What would happen if you could express your opinions directly to federal government agencies—before they make the decisions that affect your life? What if they paid attention?
That’s what the White House is aiming for. Earlier this week, the Obama administration released its Open Government Directive—an initiative to connect federal government agencies more closely with the public they serve. Much of the directive deals with transparency: publishing more data more promptly, creating open-government pages for each agency website, and so forth.
But transparency is only one-third of the equation. The directive also requires the agencies to integrate public participation into their decision making and use multiparty collaboration—with other agencies, nonprofits, even individuals—to pursue their core missions.
According to a White House press release on the website for the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (of which I’m honored to be a member), “The directive stems largely from the unprecedented Open Government Initiative…in which the Administration reached out directly to the American people for specific policy recommendations. Thousands of citizens participated in the online forums and offered ideas on how to transform the government into a more transparent, accountable, participatory operation.”
Several nuggets in that last sentence. First, this just might work. Clearly the government modeled public participation in creating the whole Open Government Directive, and thousands of citizens responded. Second, online technology facilitates participation on a level unheard of in previous generations. Third, although agencies have long provided opportunity for public comment on pending regulation, this directive aims at institutionalizing the whole notion of open government—spreading it into every aspect of agency culture.
This is still embryonic, of course, and a ton of questions remain. The directive doesn’t mandate specific steps—simply that agencies create plans for open government. Changing bureaucracies, by its very nature, is arduous and takes time. Some dialogue professionals are underwhelmed with this effort, seeing it as focusing too much on transparency and not enough on participation or collaboration.
But the thought that our government might actually want to dialogue with us is a refreshing change from business as usual. Stay tuned.