Fundamental questions on government participation

I’ve been a political activist most of my life; researching the interaction between the Internet and social policy for a couple decades since I entered the computer field. So I’ve been trying to look beyond immediate tactical problems for fundamental dilemmas and decisions gov workers have to make. I’d love to get comments on this list:

Questions on government participation
http://www.praxagora.com/andyo/professional/government_participation_question.html

I call them questions partly because I am still asking questions. (And also because I think they don’t have pat answers.)

Here’s something else less directly related to this list, but still interesting to people who wonder how crowdsourcing can apply to citizen particiipation:

http://www.praxagora.com/andyo/article/open_source_open_culture.html
From Open Source Software to Open Culture: Three Misunderstandings

Andy

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Profile Photo Andre Goodfriend

Andy,

This is an excellent and concise list of issues that face a government that seeks to encourage participation and transparency, particularly using current information technology.

Let me jump in with a few quick thoughts using your questions as a structure.

The problem of expectations:

Yes, an agency that asks for participation and accepts input sets the expectation that it will be responsive. I changed your language somewhat from saying that it was raising expectations, because that connotes that the expectations might be set to high. If we are asking for participation, then we do need a mechanism in place to be responsive and explain how the public input is being used. If we’re not using it at all, then we shouldn’t be asking for it. However, my experience has been that it is reviewed. Not every suggestion is acted upon, and that constraint is generally understood. Transparency in the process can help the public understand the participatory process. Regulations.gov is a good example of an existing process for soliciting input and having impact the result. The “flood” is rarely so strong that it can’t be managed.

The problem of timing

Again, Regulations.gov is an example of public feedback being solicited at points where it can do the most good. As the site notes: “The rulemaking process generally consists of a proposed rule stage and a final rule stage. For most categories of rulemaking, the Department or Agency provides notice of a proposed regulation. Any person or organization may review this document and submit comments on it in writing. The period during which public comments are accepted varies, but is usually 30, 60, or 90 days. “

The problem of consistency

Others may be able to contribute more on this, but my experience has been that the more agencies are able to collaborate and share data, the more they recognize the need for their data tools and data sets to be interoperable, requiring agreement on taxonomies. It may be that each agency will continue to define its data collection needs according to its individual needs and context, but at the data sharing stage, the other agency that would like to link to the data comes to an agreement with the data source agency about the taxonomy for purposes of data sharing.

The problem of recognition

This touches on the issue of competition within a collaborative environment in which there is an abundance of information, rather than a dearth of information. Those who chose not to contribute find that they have limited their ability to affect the outcome, since others with less of a concern about the proprietary nature of their contribution will readily take up the gauntlet and participate. Certain elements of provided information might be treated as commercially sensitive, in the same way as “sources and methods” are often treated as secret, but other aspects of the contribution that are used in formulating public policy should be public domain (in my opinion).

The problem of privacy

It may be impossible to guarantee that an individual’s identity might not be surmised through data aggregation; however a guarantee could be made that specific personally identifiable information will not be made public.

The problem of relationships

It shouldn’t be seen as either/or. Online participation is one type of participation, and will have a different character than in person participation. There are pros and cons. On the plus side, it opens the possibility of participation to a much greater number of people, and offers a way to participate that may have as great an impact as an in person chat, in that a well laid out written submission can be more compelling than an verbal in person chat. That being said, the in person chat may create a stronger bond and be compelling for other reason. It’s not so much a problem of relationships as it is a recognition of the different types of relationships.

The problem of complexity

It is incumbent upon those who understand the issue to explain in in a way that can be understood by the public. It may not be that an issue is complex, only that those who understand don’t wish to take the time to explain it. But the same token, interested members of the public need to take the time to review the available information. I wrote a piece on this yesterday.

The problem of authority

I’m not sure what point you’re making here. Elected officials have been granted authority by the public. In a representative democracy it is expected that the representatives are competent and able to act in the interests of their electorate without having to conduct an opinion poll each time. A representative who appeared to be unable to make a decision without first consulting the public would be seen as indecisive. That being said, the representative would be expected to be able to anticipate the reaction of the electorate to his/her decisions. Are you suggesting that representatives see the voice of the people as the voice of God, contrary to Alciun’s advice to Charlemagne in 798

Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.
[And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.]

