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What Cost Citizen Engagement? (Richard Fahey)

Dr. GovLoop has been scouring the Web for great content…and found this great post by Richard Fahey, a GovLooper from Ireland.

Tomorrow marks the end of Sunshine week, highlighting the importance of transparency, open government and freedom of information. The week has seen the launch of a wide range of initiatives focused on the themes of transparency and accountability.

Broadly speaking, the open government movement in Ireland has not penetrated government, or the political agenda, in any similar way as countries such as the United States or United Kingdom. There is a lack of political leadership around this issue both at a central and local government level.

In addition, the resources for advocacy in Ireland are more limited than in the U.S. or the U.K. Organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation or OMB Watch, which use technology to show how the government can be more transparent, and take non-machine-readable data and make it more accessible do not exist in Ireland. There is fewer foundations and donors who can sponsor such projects.

Nevertheless, sites such as KildareStreet and theStory do exist to make government data more transparent and accessible. The government, itself, however has not engaged in any widespread engagement strategies in a similar manner to the US Open Government initiative.

Citizen Engagement
As a means of ‘engaging with the public’ the Houses of the Oireachtas (the legislative branch of Government) recently created a number of short films to provide an insight into our national parliament. Some of the films are a serious attempt to educate the public on the operations if the government, while others are intended as a light-hearted perspective on legislative decision making.

The seven short films include:

– A Welcome to the Houses of the Oireachtas from the speaker of the Dail (the Ceann Comhairle) – In this film, he introduces Leinster House (home to the Houses of the Parliament), and highlights the need to make its activities more open and transparent:

“We need to get more people engaged in the democratic process and make it more relevant to today’s Ireland, or we face the prospect of a long term decline in the authority of our systems and ultimately of our democracy. The time has arrived where we need to become more outward looking and open.”

The Tree – A selection of voices from the people of Ireland on their view of the country and its future.

Parliament – An explanation of the structure of the national parliament and the election process.

“Ireland is government by what is know by a Parliamentary democracy. Our national Parliament – the Oireachtas – consists of the office of the President and two houses: Dail Eireann (the House of Representatives) and Seanad Eireann (the Senate).”

At Home An introduction to some of the country’s politicians in their home environments.

“Anyone who chooses the political pathway needs to have a support network in place as they face the variety of challenges in their job. Friends and family are paramount to this.”

Budget – An enlightened debate over the compromises involved in passing a budget.

Bill – A light-hearted look into the process through which a bill becomes law.

Members – A reflection on political life from members of the Oireachtas.

Cost of Engagement

The production of the short films above has not been without controversy. The Houses of the Oireachtas spent close to €100,000 on the films above and other promotional brochures.

The short films have been uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo, but so far have only achieved just over 1,100 views. At a cost of €87,000, this currently works out at a significant cost per view.

Crowdsourced Visualisations
The Sunlight Foundation announced a new competition this week in which it is offering prizes of up to $5,000 for visualisations of government data, processes and websites. As part of this they’re looking for members of the public to create a visualisation of How a Bill Becomes a Law.

The Bill film above is the Irish government’s attempt to outline this process in an easily accessible fashion. It does not, however, tell the whole story i.e. who writes the bills, what happens after they get passed etc.

The question arises as to whether the Irish government could have solicited such a production from the general public by way of a competition, rather than creating this themselves. Would it have been cheaper and more inclusive to crowdsource such a visualisation? Would it have been better to explain more of the nuances of policy making, rather than simply outlining the process?

Government Films
The Obama administration has been prolific in it’s use of video to outline the activities of the executive branch. Their YouTube channel contains hundreds of videos narrating Presidential events, press conferences, policy announcements and townhalls.

One of the most interesting aspects of their video presence relates to the behind the scenes footage they’ve uploaded. Through these they administration provides a fascinating insight into the operations of the White House. Such films exemplify the transparency tenets of the Memorandum on Open Government:

Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.

These films are professionally produced and not the kind of thing which could be reasonably be produced by members of the general public, not least because this kind of access would not be available.

The US government has, however, experimented with the crowdsourcing of videos. HHS ran a competition last year for a Public Service Announcement (PSA) film to inform and motivate people to take steps that will help prevent the spread of the flu. They received over 200 entries with over 50,000 votes cast on the entries. The EPA and other agencies are currently running similar competitions.

Crowdsourcing Irish gov films

Due to the lack of any substantial Open Government movement in operation within Ireland – or the existence of high profile organisations advocating greater transparency – it’s difficult to know whether competitions such as those organised by Sunlight Labs would be successful here. While these films are an attempt to make the Houses of the Oireachtas more transparent, the initiative cannot be thought of as a significant engagement exercise.

Last week’s Irish Innovation taskforce report made no mention of the release of government data or information in order to stimulate innovation. Sunshine week has highlighted the importance of transparency and the innovations that can be achieved through developing an active and engaged public.

Ireland can learn much from this week’s activities particularly the Public Online Information Act. Rather than spend time creating films, government should be releasing data and information to enable the public create their own visualisations. In the long run, this is a much more sustainable platform upon which government can engage with the public.

Here’s the Original Post

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