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Citizen Engagement: A Case Study of Participation in Agency Strategic Planning

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By J. Woody Stanley
January 2, 2015

President Obama’s “Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government,” or OpenGov, encouraged federal government agencies to “offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking.” It provided momentum for nascent efforts to engage citizens online that were already underway in many federal agencies. The OpenGov Directive, which the Office of Management and Budget issued in October 2009, required agencies to publish “an OpenGov plan that describes how it will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities.” The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), in its 2012 OpenGov plan, committed, among other things, to further expand the agency’s use of Web-based online dialogues to engage citizens in regulatory and administrative processes.

Stanley jan 2This article describes the DOT’s recent efforts through an online dialogue to engage citizens in agency strategic planning. Building upon earlier engagements, DOT hosted a National Online Dialogue in 2013 as part of the development of its Fiscal Year 2014-2018 DOT strategic plan. DOT took advantage of a previously negotiated licensing agreement between the General Services Administration and IdeaScale™ to use a social networking site platform to engage groups and individual citizens in a review and discussion of a first draft of the strategic plan. In addition to providing easy access to documents, the platform enabled site visitors to propose their own ideas, view and comment on other ideas, and vote for ideas using their own review of the draft plan. The voting utilized a feature similar to one offered on the social network Diggs.

DOT solicited input on the draft version of the strategic plan through the Dialogue site between Aug. 27 and Sept. 12, 2013. To encourage participation, DOT announced the Dialogue in advance by e-mailing key constituents with a known interest in transportation policy. The target group included more than 1,160 individuals from approximately 900 organizations, who had participated in policy discussions during public meetings and town halls hosted by the DOT during the past three years. The Dialogue was also announced in the Transportation Secretary’s Fast Lane blog and DOT operating administrations were encouraged to publicize the Dialogue to their stakeholders and employees.

During the open period, some 3,443 individuals visited the site and 993 individuals registered. A total of 287 ideas were submitted and 240 comments were posted in response to an idea. A total of 551 registered users cast 3,468 votes for all ideas.

The affiliations of some of the registered users were identified from their email address. Individuals representing traditional stakeholder groups, including government agencies, advocacy groups and professional or industry trade associations accounted for 54 percent of registered users. About one-fourth of the registered users could not be identified. In addition, only 2 percent of the individuals from the target group registered. Approximately two-thirds of the ideas submitted from organizations were from individuals that were not in the target group. When considered cumulatively, the results suggest that participation in the dialogue was broadened beyond the target group to include previously unknown individuals, including possibly, some political neophytes.

At the same time, individuals affiliated with organizations in the target group, such as the Coalition for Recreational Trails and the League of American Bicyclists, still submitted about one-third of all the ideas. These intermediaries, which were part of the target group, mobilized their members in large numbers to submit comments or vote for their ideas in an attempt to have DOT recognize the importance of their interests in the plan. The social connections that already existed among members of these groups outside the dialogue, and not the availability of the dialogue site, were probably more of a factor in motivating individuals that were not in the target group to participate in large numbers.

DOT derived some benefit from hosting the dialogue. While its strategic goals did not change, a number of corrections and additions in the draft strategic plan were made based on the input. Some groups had an opportunity to emphasize their points and demonstrate their support for their interests by voting at the dialogue site. The response from some targeted groups, including state departments of transportation, metropolitan planning organizations and municipal governments was encouraging. However, many of the ideas and comments they submitted focused only on a single concern and did not address the entire scope of the plan. While the responses from the bicycling and recreational trails communities, as well as advocates for more access to transportation for disabled citizens and expanded opportunities for women in the transportation workforce, were key factors driving the number of votes received.

In the end though, agency managers were unsure the responses reflected a balanced view of all transportation interests. The scalability features of the platform made it easy for some visitors to simply register their vote, instead of taking time to voice their own ideas or comments.

Writing in the Michigan Journal of Environmental & Administrative Law, Cynthia Farina and researchers from the Cornell E-rulemaking initiative, who have studied participation in online DOT rulemakings, referred to this phenomenon as ‘drive by participation.’ They suggest that having the option to vote may actually hinder dialogue among individuals in an online setting. The lack of face-to-face channels for feedback, which is characteristic of discussions in more traditional public forums, may have further undermined the opportunity for more interactive deliberative talk.

In Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger and Citizens More Powerful, Beth Simone-Noveck points out that in some agency processes it might be better to focus less effort on increasing or broadening participation and instead look for ways to strengthen the culture of participation in order to improve the quality of decision-making. There might be more focus on ‘inviting experts, loosely defined, to engage in information gathering, information evaluation and measurement, and the development of specific solutions for implementation” using a social networking site to facilitate this approach. In this way, a diverse array of more informed and engaged individuals could participate in meaningful discussions about the future direction of transportation policy and the role that DOT might play.

A more collaborative approach would likely require DOT managers to engage with stakeholders in meaningful ways at an earlier stage in the strategic planning process in both traditional and online venues. Online approaches using social networking sites would be considered complementary to more traditional methods of citizen engagement, such as roundtable discussions or town hall meetings. All of these activities, both face-to-face and online, could take place before a first draft of the strategic plan was written, so that citizen input might have more influence and impact.

Author: J. Woody Stanley is a Strategic Management Team Leader in the Office of Policy and Governmental Affairs at the Federal Highway Administration. He can be reached at [email protected].

This article is a summary from a paper presented at the 4th Annual Northeast Conference on Public Administration in November 2014. The ideas and opinions expressed in this paper are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Highway Administration or U.S. Department of Transportation.

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