The problem of validity

This is similar to the problem of complexity. You are right. Data must be interpreted, and may be interpreted differently by different groups. Even experts interpret the same data differently. A government imprimatur on an analysis will not necessarily make that particular analysis the only valid one. Open, public commentary may sensitive members of the public to the vagaries of raw data. In general, the public won’t interpret raw data, but other analysts will. The risk is that there will be competing analyses presented to the public.

The problem of responsibility

As noted with regulations.gov, there are already mechanisms to incorporate feedback. It is not a quid pro quo, however. There’s no requirement that feedback will only be acted on if the person making the suggestion commits to acting in a certain way. In general, citizens already respect the law and will follow appropriate guidance with respect to their responsibilities. Increased participation should not be tied to an increased commitment. The increased participation is desired for its own benefit, and is in fact a symbol of increased engagement and commitment by the public.

The problem of stakeholders

Opening additional channels of access can help better enfranchise those communities that have had difficulty gaining access to their government’s feedback channels in the past. These new electronic channels, while susceptible to domination by organized groups still enable access to the unorganized and resource-poor constituency. As long as there is a means of access, these individual voices will stand out against the cookie cutter messages sent by the organized groups.

Anyway, just a few quick thoughts on a though-provoking piece.

Profile Photo Allen Sheaprd

Hi. I look to Twitter and GovLoop for change because of what happend with the stimulis(sp?) package.

1) It was over 11 hundred pages that no one read – see congresional video
2) We the people where suppose to review it for 36 hours before hand.
3) Earmarks where not suppose to be allowed (promis by both candidates)

Government is not suppose to be a spectator sport with citizens cheering on the sidelines. IMO Government is to find out what works and if good enough replicate and foster the ideas nationwide.

Just a thought.

Profile Photo Allen Sheaprd

Sorry, forgot – thank you for the subject on Privacy.
This is not a government but a corporate issue as well.
My thoughts? “With all the computers, camera’s and internet may you have more privacy, security and freedom than our founding fathers could have imagined” – Allen Shepard.

Profile Photo Andy Oram

Thanks for the replies–I’ll try to move the dialog along. I’m so
excited to hear from people in the trenches. I hope to have a phone
call today with a friend in the FCC who has given me advice as well
(but not on the document I distributed on Govloop). At some point I’ll
either have to make a wiki or thank contributors like the ones on this
list.

Andre: Some of your answers suggest that you and your peers are
finding solutions to the problems I’ve listed. I’m not ready to
“close” the problems or list the solutions on the page, but I
appreciate that you’ve seen people handle them.

Do the following two changes seem accurate and helpful?

To the timing section: “Agencies currently open a public comment
period at the proposed rule stage.” Note that this doesn’t totally
remove the timing problem, because perhaps the agenda and the
definitions are already too firm, or still too loose.

To the consistency section: “In practice, an agency consuming or
linking to the data approaches the agency producing the data and
negotiates a taxonomy for sharing.”

Some more comments on Andre’s blog:

I’ll rethink the “authority” section. Maybe it’s just stating what we
all know. It tries to deal with the frustration people feel when their
organizing and lobbying don’t produce the results they want. Maybe
they weren’t effective enough, or their proposal was just plain bad.
On the other hand, maybe the government officials are out of touch.

I liked posting your pointed to about complexity and problem of
validity. They remain a challenge that calls for effort.

Responsibility: I have only vague impressions to offer here. I think
many people ask for funding and other support with the implication
that the affected populations will behave in certain ways. But they
don’t always go back to their constituents and ask them to meet their
half of the bargain.

For Allen: there seems to be consensus that our privacy has changed
forever in an age of cell phone cameras, data mining, etc. On the
other hand, transparency in government and business helps us know how
we’re screwed and take measures to ameliorate it!