Scorecarding Agency Open Gov Plans

The Obama Administration announced today a scorecard of the quality of the plans submitted earlier this month by 29 major agencies.  Using a checklist of 30 criteria, the scorecards show all agencies rating either a “yellow” or a “green” on their scorecards. These plans are being referred to as “version 1.0.”

The three agencies with the best ratings were the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Transportation, and NASA.

In addition, the White House has created a “leading practices” webpage where agencies can showcase their best efforts in four areas:

  • Leadership, Governance, and Culture Change
  • Transparency
  • Participation and Collaboration
  • Flagship Initiative

The Open Government Working Group, comprised of executives from each of the major agencies, continues to meet regularly to share leading practices.

It’ll be interesting to see what the separate scoring of agency plans looks like when the advocacy groups announce their results in coming days!


Open Gov Plans Released, And . . .

. . . Both the White House and the Open Government advocacy groups plan to assess them.   No good deed goes unnoticed!

The White House says it will evaluate them by May 1st (this implies that OMB posted the agency plans before it reviewed them – this is a huge change!).  The Open Government advocacy groups are inviting others to volunteer to help assess agencies’ plans, based on a set of criteria they’ve developed.  This is somewhat reminiscent of the scoring of agency Annual Performance Reports under the Government Performance and Results Act by the Mercatus Center, but in this case, it’s more open!

Yesterday, White House staffer Beth Noveck, who has been shepparding the Open Government initiative, wrote a blog entry summarizing some of the highlights she’s read so far.  Her summary is worth reading.  For example, the list of “flagship initiatives” is exciting.  HUD is developing a predictive tool to determine where homelessness may increase, in an effort to forestall it.  And the Department of Health and Human Services is developing a dashboard to allow users to track and graphic Medicare spending on different key services, by large hospitals.

I’ve largely missed much of this hoopla because I’ve been attending conferences on the West Coast.  But the topic  of Open Government is on the front burner, even there!

Yesterday, I participated in a panel sponsored by the American Bar Association in San Francisco.  I summarized what’s been going on in Washington regarding the Open Government efforts, but I learned a lot from what’s going on in the field.

Another Potential Assessment Framework.  I was particularly enlightened by a description of how to think about citizen involvement at different stages in the “life cycle” of a policy issue.  Prof. Lisa Bingham, from Indiana University, offered a scholarly model that might serve as a useful assessment tool for agency Open Government Plans, as well as legislative reforms in the future.

Prof. Bingham looked at citizen involvement as described in administrative law and rules and outlined a three-part framework:

Source: Lisa B. Bingham, "Collaborative Governance: Emerging Practices and the Incomplete Legal Framework for Citizen and Stakeholder Voice," Missouri Journal of Dispute Resolution, Vol. 2009, No. 2


Upstream Involvement.  Here, citizens can be engaged in the development of a policy through dialogue and deliberation.  This would include both the legislative and the quasi-legislative elements of policymaking.  Examples include the use of tools such as Deliberative Polling, Citizen Assemblies, and Study Circles.  The objective is to gain informed citizen input before a proposal is completely formed.

Midstream Involvement.  This is the stage where a policy is being implemented. This would include tools such as negotiated rulemaking, participatory budgeting, and watershed networks.  The objective at this stage is to involve citizens in helping define and prioritize how a policy should be implemented.  An example in the recently-passed health care bill is citizen involvement in developing a national strategy for health care quality.

Downstream Involvement. This is the stage where policies are being enforced through judicial or quasi-judicial means.  The tools would include alternative dispute resolution, mediation, and facilitation.  The objective is to avoid the “win-lose” scenarios that would be imposed through agency adjudication or court action.

Prof. Bingham is concerned that the existing federal legal framework deals with these elements in a piecemeal fashion and encouraged consideration of a “Collaborative Governance Act” that would update laws, such as the 1947 Administrative Procedures Act, which did not foresee the existence of the internet and its impact on how government and citizens interact today.  OMB did offer some new, more liberal, interpretations of some of these statutes in memos released in recent days, but Prof. Bingham thinks that legislation may be needed to reach much further.

The OMB Prize Memo

OMB deputy director for management ,Jeff Zients, released a 12-page memo, “Guidance on the Use of Challenges and Prizes to Promote Open Government.”

Jason Miller, of Federal News Radio, reports that this memo expands on a commitment made in President Obama’s FY 2011 budget and extends the pilots of the OMB SAVE award competition and several other pilots conducted by agencies last year.  It is now a federal policy to use challenges and prizes as a way of spurring innovation.

Agencies will need to designate someone to run the prize and challenge initiatives for their agencies, and there will be a cross-agency “community of practice” of agency staff to support, design, and manage prizes.

