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Summary of Listening Session with Obama’s Open Government Initiative    

I was invited by Beth Noveck, the director of Obama’s open government initiative, to attend a meeting last Wednesday (March 11) at the White House Conference Center.  The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy was the official convener of this “informal listening session on the implementation of the President’s Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.”  According to the email inviting me to attend, the session would focus “on the process of crafting the recommendations called for in the Memorandum.   Specifically, we invite you to talk about how your organizations can contribute to fostering civic engagement in connection with crafting the recommendations and to supporting the goals of transparency, participation, and collaboration.”

There were only about 12 organizations represented at this meeting, so it was quite the honor to be there.  Demos, the Personal Democracy Forum, the Cato Institute, AmericaSpeaks, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, IAP2, the Partnership for Public Service, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), the National Civic League, the League of Women Voters and the National Academy of Public Administration all had representatives there.

The meeting began a little after 3:00 and ended around 4:20 because Beth had to get to another meeting.  After an initial round of introductions, Beth framed the meeting for about 10 minutes.  Then we spent all but the last minute of the meeting going around the conference table one by one, sharing what our organizations could offer the administration’s efforts, and what current efforts we’re involved in that could feed into the Open Goverment Directive she’s in charge of creating.

Michele G. Heffner, Director of the Interagency Policy and Management Division of GSA (U.S. General Services Administration), was present and took the official notes of the meeting.  Robert Flaak, Director of the GSA Office of Governmentwide Policy was also present, as were two other staff whose names I didn’t catch.

Here are my notes from the meeting:

Beth Noveck’s Initial Framing

We’re looking at how we can create a “21st century government.”  We’re interested in what we (the administration) can do for civic engagement organizations, and what “we can do for each other.”  It’s important to figure out what we can do together, because we have a huge agenda, and not enough time, money or staff.  “So you have to help.”

The open governance initiative will soon have a public website where you can submit information to us.  We’ve started an interagency discussion process already.

Nothing I say at this meeting about the .gov side should be taken as final or policy.

We’re looking for ideas and recommendations on how to create a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative government. We want to know about events and happenings we can learn from or be involved in.  We’re interested in principles for this work.  We need to draft recommendations and craft ideas for specific projects in agencies (example: National Academy of Public Administration’s currrent work with the EPA).

We’re currently in a brainstorming period, which is open to all.  In mid-April, we’ll need to drill down to specifics (mechanisms for implementing goals) for the drafting phase of the open governance directive.  Our goal for the finished product is May 21st.

The more detailed and concrete your advice and ideas, the better. We need explicit commitment to participation, collaboration and transparency. We don’t need organizations coming to us and saying “we love transparency!”

We are approaching this challenge from different angles:

  1. Policy / legislative agenda
  2. Technical issues like identity management (sign-ons on government websites, usability issues)
  3. Cultural issues, like getting people comfortable with a participatory agenda, with participation earlier in the decision-making process
  4. Implementation issues. Science advisory boards are an example of an older model that has been replicated widely. “What are the new models of participation?” And how can we best achieve them?
  5. Accessibility - regarding both online participation as well as offline (Beth emphasized that they are not just focused on online participation)

Beth expressed particular interest in hearing (1) what our organizations can offer the open governance initiative, (2) what are our current projects and upcoming events that are related to the initiative, and (3) what ideas we have for collaborative projects with the initiative or projects all the organizations present could work on collaboratively.

Notes from Participants’ Comments

(not representative of what was said; just some things I took note of)

Lara Shane, Partnership for Public Service
- we can help with creating a system of measurement for programmatic success
- we are involved in inspiring the next generation of service

Chris Gates, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement
- the foundations that are members of PACE have a long history of looking at proposals, and looking at what’s effective
- we are about to publish a document about civic engagement experiments in local government
- knowledge about a variety of new methods of civic engagement

