As the new Director of Online Engagement at AmericaSpeaks, part of my job is to keep an ear to the ground in the world of open government technology. In this role, I spent Tuesday at the FedTalks event at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC. The event was excellent – in spite of the overwhelming number of contractors in attendance! Speakers included US CIO Vivek Kundra, US Deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin, HuffingtonPost founder Arianna Huffington, Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark, Congressman Jim Moran, and a number of federal agency CTOs and CIOs.
Others have provided a more complete account of the event. So I’ll just make a few observations.
As someone who founded a citizen participation website, MixedInk, and is driven by the potential for online citizen participation in government, I was struck by the relative lack of emphasis on citizen participation at the event. There was talk of transparency, cloud computing, open data, cutting red-tape, e-government, streamlining services, new cost-saving processes andtechnologies, and greater accountability – all very important goals, of course. But there was disappointingly little discussion of how to give citizens a greater voice in shaping policy.
Speakers cited several examples of democratic ideation tools like IdeaScale, UserVoice, and Townhall being used by federal agencies to gather input. For example, in two recent efforts, the Veterans Administration gathered a combined 10,000 suggestions, including several that are being implemented. But these initiatives focused on incorporating internal feedback from employees.
Perhaps this kind of internal experimentation is a necessary precursor to external experimentation. But this underscores a general trend we’ve observed lately.
We need our government to ask for feedback from external sources — from its citizens. Citizens should not only be invited to help make government more effective and efficient, but more meaningfully, to help choose the right policies. Results of efforts to gather public input have thus far been pretty meager. (NASA has been the most successful, perhaps due to the leadership of CTO Chris Kemp.) Whether because they haven’t been promoted sufficiently or because decision-makers obviously aren’t listening closely to the output, people aren’t bothering to participate in numbers great enough to make much of a difference.
Many tools for gathering citizen online are available. But citizen participation initiatives are seen as risky and difficult to implement well. Many government officials are idealistic, passionate believers in democratic values, but the institutional incentives to maintain the status quo and avoid the risks posed by democratic engagement impedes the experimentation that’s required. More resources and political will is needed behind the idea that citizens deserve a voice in government the norm within the federal government.
Disagree with my assessment of the event, or of the state of online engagement? Let us know in the comments.