Commitment Analysis: Open Government? Check. Public Participation? Not yet.

The following is cross-posted with permission from the blog Conflict and Collaboration. It is written by Tina Nabatchi, Associate Professor of Public Administration and International Affairs, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University

By requiring all federal agencies to be more transparent, collaborative, and participatory, the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative promised to bring watershed changes to government. While much progress has been made since the release of its first National Action Plan, advances in the arena of public participation have been disappointing. Champions of public participation had high hopes for the second National Action Plan, which was released by the White House on December 5, 2013. While the second plan has numerous commendable and important commitments that increase transparency and collaboration, it falls flat with regard to public participation, perhaps with the exception of its promotion of participatory budgeting.

The second plan includes three explicit commitments involving “public participation.” The first commitment, “Improving Public Participation in Government,” is to be done by: (1) “expanding and simplifying the use of the We the People e-petition platform,” and (2) “publishing best practices and metrics for public participation” (see page 2). Both of these commitments (in different form) were in the first National Action Plan.

With more than 10 million users generating over 270,000 petitions, We the People has certainly provided one avenue for citizen voice. However, that voice is largely inconsequential. Every petition must meet a certain threshold to be searchable on the site (150 signatures within 30 days), and then it must cross a second threshold to get a response from the White House (100,000 signatures within 30 days). Signing a petition and waiting to see if you get a response from the White House, is, in my assessment, simply a form of placation. To be fair, participation through We the People is far more advanced than anything done by other presidential administrations; however, it does not give citizens meaningful voice in policy decisions and government action. 

In contrast, publishing best practices and metrics for public participation presents a real opportunity to change the nature of citizen voice in the federal government. However, this same goal was in the first national action plan, confirming that little progress has been made (despite the efforts of civil society organizations, foundations, and academic researchers). Of course, making progress on this commitment requires some tough thinking and action, a point I return to at the end of this post.

The second commitment, “Further Expand Public Participation in the Development of Regulations,” is to be done by: (1) “making commenting on proposed regulations easier,” (2) “continuing proactive outreach with stakeholders,” and (3) “making regulations easier to read” (see pages 10-11). None of these activities enhance citizen voice and input. Do you know any lay citizens who read federal regulations? Me neither. While this commitment might be useful for interest groups, lobbyists, and other organized efforts, it does not provide a meaningful way for citizens to give voice in the work of government.

The third commitment is to “Promote Public Participation in Community Spending Decisions” through the use of participatory budgeting, which “allows citizens to play a key role in identifying, discussing, and prioritizing public spending projects, and gives them a voice in how taxpayer dollars are spent” (see page 10). This is a laudable goal that should be celebrated and championed.

But, if the Administration wants to support city governments to do substantive, meaningful public participation on local issues, why not also conduct substantive, meaningful participation on federal issues?

Perhaps the lack of movement is because realizing the promise of public participation at the federal level requires making challenging, substantive changes to our administrative infrastructure.  Several issues impede the effective use of participation in open government at the federal level, including among others:

  • Most of the laws that govern that use of public participation are over thirty years old and pre-date the internet. Existing laws and regulations use a narrow definition of public participation and fail to embrace the vast array of robust, empowered participatory methods. Moreover, the laws are often in tension with agency missions and the goals of participation, and leave agency staff wondering whether participatory innovations are legal.
  •  Agency officials sometimes lack the knowledge, skills, and abilities to launch effective and meaningful participatory programs, and there are few opportunities for officials to learn about best practices from each other and from civil society. Agency officials who have taken lead roles in innovative public participation efforts do not always feel supported by the Administration.
  • Several laws, rules, and regulations limit agencies’ ability to collect and use routine data from participatory programs, which impedes evaluation efforts. Thus, agencies are severely restricted in their ability to appraise and improve participatory developments and implementation.

Had these issues been addressed in the second National Action Plan, then perhaps federal agencies would have been able to focus on the participatory aspects of open government and help the U.S. become a leader in public participation innovation. To this end, as the Administration moves forward with Open Government, it should work on: (1) reviewing and clarifying the legal framework for participation, including a more expansive and clear definition of public participation; (2) helping agencies develop the internal capacity needed to conduct more meaningful public participation; and (3) developing a generic, OMB-approved tool that all agencies can use to collect common data about individual participants for routine uses. Without attention to these issues, the Open Government Initiative will fail to reshape the practices and activities of public participation in the work of federal agencies.

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