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William Pomerantz

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Building a More Open Government, One Idea at a Time

Posted: 03/16/10 11:47 AM ET

During the months leading up the 2008 election, President Obama repeatedly and vocally campaigned on the concept of a new era of open, transparent government. On his first day in office, he began acting on those campaign promises, issuing a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government that called on federal agencies and departments to work with the White House "to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration." In December of last year, the White House followed that memorandum with the Open Government Directive, which expanded on the theme and established deadlines for each agency and department to roll out their plans to promote the principles of transparency, collaboration, participation, and innovation.

Sure enough, federal agencies have begun that process. As a critical early step, each agency is using online tools to solicit input from the general public. I'll take as an example an agency near and dear to my own heart: NASA. On February 8th, our nation's civil space agency rolled out NASA.gov/open, a website that allows space enthusiasts and concerned tax-payers everywhere to chime in on ways to improve the agency. This suggestion period is open for three more days. To date, the results have been impressive: NASA maintains a healthy lead over the federal government in suggestions received, with more than 300 ideas already submitted. All told, members of the public have contributed well over 1800 ideas and around 20,000 votes across all of the agencies, with a few days remaining. A huge number of people have been able to do as I have and submit a few ideas (in my case, one on student-focused incentive prizes and another on creating a work exchange program between NASA and the emerging commercial space industry) and cast votes for or against the ideas submitted by others.

This is an exciting opportunity, and an important one. Some may be tempted to dismiss this as a stunt--a net cast so wide that no one would ever bother to wade through the results to look for the worthwhile submissions. However, after a chance to speak with the team at NASA's Washington, DC headquarters, I've learned that nothing could be further from the truth. The senior leadership at NASA and at other agencies are eager to hear from members of the public, and to receive suggestions that will change both what they do and how it is perceived by the tax-paying public. In NASA's case, at least one suggestion has already been acted upon: an early February suggestion that NASA sponsor space-focused "unconferences' and "barcamps" helped persuade to the agency to do exactly that, stepping in as a last minute sponsor of the SpaceUp unconference in San Diego. This is democracy in action: an idea submitted by a biomechanicist/artist was reviewed by experts at NASA in parallel to a public voting process. The idea was submitted, found worthy, funded, and acted upon within a matter of two weeks.

The ideas submitted to NASA's Open Government call and to those of the other federal agencies run the gamut. They are mundane and grandiose; elegant and practical; thoroughly researched and spur of the moment. In all likelihood, many of them -- the majority of them, even -- will not bear up to detailed research and consideration. But by acknowledging that even an agency as well respected as NASA, with its cadre of impressive rocket scientists, does not have a monopoly on brainpower, this public call for suggestions is allowing all of us as citizens to contribute our own flashes of inspiration to improve the quality and the behavior of the organizations we care so much about, and which we fund with our tax dollars.

But this window of opportunity cannot stay open forever. Just over three days remain for you to submit your ideas and to vote on those contributed by others. After this deadline passes, NASA.gov/open and the similar websites offered by other federal agencies will remain, both as an archive of the ideas submitted by the public and, in some to-be-determined fashion, as a venue for future updates and programs. The agencies will then be on a tight schedule to review and prioritize the recommendations they have received, for each agency's Open Government Plan is due to the White House on April 7th.

This opportunity to contribute ideas to each agency's Open Government Plan gives us a unique chance to make our government more transparent, collaborative, and innovative. I hope that you will find the time to consider ways to improve the federal agencies and departments most dear to your hearts, and to share those thoughts while you have this chance!

 
 
 

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