Notes from the third White House Open Government Partnership consultation

In July 2011, the State Department hosted an historic gathering in Washington to announce an Open Government Partnership with Brazil and six other nations. For background on the initiative, read this digest on Open Government Partnership analysis for context.

This new new open government partnership could drive U.S. commitments, according to OMB Watch.

What those commitments will be is still unclear. Given that they’re due by September’s Open Government Summit at the United Nations in New York City, the timeline for drafting them is quite limited.

Last week, when the White House asked for ideas on the National Plan for open government, the community learned a bit more about what’s on the table: improving public services and increasing public integrity.

Clay Johnson has since offered the White House a deep set of recommendations for open government in response to the three questions it posed, including better ways to use open data, social media, improving regulations, public comment, and the developer community better. If you’re interested in open government, it’s a must-read.

Those are not the limit of potential commitments on the table, at least as evidenced by what we know about the series of three consultations with open government stakeholders in Washington that the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs held this July, on the 22nd, 25th and 29th. These consultations were not livestreamed or otherwise recorded, however, nor have OIRA’s notes been released to the public yet. That said, we have at least two accounts of what happened in July, from:

I attended the July 29th consultation and, while I did not record video or audio, can share the following written notes.

Attendees

As with the previous meetings, OIRA administrator Cass Sunstein led the discussion. White House OSTP deputy CTO for public sector innovation Chris Vein was also there, along with half a dozen OIRA staff and a representative of the National Security Archive.

Seated around the table were representatives from America Speaks, OMB Watch, the Center for Technology in Government at the University of Albany, Sunshine in Government. University of Pennsylvania professor Cary Coglionese and a board member from the International Association for Public Participation, Leanne Nurse, dialed into a conference speaker phone line.

Past meetings included representatives from the Revenue Watch Institute, Code for America, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Open Plans, Civic Commons, the Sunlight Foundation, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the Project for Government Oversight, in addition to Open the Government and NCDD.

Open Government Consultation

Sunstein started the meeting by offering high level context for the OGP and thanks to the organizations around the table.

When the OGP was devised, he said, it was done with background experience from the Open Government Directive that came President Barack Obama and the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Many of your organizations were “indispensable” during that process, Sunstein said, and even though what happened with the open government directive “wasn’t perfect,” there has been “tremendous progress.” He thought from the beginning, with regard to the OMB open government project, that it would be a work in progress, with plans scrutinized and improved over time.

Sunstein laid out the reason for the consultation: the White House has national action plan due in September, with an event at the UN as the president promised. The White House wants the national action plan to be as good as possible, “improving on what we’ve got so far as we can.” Reflecting his comments at the previous two consultations, Sunstein said that one way to think of the meeting is generating ideas through three stages, given the temporal and feasibility constraints posed by the short deadline for UN recommendations. He observed that where would be opportunities moving forward in the medium term, over a 3-5 month time period to do more.

Katherine McFate, the executive director of OMB Watch, asked a question about the parameters for the consultation, noting that if you go back and look at the open government partnership, there are five different challenges for countries. If you only have to pick one or two, she suggested, improving public services is one, and may be improving public integrity is another. Increasing accountability, likely to be three. (Given the recent White House blog post, OIRA may have taken that suggestion.)

In response, Sunstein replied that there are surely things that have budgetary repercussions, which you then have to answer for, although in open government, sometimes it’s possible to improve public services without stretching the budget.

Theresa Pardo, director of the CTG at Albany, after thanking OIRA for the opportunity to speak and to listen, focused on the some of the issues that have arisen during implementation of the open government directive, including the role of citizen engagement. One tension is how to think about citizen participation, versus accountability imperatives.

One of the things that we hear quite regularly when we talk to practitioners at federal, local, and state level, along with academics, is a lot of confusion about concepts underlying open government directive. There’s pressure towards clarity, and still a lot of ambiguity. One of the ways to push through in creating that clarity, she suggested, would be to focus a bit more on the conversation, on figuring out what the problems that citizens are seeking open government to solve. Pardo said that in their experience, in various jurisdictions in US and outside of the US, it’s a challenge to connect what’s happening in government agencies with what citizens are talking about in public. Over the long term, the opportunity for open government, she explained, is to move towards deeper engagement with citizens themselves about what problems are they experiencing.

Professor Coglianese, speaking over the phone, agreed with Pardo and McFate. He also suggested that the White House clearly take stock of where open government is currently. We’re seeing great things, in taking stock of regulations, he said. It would make sense to something similar with taking stock of public participation now, defining a better baseline of where to assess what kinds of reform are making changes.

