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Enhancing Citizen Participation in Decision-Making

Transparency, a concept we have discussed a lot in the Open Government Initiative, is a means to an end.  One of the important roles that transparency plays is to facilitate public participation in government decision-making.  As President Obama has said: "Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. " 
When software engineer Steve Pearson shares his knowledge of database technology to help the United States Patent and Trademark Office make a better decision about a pending patent application, or researchers at Oregon State University share information with the Environmental Protection Agency about the human factors imperiling West Coast salmon runs, the government makes more informed and effective decisions.
The Administration is committed to creating more ways for people to participate in government.  These don’t all have to be the same forms of participation.  Whereas one person might chime in about experience with Pandemic flu on a public health wiki, another might be in a better position to review data and comment on a pending rulemaking by the Federal Communications Commission, a third knows how to review the scientific claims on a patent application, and a fourth can build a software application that makes government information about a food recall more widely available via a mobile phone.  (In addition to informing decision-making, many of you have the wherewithal to take action, as we’ll discuss when we talk about Collaboration.)
What We Learned In Phase I
The Brainstorm phase of our open government outreach yielded a number of suggestions about how to enhance citizen participation in decision-making.  Some suggestions focused on creating longer legislative review periods to improve opportunities for public review.  Others emphasized the need to incorporate diverse voices and information into the participation process and to keep participants informed about how their participation impacted outcomes at the end of the process.  Many of you also suggested convening town halls, brainstorming sessions, and other types of forums, composed of average citizens, to deliberate on important issues and make formal recommendations.  This is just a brief snapshot of the proposals; you can find a longer list of suggestions here.
How You Can Help
Building on the ideas generated during the Brainstorm, we’d like to ask for your input on a few specific topics:
  1. Digging deeper into the Brainstorm: What are the pros and cons of the ideas proposed during the Brainstorm?  Help us to flesh out specifics and weigh the costs and benefits of each approach.  Are there important ideas for enhancing citizen participation in government decision-making that you think are missing?
  2. Identifying best practices: Do you know of best practices for public participation currently in place in governments (perhaps a local government in your community or a foreign government halfway around the world) or other large institutions that we have not yet identified?
  3. Providing incentives for participation: What can government do to remove barriers and create opportunities for public participation?  How can we attract new and diverse participants and strengthen their voices in a conversation traditionally dominated by Washington lawyers, lobbyists and interest groups?
Looking Ahead
This is the first of five posts in four days on participation.  Starting tomorrow, we’ll be talking more specifically about participation as it relates to civic education, Web 2.0 (both technologies and enabling policy frameworks), and e-rulemaking.  Comments addressing those specific issues will fit best within the contexts of those future discussions.
As President Obama has also said: "The way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives."  Tell us your thoughts over at the OSTP blog, thanks in advance.
Beth Noveck is Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government.