The Administration says it will make available a web-based platform for prizes and challenges by mid-July for agencies’ use.  The memo notes: “. . .a prize should not be an end in itself, but one means within a broader strategy for spurring change.”  It offers six examples of potential prizes.

The memo also identifies some potential legal authorities under which agencies create prizes, in addition to the potential use of existing grants and cooperative agreements.  The memo also says that “An agency without explicit prize authority . . . “ may be able to do so under the “’necessary expense’ doctrine” but that they should consult first with their agency counsel!

This won’t be easy, though.   It goes on to discuss the importance of Federal Advisory Committee Act compliance and ethical issues, and cautions against the federal endorsement of products or services, violating intellectual property rights, complying with the Paperwork Reduction Act, the Privacy Act, etc.

So, in the end, “If you have any questions regarding this memorandum, please direct them to!  Or check with your friendly agency general counsel!

Topic 4: Technology, Transparency, and Participatory Democracy

President Obama issued a memorandum on Transparency and Open Government following his inauguration in early 2009.  The memo outlined his commitment to greater transparency, increased citizen participation, and more collaboration.  This commitment acknowledges that government cannot solve by itself the challenges facing our nation.

Progress to Date. The Administration solicited public comments on how it should act on the principles outlined in President Obama’s memo.  Agencies piloted a number of different approaches during the course of the year.  These approaches tested ways of providing useful “open data,” “open idea generation,” “open spending” via, and “open government resources,” such as the General Services Administration’s website supporting agencies’ Web 2.0 efforts.

OMB issued guidance in late 2009 that required agencies to develop Open Government plans and create Open Government websites to allow the public to monitor progress.  Agencies were also directed to release “high-value” data sets and identify a “flagship initiative.”  OMB also created the website where agencies can post their high-value data sets.

Key Challenges. The challenge is to systematically embed the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration into the federal bureaucracy.  Following are key elements of this challenge:

  • Transparency, participation, and collaboration are often not valued inside many federal agencies.
  • Real and perceived legal barriers can prevent federal agencies from reaching Open Government goals.
  • Greater awareness is needed about how to apply new tools and methods for engaging the public.
  • Increased access to information requires measures to ensure data quality and the ability to easily share information across agencies and departments.
  • Open Government goals require adequate funding and guidance about how to appropriately budget activities.

Research Questions Based on Forum Discussions. Following are highlights of some of the research questions developed:

  • Which Web 2.0 social media channels are most effective in engaging the public?
  • What is the relationship between transparency, participation, and collaboration across the policy continuum (e.g., policy development, policy implementation, policy evaluation)?
  • How can agencies create a culture reflecting the values of transparency, participation, and collaboration?
  • How can technology increase transparency, participation, and collaboration?

(Note:  the background discussion paper for this topic was prepared by Joseph Goldman, AmericaSpeaks)

Redefining the Role of Citizen in a Gov 2.0 World

What does it mean to be a citizen in a Gov 2.0 world?  President Obama’s FY 2011 budget is being dissected for its shift in the size and scope of government.  But several initiatives in the budget, and things happening at the state and local levels, point to subtle — but significant –shifts in the role of citizens in their government.

A prominent role these days is engaging citizens in oversight and accountability.  A CNNTech article by John Sutter, “Cities embrace mobile apps, ‘Gov 2.0’” describes how Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, sends an electronic note to San Francisco City Hall via an application called SeeClickFix to report an overheated train car.  Sutter says this gives citizens “more of a say in how their local tax money is spent.”  Cities all over the country are releasing public data to the web and mobile application developers are creating “mash up” applications to make it easy to use.  Some say it “could usher in a new era of grsssroots democracy.”

In DC the DC 311 iPhone app allows users to take photos of graffiti, potholes, etc., and send them to a city database that catalogs work requests.  The photos are linked to a GPS location so officials can see the problem, and other citizens can, as well.  Other examples of “citizen posses” include the “Coalition for an Accountable Recovery” which tracks the implementation of the Recovery Act.

But these examples do not offer the only vision of how citizens’ roles have changed.  After all, we can’t become a nation of fault finders.  There has to be a more positive view of the role of citizens than just conducting oversight.  Although, the Obama Administration encouraged this new role when it put in place Recovery.Gov, which posts all the spending of the $787 billion stimulus bill.

I can see a series of new or expanded roles for citizens, other than oversight.  These include:

Increased involvement in dialogue. This is where conversations are back and forth, and where both sides learn.  One example is the new on-line town hall format described in a new report by the Congressional Management Foundation.  There, members of Congress are beginning to engage citizens in far more meaningful discussions of issues.  The Obama Open Government initiative is encouraging agencies to use approaches like this.  On February 6th, a wide range of agencies will be simultaneously launching public dialogue efforts, to run over a five-week period, to engage citizens around issues such as transparency and collaboration.  The General Services Administration has already launched its dialogue site to allow people to comment and vote on ideas.