The point, about defining a baseline for public participation, was taken up and emphasized by many of those invited to the July 29 consultation. One of our major tools is the public participation spectrum, said Douglas Sarno of IAP2 USA. No systematic approach to what we’re trying to do or what’s been achieved has been defined by the White House, he said, and no way of qualifying bonafide public participation versus hackneyed participation defined. There are good challenges in finding metrics.

Sunstein agreed that the regulatory process requires significant public participation. This week, the Regulations.gov team acknowledged the need to do more in that regard.

In response, Pardo cited a number of studies in which communications scholars and computer scientists are using machine language processing to analyze online rulemaking to see if it results in changing in deliberation or positive social interaction. Such studies can be expensive but useful. Part of the issue in integrated such work, however, is getting real movement in processes in partnership with academics, she said.

Pardo focused further upon the role of citizen engagement, both around rulemaking and the large context of open government. Nowhere, until just recently, she said, do we teach our public managers about how to look, engage, and use citizen participation tools. “There’s a capability gap at all levels of government. How do public managers in local governments and cities, think about their jobs in different ways?”

The National Association of State CIOs and others are looking at building capability to understand how to use data and engagement tools better, said Pardo, but across the board there’s lack of ability in these core competencies. Maybe building ability as with cybersecurity skills would make sense, she suggested, including professional standards for citizen participation.

Coglianese similary focused more on baseline assessments for public participation. There are some political scientists who have tried to assess the actual impact of public comment and proposed rulemaking, he said. In terms of what to look to as baseline, what is it you want to accomplish with this national action plan? Is the goal to increase public participation? What is the level right now? We don’t have a way of saying what the volume of interaction is across the federal government, he asserted.

We do know, however, that rulemaking tends to be more something that organizations participated in more than individual citizens, Coglionese said, citing a recent article on public participation that he’d authored law journal. “We need a baseline of who’s participating and at what level,” he said. “Is the goal of participation to increase the quality of public decision making? That’s hard to assess. To enhance public virtue? That’s much harder to assess. Until it’s clear exactly what it is you would want to do, you can’t answer these questions.”

David Stern, director on online engagement at America Speaks, validated Coglionese’s words, observing that his organization had recently looked at all open government plans by agencies and came to the same conclusion. There’s a lack of consistency in metrics used to evaluate projects, said Stern, and no standards about what defines good participation. Number of people, diversity, number of instances policy influenced? Standards and best practices, in this area, would be helpful coming from White House and OMB. Every open government project contains response to the most popular proposals, he said, which means that every public engagement initiative has a public engagement component.

Rick Blum of Sunshine in Government raised another issue: FOIA exemptions, including agencies proposing them independently. The Department of Defense is overclassifying, said Blum, and it’s very hard to track what’s happening. The Department of Justice has put up a FOIA dashboard but it’s “plagued with tech glitches and bad data,” he said. This has become a public debate about secrecy or disclosure, with some half a billion dollars being spent annually fulfilling FOIA requests, said Blum. There’s also concern about the impact of the recent Supreme Court decision in Milner vs the Navy.

On my part, I offered feedback that I’d collected from the broader open government community ahead of time and over the previous year.

First, the White House has not explicitly separated open government innovation, in terms of open data about the business of government, from “good government” initiatives that transparency advocates expect and demand, in terms of accountability to the people. Misset expectations around the goals the White House has set out have created widespread dissatisfaction and harsh criticisms of an administration that promised to be “most transparent ever.” The open government initiative in the province of British Columbia offers a potential model for the White House to consider, in terms of this separation.

Second, as the federal government moves forward with its ongoing review of .gov websites, there are opportunities to work with civil society and civic developers to co-create better e-services.

Third, opportunities exist for the White House to partner with entrepreneurs, media or nonprofits that are making government data open, useful and searchable. For instance, BrightScope has made financial advisor data from the SEC and FINRA available to the public. The work of Code for America and others on farmers market open data is another example.

Finally, there continue to be serious issues raised by developers about the quality of open government data on Data.gov. In general, public servants continue to release PDFs, as opposed to machine-readable structured data, and cite the language in the Open Government Directive for support. If government wishes developers and businesses to use its data for accountability, civic utility or economic value, then releasing data in the open formats that these communities find most useful makes logical sense.

Pardo took up the issues raised with good government versus open innovation, noting that the two aren’t necessarily against each other. The idea of high value data wasn’t well defined, she said. For instance, the calendars of public officials are nothing more than a dataset.

Sunstein asked after the data issues and the one of his deputies specifically asked about the language in the OGD. He brought up the work that the federal government has done on regulations.gov – which was a persistent focus from the OIRA administrator – and asked whether it was good enough, and over what time limit? And for whom?

