Posts Tagged ‘White House’

The NASA OpenGov Community Summit

October 20, 2010

Members of our team were excited to work directly with NASA and the Open Forum Foundation on last week’s OpenGov Community Summit.  Along with our colleagues, this was the eighth workshop that we organized  in partnership with federal agencies about the White House’s Open Government Initiative.

NASA’s press release is here.  They had a highly efficient and dedicated team that pulled all the logistics together, and they deserve a great deal of credit for being one of the leading agencies on open government.

Thanks to all those participants who joined us in-person and remotely for the best workshop in the series so far.  We learned a great deal about and look forward to future events!


The Importance of Civil Debate

June 11, 2010

President Obama on the importance of civil debate at the University of Michigan commencement speech (source: Huffington Post):

The second way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate. These arguments we’re having over government and health care and war and taxes are serious arguments. They should arouse people’s passions, and it’s important for everyone to join in the debate, with all the rigor that a free people require.

But we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialist” and “Soviet-style takeover;” “fascist” and “right-wing nut” may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes.

Again, we have seen this kind of politics in the past. It’s been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation’s birth.

The problem with it is not the hurt feelings or the bruised egos of the public officials who are criticized.

The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning – since after all, why should we listen to a “fascist” or “socialist” or “right wing nut?” It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate that we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

So what can we do about this?

As I’ve found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of slash and burn politics isn’t easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect.

But civility in this age also requires something more.

Today’s twenty-four seven echo chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before. It has also, however, given us unprecedented choice. Whereas most of America used to get their news from the same three networks over dinner or a few influential papers on Sunday morning, we now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows.

This development can be both good and bad for democracy. For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we will become more polarized and set in our ways. And that will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country. But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.

This of course requires that we all agree on a certain set of facts to debate from, and that is why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Still, if you’re someone who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in awhile. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not often be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.

So too is the practice of engaging in different experiences with different kinds of people. For four years at Michigan, you have been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars; professors and students. Do not narrow that broad intellectual exposure just because you’re leaving here. Instead, seek to expand it. If you grew up in a big city, spend some time with some who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself only hanging around with people of your race or your ethnicity or your religion, broaden your circle to include people who’ve had different backgrounds and life experiences. You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, and in the process, you’ll help make this democracy work.

The last ingredient in a functioning democracy is perhaps the most basic: participation.

I understand that one effect of today’s poisonous political climate is to push people away from participation in public life. If all you see when you turn on the television is name-calling; if all you hear about is how special interest lobbying and partisanship prevented Washington from getting something done, you might think to yourself, “What’s the point of getting involved?”

The point is, when we don’t pay close attention to the decisions made by our leaders; when we fail to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day; when we choose not to make our voices and opinions heard, that’s when democracy breaks down. That’s when power is abused. That’s when the most extreme voices in our society fill the void that we leave. That’s when powerful interests and their lobbyists are most able to buy access and influence in the corridors of Washington – because none of us are there to speak up and stop them.

Participation in public life doesn’t mean that you all have to run for public office – though we could certainly use some fresh faces in Washington. But it does mean that you should pay attention and contribute in any way that you can. Stay informed. Write letters, or make phone calls on behalf of an issue you care about. If electoral politics isn’t your thing, continue the tradition so many of you started here at Michigan and find a way to serve your community and your country – an act that will help you stay connected to your fellow citizens and improve the lives of those around you.

It was fifty years ago that a young candidate for president came here to Michigan and delivered a speech that inspired one of the most successful service projects in American history. And as John F. Kennedy described the ideals behind what would become the Peace Corps, he issued a challenge to the students who had assembled in Ann Arbor on that October night: “…[O]n your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country…will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can.”

This democracy we have is a precious thing. For all the arguments and all the doubts and all the cynicism that’s out there today, we should never forget that as Americans, we enjoy more freedoms and opportunities than citizens in any other nation on Earth. We are free to speak our mind and worship as we please; to choose our leaders and criticize them if they let us down. We have the chance to get an education, work hard, and give our children a better life.

