People in my field have been aflutter since January over the White House’s efforts to craft what’s called an “Open Governmemnt Initiative.” On his first full day in office, President Obama issued a memorandum calling for us to “work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration” between the government and the people.

Since then, the administration has worked diligently to figure out just what this might look like. And people in my field, the civic engagement field, have watched very closely. At every turn my inbox and newsreaders have kept me abreast.

Yesterday, I realized with a sinking feeling: I don’t really understand it all.

The bitter irony is that I came to this realization in the midst of reading a blog post purporting to make it all clear for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the idea of open government. But if you asked me to tell you about the administration’s plans to implement that idea, I’d stare at you like a deer in headlights.

That’s a hard admission to make.

Here is what I know so far:

  • For some reason the “open governmemnt initiative” is housed in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
  • At various times, the “public” (people with computers) has been asked to “brainstorm” ideas (at a different site) for what the government ought to do to be more open. They’ve also been asked to vote on different ideas.
  • There are at least three phases to this brainstorming business, but I am not sure what the difference between one and another is. One is “brainstorm,” the next is “dig deeper,” and the last is “draft.” (I guess I get that last one.)
  • Meanwhile, various external groups have been working this system. This has generated a huge amount of chatter. In some cases, people have been promoting their individual good ideas, asking people to vote them up or down. In other cases, organizations and networks of groups that have been working on issues of civic engagement have sets of principles that they would like to see adopted. (I am a signatory to one such set, the Core Principles for Public Engagement.) In still other cases, some organized political groups have tried to flood the system with bonehead and off-topic ideas (like the perennial “legalize marijuana” suggestion).
  • Even more meanwhile, some groups have created ad hoc symposia and other meetings (online and in-person) designed to “gather input,” or “discuss ideas,” or to map out “best practices.”

It’s pretty embarrassing to say all this adds up to a big mish-mosh that’s hard to follow. But I know I am not alone. How do I know this? Because my friends and colleagues keep writing blog posts and sending emails explaining the “process.”

It seems to me that the whole thing is creaking under its own weight, and the “it” does not even exist yet.

The “Experts Trap”

From under the snow bank by Flickr user Michael Filion

From under the snow bank by Flickr user Michael Filion

I do not blame the organizers. They are doing the best they can. It’s a hard thing to create a whole new initiative inside the Federal government. At some point, however, someone needs to take a step back and look at everything and ask themselves a few questions:

  1. Will all this really result in more openness and collaboration?
  2. Are we too enamored with tools and technology, and letting it push aside just talking to people?
  3. How will ordinary, non-technical, non-civic people react to this?
  4. Are we falling into the experts trap?

That last danger is the one I fear the most. There is a large, pent-up demand throughout my field for the Federal government to take civic engagement seriously. Very smart people have a lot of important things to say — but some of that will be unintelligible to regular people.

Relying on “civic engagement experts” will get us an expert-driven, complicated set of plans and processes. And eventually, it is these experts who will take the public input and craft something to present to the President.

But, what I think President Obama was talking about is something far more simple. He was talking about a mindset change on the part of both citizens and government. Both need to see that there’s a role for interaction.

For citizens, this means taking opportunities to raise their voice and work substantively in ways that stretch them. (Most citizens see their civic duty as ending once they cast their vote, if they vote at all.)

For government, it means viewing citizens as — well, as citizens and not as “customers” or “clients” to be “served.” Or, just as often, as nuisances to be tolerated.

Certainly, to embed such a mindset will take hard work. But the hard work is the kind of day-in, day-out management work that any good CEO or senior leader will recognize: You set the tone, you create examples, you align incentive systems, and you cheerlead.

Civic engagement does not have to be rocket science. In fact, it’s best if it’s not.