Tuesday, June 30, 2009

U.S. Government Reaches Out to the Social Web for Collaboration, But Are Users Reaching Back?

U.S. Government Reaches Out to the Social Web for Collaboration, But Are Users Reaching Back?

In the quest to open government processes to citizens, collaboration and participation were identified as explicit goals in a presidential memo issued earlier this year.

Upon the appearance of a tenuously connected web of blogs, sites, wikis, and forums, many were excited about the refreshing availability of public channels for dialogue between ordinary Americans and policy makers when it comes to deciding what the 21st century American government will look like. On the other hand, the participation in these initiatives has been dwarfed by what one might see on ICanHasCheezburger. In spite of what could be seen as lackluster citizen response, The Open Government initiative's final drafting phase, which was to have closed already, has been extended until July 3.

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When President Obama's office issued his memo on open government earlier this year, the document stated that transparency, collaboration, and participation were called for to improve the government's efficiency and effectiveness.

Phase One: "Thousands" Participated

The first phase of this program was a public online brainstorming session, which began May 21 and ended June 2. According to an Office of Science and Technology Policy blog post:

Some suggested creating a government-wide intranet and social networking tool to share contact information, resources, and otherwise facilitate collaboration. Others looked to flexible, third-party Web 2.0 tools, such as Wordpress, Wikimedia, Ning, and Drupal to strengthen collaboration. Still others recommended the use of Strategy Markup Language (StratML) to enable potential partners to more easily discover each other based upon common missions, visions, values, goals, objectives, and stakeholders.

While the site stated that mere thousands of participants were logged, it also contained language indicating that the most enthusiastic and engaged users were federal employees already working within government agencies.

Phase Two: Around Four Thousand Mini-Posts

An Open Government Dialogue page was then created - and largely ignored by users - as a second phase for discussion in this initiative toward openness.

What started off as a good idea apparently devolved into typically polarized flame threads and partisan insults. Serious suggestions about healthcare reform received comments numbering in the single digits, while politically weighted one-liners about Sarah Palin prompted hundreds of responses. Moderation of inappropriate or irrelevant topics and comments seemed as absent from the discussion as the deep thoughts of policy wonks who could have helped elevate the conversation. The Open Dialogue was closed, according to the site, on June 26.

Phase Three: Extended With Fewer Than 1,000 Participants So Far

An Open Government Directive page for a drafting phase has now been extended until July 3. Although the OSTP blog states that "well over 100 drafts of open government recommendations" were submitted by users, contributors number just 201 users, and fewer than 1,000 ratings have been registered by the site.

For example, what should have been a hot topic (enabling citizens' participation in government using new media) on the wiki-like MixedInk site only had 18 contributors.

Making Sense of the Numbers

Although measuring engagement isn't necessarily always a numbers game, when online debate, collaboration, and conversation is a stated goal of a project, it would seem that a higher percentage of the target audience (Internet-using Americans) should have been involved, if only through comments and ratings.

Millions of Americans have Internet access - around 75 percent of the population, according to a Nielsen report - and around 70 percent of those users are also using social media, according to a study from MarketTools. Even if we generously estimate the number of Open Government Dialogue participants at 10,000, the results are disappointing:

As the Open Government project's third phase draws to a speedy close, we are left wondering whether the initiative ran too silent and too deep for the average American to know or care about it, let alone feel that he or she could contribute to a meaningful, measurable dialog.

Do you think the U.S. government did an adequate job of publicizing its Open Government efforts? Do you think political and technology bloggers with a critical mass of traffic should have done more to spread the word and encourage user participation, much in the way that music television channels consistently harass youngsters to "rock the vote"?

Do you think that trends of citizen apathy have finally peaked to a point that - even when tools for participation are free and available via a simple Internet connection - no one cares enough to weigh in?

Or do you think that engagement measurement for this project is skewed, that meaningful and representative conversation actually has occurred through the Open Government websites? We look forward to reading your thoughts and encourage U.S. citizens to drop by the drafting phase website, as well.

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