Being better informed about issues.  This is where citizens can gain a broader understanding of the implications and tradeoffs in making big decisions, or even local decisions.  An example of becoming better informed about the larger context is understanding the progress and position of the US, or your community, in areas such as health care, environment, or the economy.  The tries to provide such a perspective.  Another “big picture” forum examines the fiscal future of the country.  At the other end of the spectrum, there are sites that provide information about your neighborhood and encourage interactions and awareness at that level, like Neighbors-for-Neighbors in Boston,, or

Providing ideas and solutions.  Sometimes people with different perspectives can solve problems that the experts have a hard time with.  A prominent example is the increased use of “crowdsourcing.’  This is where an organization sends a problem out to a group of people asking for contributions or solutions to a problem. One example is Apps for America, where a nonprofit group sponsored a contest to find the best uses of government-provided information.  The Obama budget for FY 2011 commits to expanding the use of contests and awards for innovations.

Being empowered by information to solving their own problems.  Too often, complexity creates a need for “middle men” such as tax advisors, lobbyists, and attorneys.  Reducing complexity, or providing information more openly or using “plain language” to describe things can make a huge difference.  The Open Data efforts by the Obama Administration are one step in this direction.  Ongoing efforts to create Plain Language in government writing is another.  Streamlining application processes to be more citizen-centered is also another approach, which seems to be a stronger trend in other countries.

Becoming involved in co-delivering public services.  This is more common at local levels, but a high-profile example at the federal level is called “peer-to-patent” where citizens could help determine whether an idea was new and worth being granted a patent.  Another is by helping the elderly complete their tax forms via a volunteer program called VITA.  And another is “citizen responders” in the case of emergencies.  This not only saves money, but involves citizens in a direct way in government.

Becoming engaged in framing public decisions.  In some communities, such as Des Moines, IA, citizens became engaged in measuring the performance of city services and then involved in helping set city budgeting priorities.  Similarly, citizens in Washington, DC, did the same when Tony Williams was mayor, in his citywide Citizen Summits.  At the federal level, several years ago Congress created a Citizens Health Care Working Group to engage citizens in developing recommendations for reforming health care.  Some advocacy groups want opportunities for citizens to actually make decisions, but this step may require some careful thought, especially given experiences such as California’s referenda being driven by special interest groups.  This has resulted in the legislature not being able to make needed trade-offs and the state now faces fiscal challenges that may be difficult to address.

The more traditional roles, of citizen participation via hearings or a spectrum of other forms of engagement, including innovative forums such as President Obama on YouTube answering questions about his new budget, will continue.  But the opportunities to actively engage citizens is still evolving.

If you have other ideas, please feel free to contribute!

Using Crowdsourcing in Government

For years, democracy advocates have promoted the notion of engaging citizens in Crowdsourcingtheir government.  There are different ways of doing this (public hearings, debates, dialogue panels, etc), and at different points in the policy cycle (proposing, debating, implementing, reviewing, etc.).

The New York Times recently did a nice piece on “digital democracy” that focuses on the use of “crowdsourcing” as a way of engaging citizens.  The classic example of crowdsourcing was developed in the private sector by a drug company, of all places.  In 2001, Eli Lilly decided to open up its research and development process to a broader community of contributors by posing research questions to a group of scientists and others outside the company.  These contributors competed or collaborated to come up with a solution, and the winning solution received a monetary prize. This spawned a new company, InnoCentive, which offers this approach to other companies as well.  The approach has expanded and being used by a wide range of industries.  For example, a similar contest has been underway to identify innovative ways to reduce traffic congestion.

As the Times article describes, this approach – turning to either a defined or undefined audience for ideas, and ranking and sorting these ideas – was used by the Obama Administration during its transition and during its first few months in office.  As a result, this idea is now being used in mainstream government agencies.  For example, the Department of Homeland Security is using this approach to get input into its Quadrennial Review.

As the Administration develops its policy on Open Government, crowdsourcing will likely be one of its more visible tools.  The next step will be to develop an understanding of when it works best, as well as a set of best practices.

I’m interested in learning more, so I’ll be participating in an IBM-sponsored crowdsourcing effort – which it calls “Jams” — over the next few days. Dubbed the “Smart Work Jam,” it will explore the future of work and how technology, the Millennial Generation, and teamwork will likely change how its gets done.  If you’d like to participate, feel free to join in!