Open Government Dialogue: Transparency

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I’ve been intrigued by the Open Government initiative that launched May 21st.  The three-phase initiative (brainstorm, discuss, then draft recommendations for the president’s Open Government Directive) has now moved into the second phase, an online dialogue on key themes that came out of the brainstorming phase.  So what’s happened so far?

Phase I Brainstorming.  In the first phase, the White House launched on May 21st a week-long on-line brainstorming opportunity where anyone could contribute their ideas as to how the government could be more transparent, participative, and collaborative.  I was part of the team from the National Academy of Public Administration that was reading and summarizing the comments, so I visited frequently that first week.  We were asked by the White House to provide a summary snapshot after that first week, and to compare the insights with those that had been previously gathered from a similar initiative held inside the government among federal employees.

There were public complaints that there was little notice and that one week was too short, so the site will continue to be open for comments until June 19.  Interestingly, at the end of Week One (last Thursday) there were 900 topics posted and at the end of Week Two (today) there were more than 3070 topics posted, with more than 99,000 visits by 12,000 registered users. The site allows visitors to vote and comment on which topics they see as most promising.  There have been more than 212,000 votes and 11,200 comments as of yesterday (June 3). 

Is there anything of value coming out of this experiment in open government?

Well, there is a large amount of “noise” unrelated to drafting the president’s directive, such as a campaign demanding the president release his “real” birth certificate (the one already posted online seems to not be sufficient for what are now being called “the birthers”). 

Phase II:  Dialogue.  White House staffer Beth Noveck has written a very thoughtful summary of ideas and themes around Transparency that came from the Phase I Brainstorm that is serving as the first discussion topic in Phase II.  These address potential principles, governance approaches, and ways to access information.

“The ideas that received the most organized support were not necessarily the most viable suggestions,” Noveck wrote. “There were plenty of great ideas that we read but that unfortunately did not make sense to bring into the next phase, including those with no relation to transparency policy, endorsing a product, or describing legislative action outside the purview of the Executive branch.”

There has also been some interesting analyses by outside groups.  For example, the Sunlight Foundation compared the topics generated by government vs. private posters and observed: “on the outside, people are talking data and transparency. On the inside, people are talking collaboration and tools.”

Other media reports have been somewhat skeptical.  For example, Josh Gerstein, with Politico notes in“White House Transparency Effort Falls Short for Some,” that there are a number of less-than-relevant discussions – such as a series of posts recommending the loosening of marijuana laws.

What will be interesting is to see how the Phase II dialogue evolves.  Noveck says:

“When making Open Government recommendations, we may want to include a set of transparency principles. We need your help articulating those principles, their definitions and the rationale behind them. We need to explain what they mean in practice and prioritize among them.”

You can join the discussion to help define the Transparency Principles here.

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