When he took office, President Obama called for a three-pronged approach to open government – transparency, participation and collaboration. A review of 29 agencies’ open gov plans reveal a “mixed bag,” said David Stern, director of online engagement at AmericaSpeaks, and a co-author of a report commissioned by the IBM Center for the Business of Government.
The administration has launched transparency websites such as Data.gov and USASpending.gov. However, transparency and data access are just one facet of open government.
“While increasing transparency is by no means an easy task for federal agencies, the challenge of providing the public with a meaningful voice in the governance process is just as difficult, if not more so,” the report said.
The encouraging news is agencies are willing to experiment with new online tools, Stern said. For example, some agencies are using IdeaScale or other crowdsourcing platforms to gather ideas from the public.
“All of this is new and didn’t even exist a few years ago,” Stern said.
Social media use has become near-ubiquitous across government, with agencies using Facebook and Twitter as outreach tools.
The limitation of these networks is “they’re not really good for getting a really large amount of input on some wonky policy area,” Stern said. “They’ve got to be part of the mix, but they’re more part of the outreach part of the spectrum and less on the input.”
What’s challenging for agencies now is striking the right balance between outreach and input.
“That is where I think agency employees need a little more guidance,” Stern said.
The lack of an open gov framework leaves federal employees having to “invent your own process,” Stern said. Feds must decide how to gather input, which segments of the public to target, how to frame the issue in a neutral way, among other questions.
“In tandem with that, there aren’t really good metrics we’re all looking at. So a citizen or researcher like us can’t judge how many people are involved, let alone whether or not they have a chance to have a meaningful impact on policy,” Stern said.