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, AmericaSpeaks
- have experience in the convening role. Convened 45 federal managers in 2007 and we are about to hold another “Champions of Participation” gathering during last week in March, bringing them back together and adding some new people as well (invited Beth to be part of this, and even be the official convenor if interested)
- also involved in federal web managers conference at end of April
- can help you use existing networks to further extend what you’re doing (Carolyn pointed to NCDD as another group that can do this)
- people in the field are “ready to be partners of the administration to make this happen”; we recognize the incredible opportunity here for our field, and how different this is than what we’re used to
- we have the experience to help you think through design choices in public engagement efforts
- we’d love to do a pilot project on a pressing issue (example: food security) working across all agencies

Archon Fung, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government
- I was too busy thinking about what I was going to say to take notes on Archon’s comments, so he sent me a summary of his comments…

Participation — (1) we have a fair amount of comparative expertise on experiences throughout the U.S. and elsewhere in the world — knowledge of models; (2) we can mobilize research in the follow through - what will work and what will not; this is perhaps most useful in the implementation stage of the directive (3) HKS and Democracy Initiative can provide a convening space for cross-sectoral discussions of this work. Later in the spring of summer would very much like to convene a tri-sectoral workshop and continuous relationships for advancing participation.

Transparency Policy Project. We have developed a base of knowledge of disclosure policies as a strategy of regulation over the last 2 - 3 decades. Two important differences between our transparency focus and much of the current discussion of open government. (1) information we examine is information about private sector entities about food, product safety, drugs, etc. rather than information about government activities. (2) purposive disclosure — rather than a right to information, we ask, how does the provision of this information actually make someone’s life better — who is going to use it (or not) and to what end?

Sandy Heierbacher, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation
- I’ll summarize my comments below

Mica Sifry, Personal Democracy Forum
- we’re doing work on the cultural side of things, so we wouldn’t contribute to the technical side or drafting
- PDF conference at the end of June (29th and 30th) in New York, called “”
- we’re at a moment where what the President does is symbolically of high impact and import
- they’re joining up with The Nation and the Washington Times to create an open communication platform called Ask A Question (to the president), which will send a representative to ever press conference to represent “the people” by asking the most popular question identified.  A joint article will come out on March 18th.
- May 4-10 is Public Service Recognition Week, so there might be some opportunities for collaboration there

Jim Harper, Cato Institute and
- we had a “just give us the data” conference, so that should give you an idea of our priorities
- is like the Library of Congress’ THOMAS database site, but with a friendlier skin; I admit there is a natural self-selection process for people who don’t trust government
- wants to see good, clean access to data
- concerned about privacy issues with identity management (privacy-oriented people won’t participate if they feel the government is tracking them, so anonymity should be an option)

Gloria Rubio Cortes, National Civic League
- All American Cities awards event in Tampa June 17-19 (recognizing local government gives people a “civic booster shot”)

Miles Rappaport, Demos
- this is a remarkable moment; we’ve always been asking the question “how do we take this to scale?” and having this work marbled into our government processes is always the answer - but it’s never been within our grasp before
- a civically engaged government would take leadership in eliminating barriers to voter registration, and other things that make participation difficult
- we need to “institutionalize this ongoing relationship between the administration and this field of practice” (yay, Miles!)

Grant Mclaughlin, IAP2 and Booz Allen Hamilton
- we can offer quality training to public officials and others
- good people in government who want to do the right stuff often fall into the decide-announce-defend mentality because it’s easier, and they just don’t know how to lead effective participation efforts

Nancy Tate, League of Women Voters
- Sunshine Week next week (March 15-21) is a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information
- we can offer a kind of “observer corps” that ensures accountability

Lena Trudeau, National Academy of Public Administration
- we focus on how government works internally; how government is able to innovate and solve problems
- NAPA fellows program (several fellows were in the room)
- The Collaboration Project, which brings people together across government who are doing things effectively. Collected cases which outlined the problem being tackled, the approach used, what was learned, and what ROI they are able to document.
- March 26th from noon to 2:00, presentation followed by moderated discussion at their offices in DC
- Collaboration Project website can be sectioned off for private work
- have a national dialogue platform that they used to run a national health IT and privacy dialogue (worked with AmericaSpeaks) (

Summary of My Comments

1.  NCDD is an active network of process leaders who are VERY interested in helping and have the needed expertise and skills (over 1100 members, including leading organizations in the field).  We keep in touch monthly with over 25,000 people involved in public engagement and conflict resolution work, so we can help get a lot of people signed up as facilitators and convenors when the administration calls for national dialogue.

