Phase three of the White House’s Open Government Initiative ends this Sunday, and with it a tripartite experiment on receiving public comment about how to make government more open.
This is of course an important and monumental milestone. Never before have we seen the intersection of technology and public input to guide a governmental process on the front-end. Sure, we’ve been able to sound-off via email to our legislators when we support or oppose a bill, or file comments on a rulemaking–but there’s never been a coordinated, proactive solicitation for general public input. That’s why the Open Government Initiative is important.
It’s certainly One of Good Intent. That the process was itself an open process is a mild achievement, given that the theme was how to make government more open. But transparency is hard to achieve even with the best intentions. It may be that by opening the floodgates to public comment, we’ve increased the quantity of input, but not the quality.
A New York Times article from earlier this week raises the notion that soliciting comments isn’t easy, or maybe even productive. From the article:
[The White House] got an earful — on legalizing marijuana, revealing U.F.O. secrets and verifying Mr. Obama’s birth certificate to prove he was really born in the United States and thus eligible to be president.
Now, it’s easy to pick out a few extreme examples, but see it for yourself–the vast majority of the comments are off-topic, and some are even offensive or just flat out bizarre. Very few seem to be substantive contributions to the important topic of making government more transparent, participatory and ultimately more accountable.
As Beth Noveck writes in the OSTP Blog, we’re now in phase three of the open government initiative, which will be a “collaborative drafting process.” Hopefully this phase produces something of value, compared to the previous phases. We don’t want the third verse to be the same as the first.
After all, it’s worth remembering that the whole point of this exercise is that when it comes to access to government information and better understanding of our legislative process, we don’t want the same old song and dance.