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Open Govt Dialogue Improves; But Import Still Unresolved

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, June 10 2009

The quality of the dialogue on the Office of Science and Technology Policy's Open Government blog continues to improve, day by day. Clearly, the folks running the show are learning as they go, and trying to tweak how they blog about policy so that a useful conversation can flourish. But the process still leaves a lot to be desired, which may be more the fault of the topic at hand and the tools available, then the specific choices being made by the OSTP's team. Should we drawing big conclusions from this experiment? Or should we treat is a big experiment, but just one of many that need to happen before we can draw firm conclusions about the prospects for involving the public in developing policy using online collaboration tools? (I think the latter.)

Here are some examples of what I mean. First the good news: The majority of the comments now appearing on the OSTP blog are serious efforts by citizens, and in some cases domain experts, to engage with the questions on tap. For example, if you dig into CIO Vivek Kundra's post from yesterday on "Data Transparency via Data.gov," you will find lots of smart responses:
-an unnamed US Patent Office worker chimes in with some sharp observations on everything from that agency's "2nd pair of eyes" quality review program to hiring and promotion data;
-Peter Corbett of Apps for America (a Kundra collaborator when he was DC CTO) points readers to a third-party hub he's built for sharing best ideas on how to use Data.gov data;
-a couple of folks (including yours truly and Gwynne Kostin, new media director for the Department of Homeland Security) kick around ideas for a citizen-centered portal using government data;
-Clay Johnson of Sunlight Labs chimes in with a call for quantity over quality (and makes a good case for that approach).
-It's also cool to see Robynn Sturm, the assistant CTO for open government, wading into the comment thread. Want proof that they're listening? You have it.

But on such a huge topic--how to improve government data transparency--there are only 54 comments (plus a couple dozen that readers have flagged as inappropriate)? What does this tell us? In round one of the open government initiative, OSTP worked with NARA using the Ideascale platform to enable anyone to post an idea and vote up/down their favorites. As of today, more than 3,600 ideas have garnered more than 334,000 votes from about 14,000 users. The site has pretty much been overrun by the birthers, however, as this tag cloud shows:

So, does using a blog platform (with active moderation) produce a better quality discussion? Perhaps, but it also puts a premium on people with writing skills, versus a voting system that lowers the threshold for participation. Was the Ideascale phase of the open government initiative therefore a waste of time? Maybe, but we couldn't have known that in advance, and perhaps OSTP's friends at NARA could have taken a more aggressive approach to moderating the content on the site, to keep it on topic.

But that gets to another reason why I am so wary of drawing big conclusions about this first high-level experiment on open collaborative public discussion by the White House. The very topic we are being asked for input on isn't one that most people think about every day. Openness, data, participation, collaboration--these are all critical democratic values and practices, but most of the time they are invisible in our daily lives. How does government data make your life better? How does tapping "many eyes" to identify problems and propose solutions improve your daily commute? The truth is, our lives are infused with data and open access to it, as Kundra writes:

Government data permeates our lives. The atomic clock at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) standardizes our time, dictating when we arrive at meetings and take our children to soccer practice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides our doctors and media outlets with information about how to keep our families healthy when there is a new public health concern, such as the H1N1 (swine flu) virus. Data is powerful. It informs and it creates opportunities. It promotes transparency and it helps to ensure accountability.

But lots of people don't understand this, like the dimwitted Congressman who supposedly said, "Why do we need NOAA when we have the Weather Channel?", not realizing that everything the Weather Channel shows us is coming from government weather satellites and ocean buoys. Either way, choosing to do the White House's first open collaborative online discussion on how to make government more open and collaborative, as opposed to, say, how to improve food safety, is bound to draw fewer participants. (The TSA's Evolution of Security blog, by contrast, launched with hundreds of daily comments, a sign that people both needed to vent their complaints about airport security procedures and a sign that millions of us want to get the TSA to do a better job.)

That said, what should the open government team do with these comments? How should they value them, compared to the more formal written submissions coming in through the normal channels? There aren't clear answers to these questions, at least not yet.

That's why I think the most interesting part of this experiment is bound to be its third "Drafting" phase. Deputy CTO for open government Beth Noveck has promised that in this phase, her team will be using a wiki platform (they should look at MixedInk) to involve the public in actually drafting language for her open government directive. This will then go through the traditional inter-agency review process (and god knows what that will do to all these ideas) but at least we'll have a record of what the meat looked like before it went through the sausage-grinder. That could be very useful...

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