Obama's open government initiative thin on collaboration, critics say

A short comment period and little communication about process leave the public wondering if and how its voice will be heard, transparency advocates say.

As the White House transitions into the second phase of its open government initiative, participants in the first phase said the project has yet to demonstrate a willingness to collaborate between federal officials and the public.

"We don't find the process particularly collaborative at this point," said Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a transparency advocacy group. "There was a lot of transparency. This was participation, but there was no collaboration with government people and outside government people. We want to make sure this isn't just transparency theater."

President Obama's plan to carry out his open government initiative, announced on May 21, intended to include the public in creating a policy that directs agencies to construct a more transparent, collaborative and participatory government. The first part of the initiative was a brainstorming session, during which people could submit ideas to the White House on how agencies could be more transparent. The comment period lasted less than a week.

The next phase, set to begin on June 3, is a blog discussion to detail topics the administration selects. It is unclear how public comments will influence what topics the administration chooses -- or how the comments will affect the ultimate recommendations for policymaking, government transparency advocates said.

"Part of openness is being able to communicate," said Ari Schwartz, vice president and chief operating officer of the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology. "And I do think there is some confusion over what the next steps are."

Participants also said they are puzzled as to the purpose of a feature on the site that allowed the public to vote up or down on all ideas. Some said it did little more than raise the profile of a bipartisan push for a 72-hour period on major spending bills. As of Friday afternoon, the following suggestion posted by "republicanleaderjohnboehner" had 712 positive votes: "In effort to help eliminate billions of dollars in wasteful spending, I recently announced my support for a 72-hour mandatory minimum public review period on all major spending bills brought before Congress. This 72-hour review proposal, which would help to prevent taxpayer-funded outrages such as . . . huge bonuses for AIG executives, is a reform proposal that [had] been advocated by nonpartisan organizations."

Beth Noveck, the administration's deputy chief technology officer for open government, wrote on Thursday on the White House blog, "Our goal is to use the ideas from this first phase of the process as well as other input to inform deeper discussion on the open government blog in the discussion phase. While the voting on the brainstorming submissions will be instructive, it will not determine which topics are discussed in the second phase. Rather, the discussion is designed to dig in on harder topics that require greater exploration or refinement."

But John Wonderlich, policy director at the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, said, "utility in that sort of basic voting is still being determined. I think it's somewhat limited. We haven't figured out how to design mass collaboration online yet."

Considering the weeklong brainstorming session fell on the Memorial Day holiday weekend, and some people outside Washington only recently heard about the site, participants had little time to think through their ideas or contribute at all, McDermott noted.

Laura Neuman, access to information project manager for the Carter Center in Atlanta, which focuses on advancing human rights, said she did not learn about the site until Wednesday. The Web page on which the public could submit ideas is hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration, an independent group of organizational leaders. Once she found the site, Neuman said it wasn't clear how the White House would use information she might submit, so she hesitated participating. "Is this a direct link to the policymakers in the administration? Is it being used by a [nongovernmental organization]?" she wondered. Neuman ultimately submitted ideas.

To be sure, the White House has listened to some advice, including a request that it publicly post federal employee comments about open government policymaking that were collected through an internal wiki during the spring. Noveck wrote that the comments would be published on Friday. In addition, the administration responded to the calls from open government advocates such as McDermott, a former National Archives and Records Administration manager, that the White House provide permanent, public access to citizens' comments.

"At the end of the public engagement process, all posted submissions will go up on the open government Web site. (For you records management fans, the open government Web site is run by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and subject to the Federal Records Act.)," Noveck wrote.

McDermott said she would have preferred more interaction with the federal government during the weeklong session. And the administration should be more candid about how public recommendations will be incorporated into the actual policymaking, she added.

"We would really like to know how they are going to prioritize the ideas," McDermott said. "It's not clear from anything that's come out so far how they are going to draw on those [public suggestions] and there should be some discussion on that, rather than everything goes into a black hole and something comes up on June 3."

Sunlight's Wonderlich said he hopes the next online interactions will be more substantial than the light discussion that recently ended. He is less concerned about the balance of government-derived and citizen-authored topics.

Overall, Wonderlich described the first event as "amazing."

"Regardless of what the rest of the process looks like, the fact that they're doing it is the most important," he said.

Given the whole concept is an experiment, the administration should not be expected to know all that will happen next, today, according to Schwartz. "When you experiment you have to look back at what you tried and see what succeeded and failed," he said. "In a sense, all of this is beta."

White House officials said the next goal is not to pick the best ideas, but rather elucidate solutions that were not clearly articulated during round one. "We are reading everything that we . . . received" on May 30 and May 31, Noveck said. "We are going to post next week a summary and analysis of what we've read -- by Tuesday night."

Administration officials, with help from NAPA, an independent group of organizational leaders who are hosting the discourse, are in the process of grouping similar proposals, she added.

"We will continue to post [on the blog] and bring clarity to the project next week," Noveck said. "We're really midstream in a conversation. The conversation is by no means finished."

The vote tabulations will inform the process, but the White House will not adopt a policy simply because it was among the top five most popular proposals, Noveck explained. On whether the White House will take up Boehner's suggestion, she said, "Ask me next week, after I've had a chance to read everything."

As for the citizens who missed the cutoff for part one, Noveck said they can still add submissions to the site that will be considered as part of the larger open government effort. "Not . . . all transparency policy will be made this summer," she said.

Noveck said the White House has yet to begin to write the open government directive, adding that the drafting will be part of the ongoing, interactive process.