None of this came easy. None of it was preordained. The men and women who sat in your chairs ten years ago and fifty years ago and one hundred years ago – they made America possible. And there is no guarantee that the graduates who will sit here in ten or fifty or one hundred years from now will enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities that we do. America’s success has never been a given. Our nation’s destiny has never been certain.

What is certain – what has always been certain – is our ability to shape that destiny. That is what makes us different. That is what makes us American – our ability at the end of the day to look past all of our differences and all of our disagreements and still forge a common future. That task is now in your hands, as is the answer to the question posed at this university half a century ago about whether a free society can still compete.

If you are as willing, as past generations were willing, to contribute part of your life to the life of this country, then I, like President Kennedy, still believe we can. Congratulations on your graduation. May God Bless You, and may God Bless the United States of America.

Tips for Building a Collaborative Environment

February 26, 2010

AthenaBridge co-organizes the OGD Workshop Series.

After completing the February Open Government Directive Workshop, we realized that it’s much easier to think about collaboration and build collaborative practices into an agency open government plan if you’re doing so in a collaborative environment.

In the spirit of “open-sourcing” our method, here are some of the collaborative elements of the February OGD Workshop that you may want to include in your collaborative projects at your agency or organization:

  • Small Teams: Collaboration is effective when group size is manageable for the team leader.  We suggest 12 as the maximum.  With more members than that, a team leader should have assistant team leaders.
  • Friendly Competition: Sometimes we put forth our best effort when we’re competing with another group.  To harness this element, we had three in-person teams and one online team competing with each other to present the best ideas at the end of the day.
  • Invite Great Participants: Although our workshop was open to everyone, we wanted to make sure that we’d attract a collaborative group rather than one that’s interested in networking only. The price of admission for this workshop was writing a few sentences about what skills or ideas a participant would like to bring to a group. This filtered out the folks that weren’t there to collaborate.
  • Responsibility AND Authority: We gave the four team leaders the responsibility for the success of their team AND we gave them the authority to succeed.  This meant loosening control so that they can determine the direction and choose the particular methods that their teams would use to collaborate.  Responsibility without authority would put the team leaders in a tough position.
  • Public-Private: We recognize that the public and private sectors both offer valuable (and complementary) expertise on open government, so we ensured we’d have nearly a 50-50 split.
  • Online and Offline: We had one online team working in parallel with the in-person groups.  This allowed more people to join in the collaborative process from outside the Beltway.
  • Inter-Agency: We made sure to draw from an inter-agency crowd to maintain a diversity of perspectives.
  • Cross-Team: During lunch we allowed the three in-person teams to mingle and cross-pollinate ideas from one team to another.
  • Top-Down and Bottom-Up: As the workshop organizers, we aimed to push “power to the edges”.  We provided the resources and just enough structure so the team leaders could focus on their teams.
  • Tight Feedback Loops: Tight feedback loops kept our teams on track.  Every hour we encouraged the team leaders to ask for the participants’ feedback on their team’s process; this conversation about the work process is different from a conversation about the work product.  At different times, we were able to interject feedback from outside observers on the team’s process.
  • Asynchronous and Synchronous: Online collaboration before and after your in-person meetings is critical for making the most of limited face time.
  • Common Operational Picture: We used the wiki on the OpenGov Playbook so that many editors could work on the same document at the same time.  This wiki also serves as a central directory of links to effective open government practices across the Web.  Many of your colleagues may have never used a wiki—invite them test one out—it’s a lot simpler than they would expect.
  • Build on Previous Events: We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel so we put the emphasis on “synthesis, synthesis, synthesis.”  There has been so much great writing and ideation about open government over the past year that what’s required now is combining and prioritizing the ideas that are already available via agency’s public engagement processes, draft agency open government plans, GovLoop, blogs, and the OpenGov Playbook.
  • Experiment and Iterate: This workshop was our third in a series, so we’ve been refining our process over time.  We aren’t afraid to fail; we have been willing to learn in public, build momentum, and improve the process by building one event upon another.
  • Provide Food: Food is key to maintaining energy throughout the day. Because the workshop was an entirely volunteer-run event without a budget, we had all the participants chip in $10 for their own lunch. The price was low enough that no one was excluded from attending, and by not providing a free lunch, we had participants who really wanted to be there.
  • Team-Building: We had a happy hour after our event to help folks unwind after an intense day.  This is also critical for building a sustainable community of participants for future workshops.

