Viewpoint: Happy Birthday, Open Government Directive

One year ago, President Obama kicked off a bold experiment in making the federal government more open and participatory. The administration's Open Government Directive required federal agencies to tell the public how they will become more transparent, participatory and collaborative.

During the past year, agencies have made significant progress toward these goals, but there is still a long road ahead. They will need additional support and direction from the administration to become more accountable to the public. But we believe the process Obama set in motion can be a transformative one.

The primary success of the Open Government Directive to date has been developing infrastructure that makes information more available to the public and that increases opportunities for people to provide agencies with input and feedback. The administration required agencies to develop open government plans that laid out specific steps each agency will take to build openness and participation into standard operations. Most agencies updated these plans within six months to reflect feedback from open government groups, the public and their own self-assessments. The administration also has established an Interagency Open Government Working Group composed of high-level officials from every agency, which meets monthly to share successes, discuss implementation challenges and exchange ideas.

In creating this infrastructure, the administration has sent the clear message that citizens deserve a voice in the public decisions that shape their lives beyond merely voting every two years. Obama's deputies have encouraged agencies to host forums to solicit ideas from the public about how to better fulfill their mission. A partial list of online forums already run can be found at www.opengovtracker.com. Thanks to these efforts, the important legal processes, tools and best practices needed to support public participation are evolving among agencies and federal contractors.

More visibly, agencies also have opened up their data warehouses, allowing researchers, website developers and citizen information technology specialists to build innovative Web and mobile applications using government data. And they have launched regularly updated Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, empowering the public to interact with the government in comfortable modern settings.

Still, in our experience, many people find it difficult to identify, find and use basic types of information about government activities and have their voices heard by officials before decisions are made. For example, information about whom public officials meet with or who wins government contracts, when available, is often hidden deep on agency websites or posted in unusable formats. People have yet to see real two-way conversation between government and citizens that enables the public to have genuine impact on policy in all phases of its development.

The low-risk, low-profile experimentation undertaken to date has proved the American people can provide valuable ideas worthy of serious consideration. Yet there are few examples of the feedback contributed online influencing policy in a significant way, and none that has been well publicized. Further, the limited participation and lack of diversity in these online engagements makes it hard to justify assigning real weight to their results.

To succeed in making the federal government more accountable, the administration should lead and set the standard for open government. The public should not have to ask for information that helps them find out how the government is spending its resources, who is influencing public policy decisions, what information the government is collecting and so on -- only to wait months for the government to respond to that request. Such information should be released proactively.

Government leaders with high public profiles should personally invite, monitor, respond to and incorporate citizen input into policy. Successful examples of such moves must be broadly publicized to show the public that this conversation is meaningful and their voices truly matter. Over time, this will promote the evolution of an "eco-system" of participation in which both policymakers and the public see well-intentioned partners in those on the opposite side of the table.

To guide officials interested in promoting real policy discussion with the public, qualitative and quantitative metrics must be established around the involvement of top decision-makers, levels and diversity of participation, and focusing public attention on instances in which policies have been significantly influenced by the public.

As advocates of open government, the people in our organizations commit to continue working with the administration to establish real standards and targets for greater openness and more meaningful participation, serving as both allies and constructive critics in the effort to achieve them. We look forward to celebrating the accomplishments of the Open Government Directive's second year.

Carolyn Lukensmeyer is founder and president of AmericaSpeaks, a national nonprofit that engages citizens in policymaking. Patrice McDermott is director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition that seeks to promote openness and reduce secrecy in government.

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