Industry report recommends ramping up agencies' open government plans

Federal agencies haven't done enough to measure the extent of public participation resulting from their open government plans or to calculate what impact that public participation is having on agency decisions, according to an industry report released Monday.

Overall, agencies have made strides in increasing the level of public participation since President Obama launched an Open Government Initiative on his first day in office, according to the report from IBM's Center for the Business of Government.

Too often, though, that participation is cursory and agencies haven't made adequate efforts to educate the public about the program beforehand so they can give informed input rather than a gut reaction, the report said.

"To simply inform and to consult are 'thin,' frequently pro forma techniques of participation that often fail to meet the public's expectation for involvement and typically yield little in the way of new knowledge," the report said.

Government transparency groups largely gave high marks to agency open government plans, published after a lengthy period of public comment on Obama's larger open government directive.

But those agency plans, by and large, don't provide enough details to determine whether agencies will be getting "high quality public participation" or just the random thoughts from agency website trolls, the IBM report argues.

"While some agencies do include commitments to establish more robust measurements for participation," the report said, "few plans include indicators that would measure meaningful progress toward becoming more participatory."

High quality public participation should include sustained involvement from a diverse group of citizens who are well-versed in an agency's goals and mission and who can actively engage with policymakers, the report said.

Most agency open government plans focus on promoting public participation through online comment pages and town hall meetings, challenges -- such as an Agriculture Department-sponsored competition to develop mobile apps that promote healthy eating habits among children -- and crowdsourced wikis that cull information on a topic from experts across the country.

The report recommends the interagency Open Government Working Group develop guidance that spells out precisely how public participation should be measured, what's considered high-quality public participation and how agencies should respond to public comments.

The report also recommends agencies determine which issues the public is most concerned about and focus open government initiatives on those areas.