2.  NCDD is a network of not only the leading organizations in public engagement that people are familiar with (accomplished organizations like AmericaSpeaks, Everyday Democracy, Public Agenda, National Issues Forums, etc.), but also many people doing cutting edge work that hasn’t yet established a clear track record or gained national renown.  If the administration is really interested in NEW methods of participation, we can help them look beyond just the “usual suspects” so this is an opportunity to launch the public engagement field to a whole new level.

3.  Our website houses a resource database of over 2000 case studies, dialogue guides, various dialogue and deliberation approaches, resources on tackling specific issues, etc., so we can work with the initiative to provide whatever resources it needs on public engagement.

4.  NCDD has a collaborative spirit and strong connections in this field. We’re often working with organizations like IAP2, which might ordinarily be seen as our competitor.  We’re currently working with IAP2, the Co-Intelligence Institute and others to identify a set of principles for public engagement we can all get behind.  With new attention and emphasis on collaboration, participation, and transparency thanks to the leadership and vision of the Obama administration, we feel it is more important than ever to provide clarity about what we consider to be quality public engagement.  (I passed out copies of the latest draft, and invited everyone to participate in the project at

Here's What 26 People Had To Say...

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  1. Comment added by Tim on March 17, 2009:

    Nice job! Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Comment added by Will Friedman on March 17, 2009:

    Hi, Sandy. Thanks for sharing your notes on this unique and exciting session. How was it left? Is there going to be a follow-up of some kind? -Will

  3. Comment added by Patricia Wilson on March 17, 2009:

    Way to go, Sandy! This is an historic moment!

  4. Comment added by Rosa Zubizarreta on March 17, 2009:

    Congratulations, Sandy! So glad you were able to offer the resources of the NCDD network, and also share the draft principles with everyone there…

  5. Comment added by Julia Salinas on March 17, 2009:

    Being chosen as one of 12 organizations really says a lot about the prominence of NCDD as the leading network for civic engagement. Congrats Sandy! Thanks for updating us. Let us know what follow-up occurs.

  6. Comment added by Marti Roach on March 17, 2009:

    Great opportunity Sandy for NCDD and the field and you expressed important points. thanks for keeping us up to date on this effort. I hope NCDD can continue to carve out a role to communicate to, connect with and encourage participation from the diverse people with skills to offer.

  7. Comment added by Angel Pricer on March 17, 2009:

    Sandy, congratulations on being invited to attend this unique and wonderful opportunity. You must be very excited and so full of new ideas and information…Thank you for sharing!

  8. Comment added by Philip Thomas on March 17, 2009:

    What a fantastic opportunity! I’m so glad for our community that you were able to be there and make the case for NCDD. Thanks.

  9. Comment added by Kenoli Oleari on March 17, 2009:

    Thanks, Sandy, for sharing this info. Nice to get a window into a world a bit closer to Obama. Good going!

  10. Comment added by Rob Stuart on March 17, 2009:


    Thanks for giving us insight into what happened at the meeting and providing a window through which many more people can think and act to affect the discussion and outcome of a tremendously important initiative. For the record, I receive email from more half of the folks who attended the meeting but you’re the only one to share the experience openingly. I guess some of our allies haven’t reached the plane where they realize that exclusivity isn’t a value to promote or cherish when you are supposed to be promoting open systems.

  11. Comment added by Wayne Moses Burke on March 17, 2009:

    Many congratulations. Excellent work and a(nother) positive step towards a transparent, collaborative, and participatory future.

  12. Comment added by PJ Boone-Edgerton Longoni on March 17, 2009:

    Thank you Sandy!


  13. Comment added by Julianna Padgett on March 17, 2009:

    Thanks so much for your leadership that led to NCDD being invited - and providing this excellent summary. So interesting to see the varied aspects of civic engagement represented in this group. It’s obvious that we need them all to make this hopeful experiment take shape and succeed.

