White House deputy CTO Noveck on next steps for open government

Transparency gets all the press, but participation and collaboration are equally important

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Transparency initiatives at the White House, one of the three elements of the Open Government Initiative, have received ample attention from mainstream media and groups like the Sunlight Foundation. The implementation of the other two elements, participation and collaboration, have not. Can citizens be empowered to participate and collaborate in governance?

To begin to answer that question, I spoke with Beth Simone Noveck, professor of law at New York Law School, director of the White House Open Government Initiative, and U.S. deputy chief technology officer. Noveck is the author of “Wiki Government,” where she wrote about using social networking technology to connect people to policymakers.

President Obama’s first executive action on January 21, 2009 was to sign the Memorandum of Open Government. Last December, Peter R. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, issued the Open Government Directive. In April, all federal agencies delivered initial open government plans and an independent coalition released an open government plans audit.

Noveck has been at the heart of open government theory and application for years, starting with her groundbreaking work on the Peer to Patent project. That effort — which began in 2005 and became the subject of Noveck’s 2009 book, “Wiki Government” — was aimed at applying the expertise of individual members of the public to the heavily burdened U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Now, she’s directing the implementation of the open government agenda of President Obama.

How will you implement the participation and collaboration elements of the open government plan?

Beth NoveckIt’s potentially a more difficult issue to get right [than transparency] because we have so little experience on either side of the aisle, once you bring in citizen engagement. Government institutions haven’t typically been in the business of involving citizens so directly in the way we make decisions or using new technology. We haven’t been able to do so because we haven’t, frankly, had the technology by which to do so before. So there hasn’t been a lot of institutional experience with citizen engagement in the way that might now become possible in a Web 2.0 environment, but there also hasn’t been as much experience in civil society, either.

Let me be clear that since 1946, for example, under the Administrative Procedure Act, agencies have taken commons under active rule. So we’ve long had a well-institutionalized process in the executive branch of getting citizen participation into the primary way we make decisions, which is through rulemaking. But, again, the new ways that we might capture information earlier in the process — such as getting input on difficult scientific and technical questions before we come up with drafts of rulemakings — that’s now possible in light of the process that we’ve acknowledged. Doing this in manageable ways is really at the nub of the issue.

Where it’s thorny is learning how we can include citizen participation, where we can get relevant and meaningful information that’s going to help inform a decision. That’s where a lot of the experiments that we’re going to see over the next year or two [will be], whether it’s on the part of government or from IT vendors or from civil society groups. What’s really going to start taking place is trying to meet the demand that we now have for citizen engagement with the supply of tools and processes to make it possible.

As we talk, there’s an immense challenge that the EPA, Coast Guard and many other agencies at the state and federal level have in the Gulf of Mexico in containing the oil spill. One of the flagship parts of the Environmental Protection Agency’s open government plan is citizen participation. That includes everything from urban waters, emergency response or in disaster relief elsewhere.

How can citizens participate in crisis response?

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010Look at something like the development of Crisis Commons, which has grown out of the “crisis camps” that have gotten people engaged in making software and technical tools for use by people in disaster relief and recovery. Those folks are talking, for example, with the Department of Homeland Security’s Virtual USA project, which is designed to be a data-sharing initiative for first responders.

The tools are being developed by people on the ground, whether governmental or non-governmental, collaborating on solutions for use in a disaster like the one that we see unfolding in the Gulf. Our office is looking right now to the question of how we can use technologies to crowdsource the most useful information.

The White House recently sponsored a conference on policy innovation. In other words, how to use techniques like prizes, open grant making, and other novel mechanisms to get good ideas and solutions to policy problems faster than traditional ways.

The conference spent a full day with public sector and private sector folks, collaborating on looking at solutions like these prizes. To quote one of the speakers from the conference, “you can bring 10 to 40 times the value of innovation to solving a problem when you use a prize than if you use a traditional grant technique.” So, if you’re giving out a $1,000 prize, you can get $10,000 to $40,000 of innovation that can actually be contributed and created in pursuit of a solution to the problem.

There are techniques that we can employ to take advantage of collaboration to get people now working together in new ways to solve problems. It’s everything from “how do I create a car that can run 100 miles an hour on less gas than ever before” or “how to put a new kind of Lunar Lander on the moon” or “how to solve a tremendous scientific or medical challenge” that we might be facing. Those are the kinds of issues that we are looking at. Thanks to the Open Government Directive and the new guidance on the use of prizes, all agencies are able to deploy some of these new techniques. It will hopefully help drive new kinds of collaboration.

When it comes to issues of participation and collaboration, it’s not just a matter of posting data to Data.gov or live-streaming workshops at Broadband.gov. What are other areas where collaboration is allowing government to work better for itself and for the citizens it serves?

