Washington is in the midst of a budget-cutting fervor. So are initiatives like open government dead? Some seem to think so. For example, Washington Post columnist Vivek Wadhwa's June article "The Death of Open Government" followed the resignation announcement of federal chief information officer — and open government champion — Vivek Kundra.
But according to a recent assessment, President Obama's signature open government initiative does live. It is just that there may be a shift in emphasis from a focus on transparency to a focus on citizen engagement. A new IBM Center report — "Assessing Public Participation in an Open Government Era: A Review of Federal Agency Plans" by Carolyn Lukensmeyer, Joe Goldman and David Stern — is a useful snapshot of what's going on across agencies, along with lessons learned and possible next steps by the White House and agencies.
The report describes four ways agencies say they engage citizens:
Online. This is being done to generate new ideas, provide direct citizen access to agency leaders and educate the public. For example, the Labor Department solicited input from 16,000 people to create a database of job-search websites. The Agriculture Department helped organize a contest to engage Web developers to use nutritional data in new ways to encourage kids to eat better. The Environmental Protection Agency hosts a wiki so watershed managers and communities can share best practices.
Face to face. Agencies have historically engaged citizens face to face as a part of listening sessions, stakeholder forums and citizen forums. For example, in the past year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited all 50 states on a listening and learning tour to hear from parents, teachers, students and the general public about education reform. And in 2010, the Social Security Administration expanded the list of conditions meeting disability standards for receiving benefits based on extensive public outreach hearings around the country. Previously, it had relied on expert medical advice.
Through formal mechanisms. Many laws require agencies to use formal mechanisms to solicit public input. These traditional approaches, such as federal advisory committees and public hearings regarding rule making, are incorporated into all agency open government plans. For example, the Department of Homeland Security says it sponsors 27 advisory committees with more than 700 members representing diverse stakeholders who have issued nearly 2,500 recommendations, more than half of which DHS has implemented. And more broadly, a governmentwide online clearinghouse for rule making is making it easier for citizens to engage the more than 300 agencies involved in rule-making efforts.
Agency culture changes. A small but significant number of agencies are undertaking activities to change their internal culture to foster greater public participation. For example, EPA rewards employees who undertake civic engagement efforts in their work and it offers skill-building training in negotiation and situation assessments to help staff manage difficult situations. The Transportation and Health and Human Services departments offer training to employees and are including segments on how to use social media to support greater participation.
In addition to surveying what is in agencies' open government plans, the report recommends next steps for both the White House and the agencies. These include:
• More explicitly link agency participation processes for citizens to their actual planning, policy and program development efforts.
• Expand the use of deliberative processes where citizens and government officials jointly learn, express points of view and have a chance to find common ground.
• Be willing to experiment with new tools and techniques to involve citizens in agency decision-making processes.
• Recognize best practices where agencies are embedding a culture that encourages agency officials to engage the public in their work in meaningful ways.
So why should agencies spare open government from their budget knives? Not just because it is an administration top priority. Studies show that small investments in engaging citizens can lead to savings down the road by speeding approval processes for projects, reducing the chances of court challenges, identifying new ways to deliver services, and increasingly empowering citizens with information to solve their own problems. So it's not just good government, it's good budgeting.
John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow with the IBM Center for The Business of Government. He was the deputy director of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government in the Clinton administration. The report can be downloaded for free from www.businessofgovernment.org.