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Obama Gets His Agencies' Plans for Participation

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, April 9 2010

Credit: U.S. Department of Treasury

So the Navy Seals, it seems, are quite eager to both mix it up with fans and connect with potential future-Seals on Facebook. The State Department considers its the exciting planting of a virtual flag on the world stage. And the Department of Transportation sees great promise in webcasting; expect to see much, much more live video streaming from the direction of the Transportation Department in the months and years ahead. Those are some of the initiatives identified in the nearly 30 open government plans submitted by federal agencies this Wednesday, in response to the White House's Open Government Directive issue four months ago.

Now, you may have noticed that data and data transparency have, arguably, held center stage in the open government world lately. But President Obama, in his Open Government Directive, called on the diverse two-dozen-plus federal agencies under his purview to do more than simply open up their data (no matter how incredibly important that might be). It also pushed the executive branch to draw more people into their missions -- both normal American citizens and their colleagues in government. The excutive branches excursions into interactivity are arguably more difficult to measure than data success. But you can make the case that throwing open the doors to public participation would be just as transformative, if not more so, when it comes to changing the culture of how government works. Either way, as the photo work taken from the cover of the Treasury Department's Open Government Plan attests, pillars two and three of the Obama vision for opening up government are, indeed, participation and collaboration.

So, with that, let's do a quick dip into the open government plans filed this week while taking special note of the the wide-ranging experiments and investments in participation and collaboration that the federal agencies promised the President this week that they have lined up.

The Justice Department plans to build a "FOIA dashboard" as its flagship Open Government Initiative. "The Dashboard will allow the public to generate statistics on FOIA compliance across the government and from year to year." The impact is meant to be not only external, but internal. "Not only will this visual report card promote transparency," reads the report, "it should also have the effect of encouraging the Department’s FOIA offices -- and FOIA offices across the government -- to improve their compliance efforts and release as much information to the public under FOIA as possible." DOJ also reports that they'll be preemptively posting more of the source documents behind the government's court filings; they'd appreciate the public let them know which cases in particular might be helpful. is a new website that asks teens, "Where do you draw the digital line?"

The Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs are teaming up on the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record initiative."VLER will enable Veterans to have a seamless transition from active duty to Veteran with a single file, easily transferred from one agency to another." Later this year, DOD will roll out a new web system that will allow the public to easily request fly-overs and military music performances at public events.

The Department of Energy is proud of its launch this winter of the Open Energy Information initiative, also known as Open EI. "The wiki‐platform enables the sharing of resources by government officials, the private sector, project developers, the international community and others," they report. The Department of the Interior is putting its focus on developing a clearinghouse of information on climate change. DOI also reports that having gotten a taste of IdeaScale during the open government plan drafting promise, they want more: "As DOI’s Open Government Plan evolves, the Department looks forward to incorporating similar citizen engagement tools to foster public feedback and participation on areas of importance to citizens." They're looking for a common platform for public engagement that can be used across Interior's bureaus. They'd also like an intranet to use in-house. They said that that will be launched within the next three months.

EPA is tweeting. Administration Lisa Jackson also posts her meeting calendar on "These actions," reads the report, "not only open EPA to the public, they give EPA staff at all levels of the organization insight into their senior leadership. This helps all EPA staff stay connected to the mission."

The Social Security Administration will launch a version of its popular retirement calculator in Spanish.

The USDA finds inspiration for its open government outreach in both Thomas Jefferson and Helen Keller. "We think in America that it is necessary to introduce the people into every department of government as far as they are capable of exercising it, and that this is the only way to insure a long-continued and honest administration of its powers," said the former. And said the latter: "Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much." USDA is launching a Health Kids Challenge. And the Forest Service is on Twitter.

In addition to gearing up "to further this vital human rights agenda," the State Department reports that it intends to increase its targeted use of Twitter by 30% by 2011.

The Department of Health and Human Services is working on a new "Community of Practice" that will allow open government innovators from within the department to share best practices, in the hopes of creating a workplace menu of effective participation and collaboration tools and techniques. The FDA has launched FDA-TRACK: "When fully implemented, FDA-TRACK will monitor over 90 FDA program offices through key performance measures that will be gathered on a monthly basis." FDA reports that its FDA Basics site, explaining the nuts and bolts of the agency, has found favor with bloggers.

The Treasury Department is working towards becoming a "Paperless Treasury," designed to "improve the public's experience interacting with Treasury while effecting operational efficiencies of several key Treasury activities."

The Department of Homeland Security is focusing its eyes on its Virtual USA project, "a technical system and operational guidelines to share incident response information through existing systems and geospatial platforms in partnership with local, state, tribal and federal officials as well as the vendor community."

And the Department of Labor is looking internally, eager to rethink not only the "expectations of government, but the expectations within government." To that end, they're interested in a "direct messaging" model that will connect the department both horizontally and vertically; tools shall include Dear Colleagues letters from the Secretary, all-employee web casts, and FRANCES, their employee "E-Magazine." In May, the Department of Labor will roll out a blog. In September, it will introduce the "Secretary's Award for Open Government."

That's just a taste. All the plans are available through links on the White House's Open Government Dashboard.