  14. Comment added by Lynda Baker on March 18, 2009:

    Awesome Sandy. Thanks for sharing your notes. These are exciting times!

  15. Comment added by Deborah Goldblatt on March 18, 2009:

    Outstanding and exciting, Sandy! Thanks for sharing the notes. From all the attendees, there’s a lot on offer so can’t wait to hear about next steps in the initiative.

  16. Comment added by Jock McClellan on March 18, 2009:

    Thank you, Sandy.
    Next steps? Any talk of funding demonstration projects?
    Any reactions to Miles Rappaport’s suggestion that the linkage be institutionalized?
    What is happening with the “Strengthening Democracy” proposal?

  17. Comment added by Nancy Peden on March 18, 2009:

    Awesome, Sandy and impressive. Thank you for your excellent representation. NCDD has helped us all dream into the reality of an administration that may understand and really use the wealth of talent and the co intelligence we live within. Thanks to all.

  18. Comment added by Peter Levine on March 18, 2009:

    Great summary-thanks! I do think the agenda is still somewhat too narrow. Ideas for expanding it here:

  19. Comment added by Jen Meigs on March 18, 2009:

    Sandy, you’re a superstar! A million thanks for being in the right place at the right time, and for sharing your notes. Onward and upward!

  20. Comment added by Rick Worthington on March 18, 2009:

    It is heartening that the Obama administration is moving ahead with this agenda at the same time that public attention is focused on the economy. We won’t get meaningful change in the political economy without collaboration and transparency, so it is crucial to be moving on both fronts at the same time. Thank you for taking the time to compile and share notes on this important meeting.

  21. Comment added by Lee A. Meiser on March 19, 2009:

    Your summary is the best communication I have read online to date. I will follow this dialogue and share it with colleagues worldwide. Thank you.

  22. Comment added by Cheryl Honey on March 19, 2009:

    There is something greater that is at work here. I’m excited to see the effort to re-engineer government to include “the people” in the process of service and delivery. Glad we are looking at ways to collaborate and tap NCDD members as resources to move civic engagement efforts forward in real tangible ways that will truly shift the manner in which government operates. President Obama meant what he said…Change is coming - it’s the way of the future and it’s up to us to leverage the shift.

    The current system of operation doesn’t work and people inside systems know that. We must consider engaging whole systems in a design that is practical and transforms slowly into a new way of governance. It is possible and we hope many will join the effort as we weave a grass roots safetynet and create a reciprical feeback loop that will inform both government and the people of the shifts taking place with the people taking on new responsibilities to create their own system of support and rely less of government systems. Most importantly, the skills and expertise of formal systems must be captured/compiled to maintain access to the myriad of resources the professionals have to offer - when they are laid off from work. Cuts are happening as we speak and we need to be there for each other.

    We live in exciting times. The time has come to find ways to collaborate and model how government can function more efficiently and effectively through civic participation.

    Steve Cady and I are having a discussion tomorrow about ways to engage method masters and practioners to identify aspects of the Community Weaving model where they can plug in to share their methods to move professionals through a change process…readying them to be receptive to engaging citizens to creatively address issues impacting their lives and communities. This is where we will glean great learnings that can be fed back up to the feds. This information will help them make funding decisions in the future.

  23. Comment added by Elana Stanger on March 19, 2009:

    Hi Sandy! I am really inspired. Like most of us, I have been waiting for the day when our field would link up with the U.S. Government, with leadership like Obama’s. Thanks for sharing… Let’s make some great things happen!

  24. Comment added by Diane Miller on March 19, 2009:

    This is really exciting, Sandy! Thank you for your leadership and for keeping us informed. Eager to hear what is next!

  25. Comment added by Windy Lawrence on March 20, 2009:

    This is terrific Sandy! I will take this back to my university - everyone is excited here about your representation.

  26. Comment added by Allison Addicott on March 25, 2009:

    I am new to this conversation, getting the hint from Brad Rourke. In this era that requires clarity and speed of communication as a structural requirement to envision a better future, I offer thanks and gratitude to those of you who already work entirely on this issue itself.

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