key sections are blank, however, with notes saying “in development.” GSA is soliciting suggestions for the playbook’s checklist, case studies and metrics, in particular.

“It’s an experiment and an experiment by the government is good,” said Schuman. “It doesn’t happen enough. This is what they should be doing and the fact that they’re using an open source tool like Madison, the more credit to them.”

The Madison platform was developed with open-source technology by Seamus Kraft, a former staffer for House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Issa used the platform to solicit public input on technology-focused legislation, including a recent attempt to overhaul the way the federal government manages tech projects. Issa is listed as the co-founder and board chairman of Kraft’s new organization, the Open Gov Foundation.

In the version adopted for the playbook, registered users can highlight specific sections of the draft and comment on them. They can also respond and vote on others’ comments. The participation period ends Dec. 17.

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