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White House Open Government Initiatives

Beth Noveck is deputy chief technology officer for open government and leads President Obama’s Open Government Initiative

Beth Noveck is deputy chief technology officer for open government and leads President Obama’s Open Government Initiative. She is giving a talk at Harvard. She begins by pointing to the citizenry’s lack of faith in government. Without participation, citizens become increasingly alienated, she says. For example: the rise of Tea Parties. A new study says that a civic spirit reduces crime. Another article, in Social Science and Medicine, correlates civic structures and health. She wants to create more opportunities for citizens to engage and for government to engage in civic structures — a “DoSomething.gov,” as she lightly calls it. [NOTE: Liveblogging. Getting things wrong. Missing things. Substituting inelegant partial phrases for Beth's well-formed complete sentences. This is not a reliable report.]

Beth points to the peer to patent project she initiated before she joined the government. It enlists volunteer scientists and engineers to research patent applications, to help a system that is seriously backlogged, and that uses examiners who are not necessarily expert in the areas they’re examining. This crowd-sources patent applications. The Patent Office is studying how to adopt peer to patent. Beth wants to see more of this, to connect scientists and others to the people who make policy decisions. How do we adapt peer to patent more broadly, she asks. How do we do this in a culture that prizes consistency of procedures?

This is not about increasing direct democracy or deliberative democracy, she says. The admin hasn’t used more polls, etc., because the admin is trying to focus on action, not talk. The aim is to figuring out ways to increase collaborative work. Next week there’s a White House on conf on gov’t innovation, focusing on open grant making and prize-based innovation.

The President’s first executive action was to issue a memorandum on transparency and open gov’t. This was very important, Beth says, because it let the open gov folks in the administration say, “The President says…” President Obama is very committed to this agenda, she says; after all, he is a community organizer in his roots. Simple things like setting up a blog with comments were big steps. It’s about changing the culture. Now, there’s a culture of “leaning forward,” i.e., making commitments to being innovative about how they work. In Dec., every agency was told to come up with its own open govt plan. A directive set a road map: How and when you’re going to inventory all the data in your agency and put it online in raw, machine-readable form? How are you going to engage people in meaningful policy work? How are you going to engage in collaboration within govt and with citizens? On Tuesday, the White House collected self-evaluations, which are then evaluated by Beth’s office and by citizen groups.

How to get there. First, through people. Every agency has someone responsible for open govt. The DoT has 200+ on their open govt committee. Second, through platforms (which, as she says, is Tim O’Reilly’s mantra). E.g., data.gov is a platform.

Transparency is going well, she thinks: White House visitor logs, streaming the health care summit, publishing White House employee salaries. More important is data.gov. 64M hits in under a year. Pew says 40% of respondents have been there. 89M hits on the IT dashboard that puts a user-friendlier interface to govt spending. Agencies are required to put up “high value” data that helps them achieve their core mission. E.g., Dept. of Labor has released 15 yrs of data about workplace exposure to toxic chemicals, advancing its goal of saving workers’ lives. Medicare data helps us understand health care. USDA nutrition data + a campaign to create video games to change the eating habits of the young. Agencies are supposed to ask the public which data they want to see first, in part as a way of spurring participation.

 

To spur participation, the GSA now has been procuring govt-friendly terms of service for social media platforms; they’re available at apps.gov. It’s now trying to acquire innovation prize platforms, etc.

Participation and collaboration are different things, she says. Participation is a known term that has to do with citizens talking with govt. But the exciting new frontier, she says, is about putting problems out to the public for collaborative solving. E.g., Veterans Benefits Admin asked its 19,000 employees how to shorten wait times; within the first week of a brainstorming competition, 7,000 employees signed up and generated 3,000 ideas, the top ten of which are being implemented. E.g., the Army wikified the Army operations manual.

It’s also about connecting the public and private. E.g., the National Archives is making the Federal Registry available for free (instead of for $17K/yr), and the Princeton Internet center has made an annotatable. Carl Malamud also. The private sector has announced National Lab Day, to get scientists out into the schools. Two million people signed up.

She says they know they have a lot to do. E.g., agencies are sitting on exebytes of info, some of which is on paper. Expert networking: We have got to learn how to improve upon the model of federal advisory commissions, the same group of 20 people. It’s not as effective as a peer to patent model, volunteers pooled from millions of people. And we don’t have much experience using collaboration tools in govt. There is a recognition spreading throughout the govt that we are not the only experts, that there are networks of experts across the country and outside of govt. But ultimately, she says, this is about restoring trust in govt.

Q: Any strategies for developing tools for collaborative development of policy?
A: Brainstorming techniques have been taken up quickly. Thirty agencies are involved in thinking about this. It’s not about the tools, but thinking about the practices. On the other hand, we used this tool with the public to develop open govt plans, but it wasn’t promoted enough; it’s not the tools but the processes. Beth’s office acts as an internal consultancy, but people are learning from one another. This started with the President making a statement, modeling it in the White House, making the tools available…It’s a process of creating a culture and then the vehicles for sharing.

Q: Who winnowed the Veterans agency’s 3,000 suggestions?
A: The VA ideas were generated in local offices and got passed up. In more open processes, they require registration. They’ve used public thumbs up and down, with a flag for “off topic” that would shrink the posting just to one link; the White House lawyers decided that that was acceptable so long as the public was doing the rating. So the UFO and “birther” comments got rated down. They used a wiki tool (MixedInk) so the public could write policy drafts; that wiki let users vote on changes. When there are projects with millions of responses, it will be very hard; it makes more sense to proliferate opportunities for smaller levels of participation.

 

We’re crowd-sourcing expertise. In peer to patent, we’re not asking people if they like the patent or think it should be patented; we’re asking if they have info that is relevant. We are looking for factual info, recognizing that even that info is value-laden. We’re not asking about what people feel, at least initially. It’s not about fostering contentious debate, but about informed conversation.

Q: What do you learn from countries that are ahead of the curve on e-democ, e.g., Estonia? Estonia learned 8 yrs ago that you have to ask people to register in online conversations…
A: Great point. We’re now getting up from our desks for the first time. We’re meeting with the Dutch, Norway, Estonia, etc. And a lot of what we do is based on Al Gore’s reinventing govt work. There’s a movement spreading particularly on transparency and data.gov.

Q: Is transparency always a good approach? Are there fields where you want to keep the public out so you can talk without being criticized?
A: Yes. We have to be careful of personal privacy and national security. Data sets are reviewed for both before they go up on data.gov. I’d rather err on the side of transparency and openness to get usover the hump of sharing what they should be sharing. There’s value in closed-door brainstorm so you can float dumb ideas. We’re trying to foster a culture of experimentation and fearlessness.

[I think it's incredible that we have people like Beth in the White House working on open government. Amazing.]

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More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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