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Executive Guide to Public Engagement for Open Government

Public engagement is playing an increasingly important role across the federal government as agencies are under pressure to improve openness efforts in the context of the Open Government Directive. The directive, released in December 2009, set aggressive deadlines for releasing data, engaging the public and publishing plans to promote transparency and public participation. Already, agencies have put up open government Web pages to solicit public input, made public high-value data sets and set about creating open government plans, to be published on their Web sites April 7.

On March 8, 2010, Jeffrey Zients, OMB Deputy Director for Management, called on agencies to involve the public in their missions in yet another way—through competition. He released an executive memorandum,“Guidance on the Use of Challenges and Prizes to Promote Open Government.” The memo added depth and clarity to President Obama’s September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, which called for agencies “to increase their ability to promote and harness innovation by using policy tools such as prizes and challenges.”  The March 8 memo highlights the policy and legal issues related to implementing prizes and challenges as tools to promote open government, innovation and agencies’ missions.

In this Executive Guide for Public Engagement, the CGI Initiative features additional advice and guidance for federal executives working to fulfill the requirements and the promise of open government, especially in making their public involvement efforts effective, efficient and engaging. We draw upon the experience of one of government’s early advocates and practitioners in this area, Molly O’Neill, former CIO at the EPA. We also offer links to examples of effective public engagement efforts and to prize competitions that exemplify open government and have contributed directly to mission accomplishment. These examples provide practical, applicable guidelines for agency executives in the throes of implementing the Open Government Directive.

Molly O’Neill Discusses Public Engagement

Maturity Levels of Public Engagement

Agency Goal:
Build trust among the external community. Open a discussion about a specific set of topics and let the public respond as they please.
Move ideas the public provides into constructs that align with the agency’s goal. Increase active participation from the agency in moderating the dialogue.
Move beyond moderating the discussion to answering questions that participants raise. Begin building a voice by adding value to the discussion.
Evolve from answering questions to analyzing trends in the discussion and providing insight into what the agency is thinking. Using methods from preceding levels establish a high level of trust with the external community, and engage in deeper dialogue to capitalize on this trust.

Best Practices for Public Engagement

Focus on framing the discussion. Agree on the 3 to 5 most important questions the dialogue should address. The way these questions are framed will dictate the type and quality of responses.
Determine which people or communities care or are affected most about the discussion topic. Make sure these communities are aware and will be likely to participate.
Create and execute a communication outreach plan before the collaboration project begins to alert the target audience and to set expectations.
Analyze information and ideas from both a context perspective (to inform agency decisions) and a process perspective (to improve future collaboration efforts).
Use data about open government gathered during the discussion to determine who participated and whether you reached the target audience. If not, analyze why not and adjust the next interaction accordingly.
Measure whether the data gathered from these efforts informs and improves the agency’s mission, and adjust the approach and questions accordingly.


Core Values of Public Participation

Public participation:

1. Is based on the belief that those who a decision affects have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.
2. Includes the promise that the public’s contribution will present ideas that may influence direction or decision.
3. Promotes sustainable decisions by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision-makers.
4. Seeks out and facilitates the involvement from those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.
5. Seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.
6. Provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
7. Communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.

Source: International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)

Recent Examples of Mission Accomplishment Via Public Participation

EPA Watershed Central-Your Watershed – Invites citizens to adopt their watersheds to help EPA monitor, clean
and restore them; offers ways to zoom in on a watershed, view regulated
facilities in an area, find volunteer groups and things to do to make a

NASA “Be A Martian” Website
– The “Be A Martian” website is a cloud computing effort that lets the
public view hundreds of thousands of images from Mars.  The site
leverages crowd-sourcing to allow the public to count craters and other
formations on Mars’ surface, helping NASA to map the planet.

Department of Energy’s “L Prize” – The L Prize competition is a government-sponsored technology competition seeks to “spur development of ultra-efficient solid-state lighting products” that will replace the common light bulb.

NASA Centennial Challenges Program – NASA’s Centennial Challenges seeks to find the most innovative solutions to technical challenges through competition and cooperation by encouraging participation from independent teams, inventors, student groups and private companies in aerospace research and development.

EPA “Our Planet, Our Stuff, Our Choice” Video Competition – This competition aims to raise awareness of the connection between the environment and the waste humans produce.  The goal is to inspire community involvement, disseminate information and lead to action that will make a difference. Video Contest – Users are encouraged to submit creative, entertaining and informative 30 to 90 second videos on how they use the information found on USA.go to make their life better. The creator of the winning video will receive $2,500. “Democracy Is…” Video Contest (State Department) – The challenge invites citizens from around the world to create video shorts (3 minutes or less) that complete the phrase, “Democracy is…” in an effort to enhance global dialogue on democracy.

Additional Resources

National Academy of Public Administration Collaboration Project

Open Government Initiative

OpenGov Tracker Open Government – Share Your Ideas

OpenGSA – IdeaScale

International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)

Core Values of Public Participation

Deterring Fake Public Participation

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation

EPA’s Information Access Strategy – January 2009

Molly O’Neill

Molly O’Neill is currently a CGI Initiative for Collaborative Government Fellow and Vice President at CGI.  Prior to joining CGI, O’Neill served as the CIO of EPA, responsible for information technology infrastructure, data collection and exchange, information technology policies, enterprise architecture, information security and the information quality program. At EPA, she championed innovation in data transparency, data sharing and collaboration and led some of the first government efforts with public engagement using Web 2.0 technology.  Notably, this included the Puget Sound Information Challenge (Puget Sound Information Challenge on NAPA’s Collaboration Project Site) and the National Dialogue for Improving Access to Information (National Dialogue on Access to Environmental Information on NAPA’s Collaboration Project Site).

Before her appointment at the EPA, O’Neill served as the state director for the National Environmental Information Exchange Network for the Environmental Council of the States. She worked with the EPA, state environmental agencies and tribes to establish and manage an evolutionary information network, which allows millions of vital data records to be shared across the country.

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