The collaboration piece is extremely important to this idea of creating a more open and innovative government. And it’s collaboration across and within a government department. For example, in formulating their open government plan, the Department of Transportation picked 200 people across a very large organization to determine how the agency would bring innovation to the way it works. They didn’t try to do this from one central office.

Another example: the Army is writing a “wikified” Army Field Guide so that war fighters across the military are now being invited — people with the firsthand information who are actually in the field — to help draft that manual procedure, rather than doing it out of one central office in Washington.

Collaboration is also required across levels of government. It’s when the Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, gets together with the federal CIO, Vivek Kundra, to announce the Open 311 Initiative. There’s also Virtual USA, the Department of Homeland Security’s project to enable first responders to share and trade information in a crisis. Whether they sit in Louisiana or Alabama, we want to make sure that people are able to talk to each other because natural disasters don’t respect borders.

The kind of collaboration that we’re able to make happen doesn’t necessarily involve government directly. For example, when the President launched the Educate to Innovate Initiative back in November, he called upon the private sector to do what it could to improve science, technology, engineering and math education in this country.
Out of that was born the National Lab Day initiative. It’s not a government program. It’s a private sector program driven by foundations and companies who are volunteering their members, resources and employees to get together and go into America’s schools to do hands-on science.

I’ll give you one last example of this because I want people to also know about it. The National Telecommunications and Information Agency which helps to give out broadband grants, has set up Broadbandmatch.gov. It’s a place where grantees who are applying for broadband funding can find one another. They can potentially apply together for grants, strengthen grant applications, write better applications, make themselves more eligible for receiving the funds, and better serve people with the services that they’ll provide. Again, it’s not government solving the problem, it’s helping to convene people in the private sector who can then work together to solve a problem.”

Related reading on Noveck and open government:

Noveck also delivered a talk on transparent government at the Long Now Foundation, embedded below:

Note: This interview was condensed and edited.

Update: OpenGov v2.0

Megan Eskey, web manager at NASA Ames Research Center, shared her presentation from Open Gov West in the comments. I’ve embedded it below.

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  • Fred Hegel

    Open Government = Opening the public up for exploitation.

    Research Sir Karl Popper’s Open Society and stop falling for the semantic deception of buzz words like “open”. These concepts have been around since the days of Plato, and now we have a new set of front people attempting to convince the public that this new form of social control is in its interest. It’s the same drill, different century.

    Does anyone at O’Reilly read or study history or humanity’s great thinkers? Or, do you push this crap without even understanding it’s origins and its intended consequences? If you don’t understand what I am talking about, then don’t you have some responsibility to acquire that knowledge before promoting it to our youthful tech community, and ask that they invest their time in building these new social systems?

    And please, no reply comments that try to argue that this is just about the public wanting more transparency in government and that this is all just a nice little project to benefit democracy and the people. Such misunderstanding is precisely what I am pinpointing here.

    Tim O’Reilly, Sunlight Foundation, Soros, and the others behind this push should be put to task to convince that this direction is in their best interest given the thousands of years of history on the subject matter.

  • Megan

    Nice overview. Here is a link to my slideshow at Open Gov West, where I instantiate many of these concepts in a few tangible recommendations for moving OpenGov from Gov 1.0 to Gov 2.0:


  • Walter Schwabe @fusedlogic

    This is highly cool! Great interview and information.

  • Alexander Howard

    @Walter – Thank you!

    @Meganesque : I added your presentation as an embed, since it contains so much information relevant to the post.

    @Fred – Thank you for taking time to comment. Are you familiar with Friedrich Hegel, the 19th century German philosopher? The name rung a bell from my sociology class in college, where I associate him with the concept of the master/slave dialectic.

    I find studying “history and humanity’s great thinkers” to be be fascinating. And based upon the reading he shares and the classics degree Tim O’Reilly holds from Harvard, I suspect he shares that interest.

    I’ve also read “Wiki Government,” where Noveck put the idea of open government in historical context. Since, as the title hints, digital tools are at the heart of her thesis, I’m uncertain about thousands of years of scholarship that has explored the social networking and online knowledge sharing in great depth.

    In terms of “a push” towards open government and transparency, I’ll let Tim, the Sunlight Foundation and George Soros speak for themselves. Given that the policy stems directly from a directive inscribed with President Obama’s signature, I might point you in the direction of the current occupant of the Oval Office might be best equipped to further address your critique:

    In terms of my own intent to write about what’s happening at the White House, my intention was to inform my audience about an initiative that is government is carrying out by speaking with the official in charge of implementing it.

  • But doesn’t this carry the same inherent flaw as globalization…one site gets compromised and due to their interconnectivity they ALL get compromised…

  • Previously, Noveck directed the Institute for Information Law & Policy and the Democracy Design Workshop at New York Law School where she is on-leave as a professor.
    She is good