What did we miss?  What collaborative elements do you add to your events? We welcome any suggestions or additions in the comments section.

Data about Anonymous Online Comments and Citizen Participation with Government

August 9, 2009

Whether they may or may not be well-founded in reality, people have very real fears about what government does with private information. If the White House moves toward requiring real names during online dialogue, it will exclude too many voices from the national conversation.

To test this hypothesis, we decided to do a small scientific experiment with a random sample of 50 American tourists in front of the US Capitol yesterday morning (it would be wonderful to see this survey repeated on a larger scale).  We asked whether they are more likely or less likely to participate in a national online conversation about health care if they were required to provide their real name.  Here are the four questions we asked:

  1. President Obama and Vice President Biden may be holding a national dialogue online about national health care.  Would you be more or less likely to comment on the White House website if you were required to use your real name?  A lot or a little?
  2. If it was four years ago and President Bush and Vice President Cheney were holding a national dialogue online about the Iraq War, would you be more or less likely to comment on the White House website if you were required to use your real name?  A lot or a little?
  3. How would you describe yourself on the political spectrum?
  4. How often do you comment on blogs, news articles, or similar discussion websites? (never/rarely/sometimes/often)

These were the results:

  • 38% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with the Obama/Biden Administration if they were required to use their real name
  • 40% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with the Bush/Cheney Administration if they were required to use their real name
  • 48% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with at least one of the administrations if required to use their real name
  • 26% changed their mind depending on which administration was in charge

We find the last statistic particularly important.  26% of the sample population would change their mind depending on who is in charge.  Unfortunately when we make a policy, it doesn’t change as easily as the public can change its mind.  That’s why we must make a policy that all Americans are happy with, regardless of which administration is in power.

The resiliency of our democracy comes from our institutions, and such policies form the foundation of our institutions.  The new administration has fortunately established a precedent which gives equal weight to anonymous comments on the White House website.

The survey allowed people to label themselves however they like or to decline to state where they stand on the political spectrum.  We aggregated the self descriptions into the following broad categories:


  • 53% of people on the left are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 28% of people in the center are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 47% of people on the right are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 50% of people in the other categories are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.

For the purposes of this survey, we didn’t want to force people in categories so we let them use any words they wanted to describe themselves.  Here is the above chart broken down by self-described categories:


On the flip side of the discussion– in support of anonymity, 24% would be “more likely” or “a lot more likely” to participate with at least one of the administrations if required to use their real name, some stating that they would “really like to tell them what they think” by signing their real name.

One unexpected benefit of doing the survey was that we interviewed a few officers from the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.  One of them mentioned that their job prevents them from joining political conversations about health care and another from the group disagreed with him.  They had a back-and-forth conversation and concluded that the regulations weren’t clear.  Regardless of what the regulations actually allow, they intimidate health service officers from using their real name in online conversations.

We suspect that the situation above might be more common than we think in many other industries where people aren’t forbidden from stating their opinion, but they surely wouldn’t want their boss to know their political opinion, especially if it goes against the official position of their employing organization.

So we stand for anonymity on the principles of fairness and inclusion, even though it may reduce the quality of discussion.  We also stand against “separate but equal” status for anonymous commenting– our position is that if the instructions in encourage using real names but allows anonymous comments, those making anonymous comments will be relegated to second-class citizens, and their ideas will not be given full weight.

More data about our survey population:

  • 36% female, 64% male
  • 100% American citizens or residents
  • 100% tourists from outside DC with enough time and money to travel to visit the US Capitol building– this indicates that they would probably also have the time to comment on the White House website in a national dialogue; more data is necessary from people that do not have that luxury to find out how they can be included.
  • frequency of commenting online:


If you’re interested in playing with the raw data it is here.  We’re interested in diving into this in a deeper way, so please contact us with your critiques and suggestions.

UPDATE: Here is another post which specifies reasons why anonymous comments must be protected.  Also see Ken Gilligren’s extension of these concepts to include

  • The public case for anonymity in the context of participation
  • The private case for anonymity in the context of mutual respect
  • The corporate case for anonymity in the context of innovation