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The February Open Government Directive Workshop

This article is co-authored by Lucas Cioffi and Alex Moll, co-organizers of the February Open Government Directive Workshop in partnership with the US General Services Administration, the National Academy of Public Administration, NCDD, and GovLoop.


Summary and Purpose of the OGD Workshop

The February 17th OGD Workshop in Washington, DC was a blast. We convened sixty participants working in-person and online, from the public and private sectors, and across agencies. Third in an evolving four-part workshop series, this workshop was designed to help the federal government implement its recent Open Government Directive. Since federal agencies are currently working on their individual open government plans that are due on April 7th, frontline federal managers needed the opportunity to exchange best practices across agencies. The purpose of this particular workshop was to provide that opportunity, to synthesize, cross-pollinate, and transform great ideas into actionable recommendations. Three in-person teams and one online team collaborated independently, followed by team presentations of best ideas to a panel of judges at the end of the day. This “competitive mini-charrette” format garnered three results: 1) enhanced inter-agency relationships; 2) positive feedback from participants; and 3) a final report delivered to senior level agency leaders (available online at the top of the OpenGov Playbook).

Workshop Process

Transitioning from earlier open government online consultations, in-person seminars, workshops of the past year—focused on brainstorming and deliberation phases of problem solving—we based the next phase of collaboration from the ‘charrette’ method. This method, primarily incorporated in architectural and urban planning circles, forms interdisciplinary teams in collaborative problem solving to co-create detailed or city master plans. Typically, charrettes take plan anywhere from 4-7 days to 4-7 months, depending on the complexity of the urban planning problem. However, given out time constraints, we devised a “competitive mini-charrette” to provide structure that optimizes results within four hours, plus a working one-hour lunch.

Collaborative System

The structure leveraged time based on the intention to transition from brainstorming to collaboration. To do so, we oriented each hour to mirror in sequence following the NCDD dialogue streams and more loosely the IAP2 Spectrum of Participation. The overall process—before, during and after—applied a wide range of participation techniques: informative web sites, social networking, referenced public comments, a workshop, consensus building, participatory decision-making, ballots, and delegated decisions. Unique to the structure, we coordinated information and asked targeted questions to elicit insights during the 5-minute feedback loops (see arrows in below diagram) and breaks. However, predictably, given the tight timeline, we also coordinated with most team leaders days before Feb. 17th to help prepare for a smooth execution of the workshop.

The four-hour Charrette Process

In addition, we issued team readiness guides to prepare team leaders to build and inform team members. The guide contained only guidelines about suggested team leader duties, team member skill sets, strategic planning, collaboration materials, effective meeting principles, and ground rules. (Click to view a diagram of the mini-charrette process.) Team leaders became the heroes of the day. Because team leaders took charge and had experience in leading teams, the workshop was an immense success. Rachel Lunsford (VA), David Kuehn (DOT), Chris Jones (SourcePOV), and Stephen Buckley (USTransparency) all provided the leadership and diplomacy we needed to leverage the insights of team members. Professional facilitator Brett Barndt also provided the necessary feedback and questions needed to keep teams progressing smoothly along the charrette process. As we maintained high energy and focus throughout the day by monitoring team progress and offering feedback, we jotted down a few tips for replicating our success. (Here is a photo of Team 2 during their deliberations.)

Tips for Building a Collaborative Event

In the spirit of “open-sourcing” our method, here are some of the collaborative elements of the February workshop that you may want to include in your collaborative projects:

  • Small Teams: Collaboration is effective when group size is manageable for the team leader. We suggest 12 as the maximum. With more members than that, a team leader should have assistant team leaders.
  • Friendly Competition: Sometimes we put forth our best effort when we’re competing with another group. To harness this element, we had three in-person teams and one online team competing with each other to present the best ideas to a panel of judges at the end of the day. We called this process a “competitive charrette.”
  • Invite Great Participants: Although our workshop was open to everyone, we wanted to make sure that we’d attract a collaborative group rather than one that’s interested in
    networking only. The price of admission for this workshop was writing a few sentences about what skills or ideas a participant would like to bring to a group. This filtered out the folks that weren’t there to collaborate.
  • Responsibility AND Authority: We gave the four team leaders the responsibility for the success of their team AND we gave them the authority to succeed. This meant loosening control so that they can determine the direction and choose the particular methods that their teams would use to collaborate.
  • Public-Private: We recognize that the public and private sectors both offer valuable (and complementary) expertise on open government, so we ensured we’d have nearly a 50-50 split.
  • Online and Offline: We had one online team working in parallel with the in-person groups. This allowed more people to join in the collaborative process from outside the Beltway.
  • Inter-Agency: We made sure to draw from an inter-agency crowd to maintain a diversity of perspectives.
  • Cross-Team: During lunch we allowed the three in-person teams to mingle and cross-pollinate ideas from one team to another.
  • Top-Down and Bottom-Up: As the workshop organizers, we aimed to push “power to the edges”. We provided the resources and just enough structure so the team leaders could focus on their teams.
  • Tight Feedback Loops: Tight feedback loops kept our teams on track. Every hour we encouraged the team leaders to ask for the participants’ feedback on their team’s process; this conversation about the work process is different from a conversation about the work product. At different times, we were able to interject feedback from outside observers on the team’s process.
  • Asynchronous and Synchronous: Online collaboration before and after your in-person meetings is critical for making the most of limited face time.
  • Common Operational Picture: We used the wiki on theOpenGov Playbook so that many editors could work on the same document at the same time. This wiki also serves as a central directory of links to effective open government practices across the Web. Many of your colleagues may have never used a wiki—invite them test one out—it’s a lot simpler than they
    would expect.
  • Build on Previous Events: We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel so we put the emphasis on “synthesis, synthesis, synthesis.” There has been so much great writing and ideation about open government over the past year that what’s required now is combining and prioritizing the ideas that are already available via agency’s public engagement processes, draft agency open government plans, GovLoop, blogs, and the OpenGov Playbook.
  • Provide Food: Food is key to maintaining energy throughout the day. Because the workshop was an entirely volunteer-run event without a budget, we had all the participants chip in $10 for their own lunch. The price was low enough that no one was excluded from attending, and by not providing a free lunch, we had participants who really wanted to be there.
  • Experiment and Iterate: This workshop was our third in a series, so we’ve been refining our process over time. We aren’t afraid to fail; we have been willing to learn in public, build momentum, and improve the process by building one event upon another.
  • Team-Building: We had a happy hour after our event to help folks unwind after an intense day. This is also critical for building a sustainable community of participants for future workshops.

This list is a work in progress; we welcome any suggestions or additions in the comments section. What other ingredients do you include in your recipes for collaborative events?


As we plan (partners/assit. welcome) for the next Open Gov workshop in April, what other ingredients or issues are being overlooked with the pursuit of Open Government that you see? What are some critical, complex problems we need to solve for the development of Open Gov plans? What are your thoughts?

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Great post. I think a key ingredient you are doing but we often forget about is – this takes time and multiple workshops. Can’t just be 1 and all the worries will be solved.

Would be great to see if could tackle one problem for an agency who volunteers and walk through considerations and brainstorm.