The general answer there was clear enough: “we the people.”

Coglianese offered more feedback on regulations.gov: it’s not enough. There are data fields are not filled in, missing information, and things remain incomprehensible, he said. “Imagine how it is for many others coming for first time?” Coglianese endorsed the recommendations of ADA blue ribbon commission for a dedicated overseer of data quality, although such a role would require congressional authorization.

There are some really important opportunities to leverage data in regulations.gov, he emphasized. Leverage that data to extract it automatically, display the data on websites. For instance, many members of congress have a button on their websites forlegislation they’re sponsoring, which then takes visitors to data automatically etxtracted from Thomas.gov. Imagine a similar system for agencies and regulators, he suggested, or consider the EPA, which is trying to display every rule that the agency is working on., which is being developed in addition to regulations.gov.

Agencies right now are building websites around current uses, said Coglionese. That makes a lot of senses, and it’s what one would hope, but doesn’t go to the “separate question of who do they want their users to be.” He criticized the design of the new FCC.gov, although I pointed out that the process that preceded the FCC relaunch was focused on the most common purposes of the site’ visitors.

What was left unsaid in these open government partnership consultations? A great deal, due to the length of time allowed. The voices that were heard around this table were also those of advocates, policy, experts, academics, and technologists: not citizens, and by and large not those of the media, whose function in representative democracies been to hold government accountable on behalf of the public.

As the White House considers its commitments in advance of the September meeting at the United Nations, the people will have a window of opportunity to tell their elected officials what open government means to them and how they woud like their federal government to be more transparent, participatory or collaborative.

If you have feedback on any of those accounts, send it to opengov@omb.gov.

Sunstein: Plain writing should be seen as an essential part of open government

For government to be more open, the language it uses must be understandable to all citizens. For those who cover government technology, or the many who tried to interpret the healthcare or financial regulatory reform legislation posted online over the past year, the issue is familiar. Government documents, written by lawyers or functionaries, is all too often dense and extremely difficult to understand for regular citizens.

With the passage of the Plain Writing Act of 2010 and a stroke of President Obama’s pen on October 13, 2010, there’s a new reason to hope that the business of government will be more understandable to all.

As a report on the Plain Language Act by Joel Siegel at ABC News reminded citizens, however, this law follows decades of similar efforts that haven’t achieved that desired outcome.

The movement to bring clarity to complex government documents began decades ago, when a Bureau of Land Management employee named John O’Hayre wrote a book after World War II called “Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go.”

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon ordered that the “Federal Register” be written in “layman’s terms.”

The Clinton administration even issued monthly “No Gobbledygook Awards” to agencies that ditched the bureaucratese. Vice President Al Gore, who oversaw the effort, called plain language a civil right, and said it promoted trust in government. The effort gave birth to a government Web site that still operates, www.plainlanguage.gov.

There are reasons to be hopeful. For one, the Federal Register was relaunched this year, in a “historic milestone in making government more open.” “Federal Register 2.0” itself only came about after an effort that deputy White House CTO Beth Noveck observed is “collaborative government at its best. The new beta of the FederalRegister.gov continues to evolve.

This week, Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, issued a memorandum that provided further guidance.

Plain writing is concise, simple, meaningful, and well-organized. It avoids jargon, redundancy, ambiguity, and obscurity. It does not contain unnecessary complexity.

Plain writing should be seen as an essential part of open government. In his January 21, 2009 Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, President Obama made a commitment to establish “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” Transparency, public participation, and collaboration cannot easily occur without plain writing. Clear and simple communication can eliminate significant barriers to public participation in important programs for benefits and services. Avoiding ambiguity and unnecessary complexity can increase compliance simply because people understand better what they are supposed to do. Plain writing is no mere formal requirement; it can be essential to the successful achievement of legislative or administrative goals, and it promotes the rule of law.

Preliminary Guidance for the Plain Writing Act of 2010

Among other things, the memorandum provides initial guidance to federal agencies on where to start with plain language, including making government officials accountable for implementing plain language and resources for advice. Key documents are also designated as necessary, each of which includes processes citizens need to understand:

“those that are necessary for obtaining any Federal Government benefit or service, or filing taxes; those that provide information about any Federal Government benefit or service; or those that explain to the public how to comply with a requirement that the Federal Government administers or enforces.”

If you can’t understand how to do something, good luck accomplishing the task. The same is true of benefits or legal requirements. To date, there are few aspects of regulations as clear as a red light or Stop sign. If the requirements of this law are carried out in good faith, perhaps more Americans will see more of them.