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Embracing Open Government in an Age of High Technology and Citizen Participation

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Horace Blake

Public administration policies of the 21st century are devoted to investigating and embracing sustainable avenues toward open government and new and improved citizen participation in all areas of the public sector. Open government is understood to be the mechanism that embraces the ability of citizens to access information available through technological partnerships that generate collaborative and participative dialog between government and citizen stakeholders.

According to Sharon S. Dawes’s article, “Government in the Digital Age: A Research and Action Framework for an Uncertain Future,” the open government ideology emerged from the adoption of e-government early in the 1990s and later took root from the forward push of the E-Government Act of 2002. These established initiatives, through policies such as Freedom of Information Act of 1966, paired with the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 established a formative framework that is focused on dissemination and delivery of government information through the World Wide Web. Many levels of the public sector, primarily local, state and the federal government, are devoted to the delivery of services, information on policy mandates and dedication toward transparency of available government information, how this is dispensed as well as how business between citizen stakeholders and government is carried out online.

The Obama White House Push Toward Open-Government

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During January 2009, the Obama administration issued the Open-Government Directive and the Open-Government Progress Report to the American people as a catalyst for open-government and established a specific protocol in terms of how agencies will be involved. According to Peter R. Orszag, “Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies,” the agencies had less than six months to conform to a new directive in making the agencies of government more transparent, collaborative and participatory. In reality, this left the heads of agencies with very limited knowledge about what the directives would imply from the top -down and any practical approach fully in action mode. The directives were based on four charges, grouped in two groups toward traction and outcome:

  • The publication of data and information technology management in terms of distribution.
  • The instruction for agencies to create new cultures that are based on a policy framework that would be beneficial in supporting the principles to be considered as open-government.

To further challenge this directive, agency heads looked at areas from which to draw examples referred to historical data and information. This was a good faith effort toward compliance, which unintentionally proved to inhibit current needed outcome or response, as the information generated was outdated or not focused on citizen participation. The intention of the Obama administration is to give citizens access to what government is about and to some degree entertain the option for input where it is deemed needed. The administration had obviously assumed too much in assessing that the public, who embraced advance technology, would also do the same for this open-government initiative. The Obama White House had expected the frequent utilization of the Web technologies and social media with its Web-based tools would facilitate maximum interactions toward open-government goals and outcome.

Surveying Citizen Participation in the Federal Democratic System

In the United States, at different levels the government has institutions in place to encourage and utilize citizen participation and decision-making. Whether it is through local ordinances, state laws or grant-in-aid programs, such as the Housing and Urban Development Agency’s Community Block Grant program, citizen’s input is an optimum part of the initiative. This is a very recognized aspect of the notion toward open-government. At this local or municipal level, citizens can feel that they are truly being effective and that their input is very valued. Although the various types of citizen participation are not always the same in the form it takes on or the technique that is utilized some prove to be more politically accepted than others. An examination of forms of citizen participation gives a brief insight on the ability to create new insights or action toward any dispute resolution. Some of the examples are:

  • Individual forms works on public projects, campaigning/lobbying or administration appeals.
  • Organizational forms are official citizen committees, special interest groups or citizen groups.
  • Information collection during hearings, government records or nongovernmental documents.
  • Information dissemination is a consideration such as in mass media, correspondence or a variety of local and national publications open government, conferences.

The requirement of this federal citizen participation is primarily based on the nuances aligned with our system of American democracy. According to Horace Blake’s article, “Federalism: Reviewing the State of Intergovernmental Relations,” citizen participation is reflected in the First, Fifth and 14th Amendments which guarantee citizens the right to have a free press, exercise free speech, assemble freely with one another, petition their governments for redress most grievances and receive equal treatment under the law in accordance with “due process.” Citizens exercising their constitutional rights become evident with their access to government in the local and state arena where a diversity of groups can be visible exercising this right.

Assessing the Effectiveness of the Citizen Participation and Open Government

The notion of open government and citizen participation has had a variety of effects. However, there is a need for simpler and cleaner decision-making process along with more adequate training of the various agency principals so that training could filter down to those who need to know. There is certainly no room for one-size fits all for all agencies and not all citizens have the same abilities in accessing high technology, which is the prevailing tool in open government. Finally another issue that exists is that most of the laws for citizen participation tend to be outdated.

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