Citizen Participation: An Update

Increasing participation in government by citizens is a key element of President Obama’s Transparency and Open Government initiative.  He signed a directive his first full day in office to create guidance for agencies on how they should go about implementing the principles in the directive, but delays in appointing officials have led to a delay in the development and release of the guidance.

There was a flurry of activity by White House staff in May through July to solicit public and federal employee input on what they thought should be in the guidance, via what has been called the Open Government Dialogue.  In August, nearly 100 advocates of greater citizen participation gathered to assess the progress being made, both by the Administration and within their own ranks.  They provided the White House a 10-point agenda.  Some of the elements of the agenda are directed to the White House, others are directed to the democracy reform movement itself.  The agenda, however, is not self-executing, so the meeting participants created subgroups around each of the elements of the agenda and are continuing developing each.

Here is a summary of the ten-point agenda, and a link to the full draft report, “Working Together to Build a Stronger Democracy:”

  1. involve the American public in meaningful deliberations and important policy questions
  2. support and promote an electoral reform agenda
  3. improve federal public participation and collaboration
  4. explore lessons from the Open Government Dialogue
  5. recognize and support engagement carried out by traditionally disenfranchised communities
  6. create a report on the health of our democracy
  7. build skills and capacity for public engagement
  8. increase the availability of federal funding for democratic participation
  9. convene an international democracy conference
  10. create an ongoing mechanism for sustaining leadership in the democracy reform movement

The ninth item stemmed from a panel at the August conference.  Visitors from other countries across the world – Finland, Britain, Estonia, India, and developing countries – presented amazing examples of how citizens are engaged more actively in their communities and governments.  For example, in Britain, there is a website for citizens to offer examples of how to improve services – and not just complain.  Conference participants thought it would be inspiring to create an interaction between officials from different countries and the U.S. on ways to improve democracy.

Once the Open Government Directive is released this fall (and the White House promises it is on its way), federal agencies will certainly provide lots of fresh ideas on how they can better engage citizens.  And maybe we’ll have some great examples to share at an international conference!