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A Resolution and a Commitment
Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

It is never too late to make a New Year’s resolution.  We at AmericaSpeaks and Ascentum thought it might be helpful if we proposed a resolution focused on Open Government that federal managers can adopt to start the year off right: Resolve to make a specific, concrete commitment to enhance citizen participation in your agency.

(Note: Ascentum and AmericaSpeaks are partners in offering online public engagement services to agencies in the US Government in support of the White House’s Open Government Directive)

Public commitments can be scary, exciting, and newsworthy, but the healthy pressure they generate often proves transformative.  This “open government resolution” includes two elements: a pledge and a relationship.

An example of a pledge might be an organizational commitment to public participation, perhaps a commitment to two large-scale public participation projects in a year.  It could mean capacity building and training of staff in public participation theory and techniques.  It could also cover the development of an Agency framework or standards for public participation.  It can be many things.  But it has to be clearly articulated, or rather, pledged.

The second part of the pledge centers on a relationship.  This is the relationship between your Agency and the public, whether it is individual citizens, nonprofits, stakeholder organizations, academic institutions, small businesses, or multi-national corporations.  Public participation builds relationships of real value to an agency.  This isn’t merely democratic governance theory; relationships established through public participation generate public support for actions an agency takes.  Public participation can ensure that new policies and programs are sustainable and robust because the public’s perspectives have been considered and taken into account.

This isn’t devolution of decision-making to the public.  Rather, agencies must incorporate public input into the decision-making lifecycle along with other inputs and evidence.

The decision-making lifecycle, from our perspective, is the cornerstone of public participation.  By understanding the current position within the decision-making lifecycle, you can better decide where and when it is appropriate to ask the public to make a contribution.

A key component of the decision-making lifecycle should be established at the outset: true participation cannot occur after a new policy has been finalized. Faux participation impedes the positive momentum of genuine participation as the last conclusion a policy maker wants to convey is that citizen perspectives don’t matter.  From time to time, we see requests for public input made in instances where a decision has already been made.  This is more a communications or public affairs effort to spread the word disguised as an opportunity for public input. Of course, ultimately, an agency always makes the decision.  Accountability always remains with government. However, citizens and stakeholders can always make a contribution to different points in a decision-making lifecycle.

The Department of Lawns and Gardens

Let’s illustrate the process of identifying potential contributors at other stages of the decision-making process using an example at the fictitious Department of Lawns and Gardens (DLG).

DLG wants to implement a new national regulation on lawn watering.  Scientific surveillance data from every region of the country has shown that the use of water over the summer months is having a negative affect on the regional, state, and national water fresh water supply.  Policymakers are exploring new regulations on residential and commercial lots.  This will not affect the agriculture industry.

So let’s see where this DLG policy sits within the decision-making lifecycle.  It is clear that officials have moved beyond monitoring and have defined the issue with a degree of specificity.  The Department also has collected a wealth of data on the issue, and believes public input on these first three stages is not required.  The Department has formed a Public Participation Committee (PPC) and they are thinking through the plan for public participation across the decision-making lifecycle.

Pre-Decision Participation

Establish Criteria To Inform Development of Alternatives

The Department’s PPC decides to convene a series of panels with experts from across the country, including a healthy mix of academics and government scientists.  The intent of this session is to focus on generative dialogue by asking, “What are the key criteria for developing lawn watering regulations that are flexible to meet our regional needs and local variation?”  The DLG will then analyze the outcomes of these conversations to assist in developing alternatives.

Develop Alternatives For Broad Consultation

Based on its external expertise and the input received from experts, the PPC then decides to develop and articulate three different alternatives.  This was a difficult decision, but the PPC felt that it would be a better use of resources to engage the public during the evaluation of alternatives and in the implementation stage.  Having been trained, they know that they must present a balanced positioning of the alternatives, including arguments for and against each position.  The public would cry fowl if the presentation of alternatives were skewed toward one position or another.

