When an open government gives you the opportunity to influence pending decisions, it should leverage everything discussed in the article on collecting and responding to citizen comments, and then take it a step further by making the decision making process more transparent. This requires some additional commitments on the part of government, including the need to provide notice of pending decisions, allow you to inspect the materials being used to inform the decision, and allow you to engage with other citizens – and maybe even with government representatives. Finally, because of the increased level of engagement on your part, it’s even more important that you’re able to see how your input feeds into the process.
Traditionally, governments have informed the public about upcoming participation opportunities using tools such as the Federal Register (“The Daily Journal of the United Stated Government”), press releases to inform the media, newspaper ads, and posting of signs on buildings that are applying for a zoning change or a liquor license. Today, governments are increasingly using social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to provide notice to the public about these opportunities. This makes sense because if you want to reach an audience, you have to go where the audience is, and increasingly, you’re on social media. Naturally, this will continue to evolve with new forms of communication, which is why governments need to stay abreast of how their citizens communicate in order to maintain their effectiveness. Open governments use both traditional and social media to tell you what decisions are pending, let you know when and how to provide your feedback, and provide details on how to get involved.
An open government will make the materials that will inform the decision available to you for inspection, as well as details about how the decision-making process works. Not only does this create a richer discussion and understanding of the issue, it also increases your understanding of your government while it ensures transparency in the decision making process. Materials might include studies, reports, meeting minutes, and similar decisions that were made in the past or in other agencies. As with the release of any data, simply making these materials available is not always sufficient. Your government may need to provide additional context for the materials so that you can fully understand their value or make sense of them.
With all of this as foundation, the real fun can begin. There are so many exciting ways to allow you to engage with other citizens and government representatives to discuss the issue, make suggestions, and improve each other’s suggestions. Traditionally, this had to be done in-person with focus groups or open meetings, but today there are a lot of online tools that can manage this process. Recently, New York City used an impressive combination of online and in-person methods to engage citizens in the placement of bike stations for their new Bike Sharing program. At the national level, the United States hosts Regulations.gov, a federal website that allows public comments on proposed regulations and the UK provides a single place to see and participate in the open public consultations online.
An excellent example of this comes from a US Department of Transportation rulemaking on airline passenger rights. In addition to the traditional methods of receiving input and using Regulations.gov, they also used RegulationRoom.org, a website managed by the eRulemaking Initiative of Cornell University. One topic of interest was banning peanuts on airplanes so as to protect passengers with peanut allergies. During the dialogue, the public identified a number of medical studies that supported their arguments in support of and against the proposed ban. Ultimately, the final rule discussed not only comments that were submitted through regulations.gov, but also those submitted through Regulation Room and participants were notified of the final rule by postings on both sites.
This sort of follow-up in combination with setting appropriate expectations when you (as a citizen) are first being engaged is important to ensure that you have a positive experience and will engage again in the future. We call this, “closing the feedback loop.”
Here’s a list of online tools that the US government has negotiated Terms of Service with so that agencies can legally use them.
The International Association of Public Participation has developed a spectrum of public participation, and the activities described in this article are focused on one of the five public participation goals:
- INVOLVE – To work directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public issues and concerns are consistently understood and considered.