Evaluate Alternatives

The Department and the PPC feel strongly that a national conversation on lawn watering regulations is necessary to choose the correct path forward. The PPC believes that residential and commercial perspectives must be gathered in large-scale, integrated conversations.  They decide to use a series of networked and 21st Century Town Meetings to identify which alternative would be the best fit for all.  These sessions are to be held in 10 different locations, each of which will include 50 to 2,000 participants.  All sessions will be linked to the primary session to be held in Las Vegas, NV.  The participants must represent the diverse cultural and social-economic perspectives of their region.

Participants would spend 4 hours hearing about the three different options and engaging in deliberative dialogue.  Participants would discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the different approaches and what each option would mean to them personally with others at their tables.  Table conversations are submitted and synthesized by a centralized team of thematic and process experts. Participants would then use electronic keypads to automatically register their perspective at different points in the conversation.

The PPC knows that organizing this process would be a lot of work.  However the outcome would provide a meaningful sense of what participants believe the most feasible alternative is.  The PPC also knows that participants’ preferences might include small modifications or dramatic, fundamental changes to the alternatives under consideration. But the PPC understands how important this process is.  If participants reject the alternatives, then the lawn watering regulation would not be viewed as acceptable when launched nationally.  If, on the other hand, participants endorse an alternative, then there would be a good chance that it would have national buy-in.

Closing the Decision Making Model

Making the Decision

The leadership of the Department of Lawns and Gardens feels at ease when the time comes to actually make a decision.  The PPC has provided them with a solid foundation of input from their public participation initiatives to help inform policy.  A particular alternative was selected, but it was accompanied by a commitment to public participation once the regulation came into force.

Implementing the Decision

One of the key pieces of feedback the PPC received was that the public is passionate about this issue and that it wants to continue contributing to lawn watering regulations implementation.  Participants have suggested that residential and commercial interests could share their best practices and experiences for conservation.  The PPC considers this and suggests to the Agency leadership that an Idea Crowdsourcing campaign be launched once the regulation comes into force.

The public would use the crowdsourcing tool to share their ideas and tips on working with the lawn watering regulation.  Others would read, comment and vote up or down the ideas they liked the best.  The PPC also receives permission to provide awards to the top 10 ideas.  These awards would take popularity into account, but would also weigh the PPC’s expert assessment regarding which ideas could have the greatest impact in making the regulation a success.

Evaluate the Decision

The PPC advises the Department’s leadership that a comprehensive formative and summative evaluation of the regulation should take place five years from its launch.  This would serve as a public commitment to evaluate the regulation’s effectiveness and to consider whether it had had any unintended outcomes.  The evaluation would be undertaken by external experts and reported back to the Department’s leadership through the PPC.

Is This Possible?

The Department of Lawns and Gardens is patently fictitious, but an agency commitment to public participation isn’t.  Many government agencies in the US and around the world could undertake a project like this with considerable success.  This type of process – one that generates sustainable and robust decision-making – does not happen accidentally.  Two ingredients are essential.  The first is trained, resourced staff with a mandate for public participation.  The second is an agency public participation framework with standards for engaging the public.  A framework must be adapted to the agency’s specific context and should address 9 key questions.  What are these 9 key questions, you ask?

Our Commitment

Our commitment to you, borne of an interest in establishing a relationship between ourselves (AmericaSpeaks and Ascentum) and our visitors, is to publish a blog post elaborating on each of the nine questions here at asonline.org.  We hope you’ll return as we lay out our thoughts on the critical ingredients for an agency’s participation framework.  You can search for 9Qs on the site at anytime to see the latest blog posts on the subject.  We hope you’ll visit, comment, and share our 9Qs.

Your Resolution

It is never too late to decide on your New Year’s resolutions.  We have made the commitment to you to publish our 9Qs.  We only ask one thing of you: Consider how making a commitment to public participation could be the next step in your agency’s contribution to Open Government.

– Joseph Peters –

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