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United States

Improving Public Participation (US0076)

Overview

At-a-Glance

Action Plan: United States Action Plan 2015-2017

Action Plan Cycle: 2015

Status: Inactive

Institutions

Lead Institution: NA

Support Institution(s): NA

Policy Areas

Public Participation

IRM Review

IRM Report: United States End-of-Term IRM Report 2015-2017, United States Mid-Term Report 2015-2017

Starred: No

Early Results: Worsens

Design i

Verifiable: Yes

Relevant to OGP Values: Access to Information Civic Participation , Public Accountability , Technology

Potential Impact:

Implementation i

Completion:

Description

The creativity and energy of the American people have a critical role to play in helping to tackle the greatest challenges facing our nation today. The Administration recognized this by launching and expanding new opportunities for public participation in government.

IRM Midterm Status Summary

IRM End of Term Status Summary

Commitment 24. Improve Public Participation

Commitment Text:

Raise the Voice of Citizens through Improved Public Participation in Government

The creativity and energy of the American people have a critical role to play in helping to tackle the greatest challenges facing our nation today. The Administration recognized this by launching and expanding new opportunities for public participation in government. In furtherance of public participation in government, the United States will:

  • Increase Responsiveness and Encourage Reuse of We the People. The We the People petitions platform gives Americans a direct line to the White House to raise issues and voice concerns. The Administration commits to leading a more responsive petitions process and will strive to respond to petitions that meet the signature threshold with an update or policy statement within 60 days of meeting the threshold wherever possible. A dedicated White House team will take petitions that get enough support to the appropriate policy experts for their review and to issue an official response. The We the People team will also open the software code behind the platform to allow outside collaborators to more easily collect and contribute signatures from third-party platforms and to reuse the software code to adapt the petitions site for their own uses.
  • Improve and Report on Implementation of the U.S. Public Participation Playbook. In 2015, the Administration launched the U.S. Public Participation Playbook, a template providing best practices, resources, and performance metrics to encourage public participation in government decision-making. The United States will update and improve the U.S. Public Participation Playbook based on feedback from agencies, civil society, and the public, and begin publicly sharing how the playbook’s resources are implemented in order to improve public participation in government.
  • Expand Civil Society Participation in Open Government Efforts. Open Government efforts including National Action Plans are stronger and more effective when governments work alongside civil society to develop and implement them. The United States will continue expanding opportunities for government agencies to engage with civil society online and in person to create new commitments and to seek input and feedback throughout implementation processes. The Administration will also strive to include members and sectors of civil society and the public who have not previously been engaged in this work.
  • Encourage Public Participation in Policymaking. Providing opportunities for citizens to participate in government policymaking processes allows diverse stakeholders to contribute to decision-making, leading to more meaningful and effective policies. Several agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Justice, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, successfully engage with and obtain views from stakeholders outside of government during the policymaking process. The Office of Management and Budget will share with U.S. agencies its processes for soliciting informal public comments on proposed policies and will assist interested agencies in implementing this approach.

Responsible Institutions: The White House, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Federal agencies

Supporting Institutions: Civil society organizations

Start Date: Not Specified End Date: Not Specified

Commitment Aim

This commitment aimed to further public participation in government by:

Responding to We the People[1] petitions within 60 days for petitions that meet the required signature threshold, and opening the platform’s software code so that third parties can adapt it for their own use;

Updating the Public Participation Playbook[2] based on feedback received, and publicly share how its features are being implemented;

Expanding opportunities for government to engage with civil society in the development of new commitments for national action plans and throughout their implementation; and

Having the Office of Management and Budget share with other federal agencies its approach to soliciting public feedback on proposed policies, and offer advice to those agencies on implementing such an approach.

Status

Midterm: Limited

At the midterm, the government had made limited progress on this commitment:

In July 2015, the 60-day petition response time frame was announced for We the People. From then on, petitions meeting the prescribed signature threshold received a response within 45 days on average. This response time dropped to 34 days from January to July 2016.[3] However, the IRM researcher observed no progress on government efforts to encourage reuse of the platform’s software code by third parties. Completion for Milestone 24.1 was, therefore, substantial.

Per the government’s midterm self-assessment report,[4] the playbook’s interagency team was “developing and reviewing case studies” from agencies that used the playbook. However, no further progress was noted, resulting in limited completion for Milestone 24.2.

There was little evidence of an expansion of opportunities for civil society to engage with government in the context of the national action plan. Because of this, there was limited completion for Milestone 24.3.

Per the government’s report,[5] the Office of Management and Budget began working with the General Services Administration and the Office of Science and Technology Policy “to identify existing approaches to participatory policymaking” and engage interested agencies in piloting those approaches. However, no further or more concrete progress was made, resulting in limited completion for Milestone 24.4.

End of term: Limited

Progress on this commitment remained limited at the end of term. Specifically, the IRM researcher did not observe any evidence of progress.

Regarding Milestone 24.1, from January through June 2017, nine petitions on We the People passed the required threshold of 100,000 signatures within 30 days.[6] (June 2017 was the close of the end-of-term reporting period.) At the time of writing, the White House had not responded to any of those petitions within the prescribed 60-day window. At the end of term, the platform’s GitHub page[7] indicated that source code for We the People was available for reuse. However, the government went from meeting the 60-day time frame in 2016 to not responding at all in 2017. Thus, completion for this commitment has been downgraded to limited.

The IRM researcher did not observe any evidence of progress on the other three activities listed under the commitment (Milestones 24.2, 24.3, and 24.4). Completion, therefore, remains limited for these milestones.

Did It Open Government?

Access to Information: Did Not Change

Civic Participation: Worsened

Public Accountability: Worsened

This commitment did not open government with respect to access to information and contributed to less government openness with respect to civic participation and public accountability.

The last three activities (Milestones 24.2–24.4) did not open government with respect to any OGP values, due to limited progress.

Milestone 24.1, on the other hand, did change the status quo. During 2016, the government’s substantial progress opened government with respect to both civic participation and public accountability. This is particularly true regarding the drastic improvement in response times to We the People petitions, which opened government by facilitating public participation in policymaking and providing responses to public petitions in a timely manner. However, the government’s progress in this area was reversed beginning in January 2017, when the White House stopped responding to petitions meeting the required signature threshold. The White House’s lack of responsiveness to We the People petitions garnered substantial media attention in early 2017. Some journalists raised concern over the issue of White House responsiveness.[8] Others documented the potential presence of technical glitches resulting in undercounting or delayed counting of signatures.[9] This publicly documented backsliding effectively represents a worsening of government policy.

Carried Forward?

At the time of writing, the US government had not yet published its fourth national action plan, so it is unclear if this commitment will be carried forward. The government should nevertheless make efforts to carry out the activities under the commitment. In particular, it should restore petition responsiveness for We the People and expand opportunities for civil society to participate in open government efforts. The latter is a principle that undergirds governments’ participation in the Open Government Partnership more broadly.

A study by the Pew Research Center notes the We the People platform’s potential importance in the eyes of the public. The center found that during the platform’s first five years of operation (22 September 2011 to 3 July 2016), 227 petitions met the prescribed signature threshold to receive a response from the White House, and did in fact receive a response.[10] More generally, the Pew Research Center report further notes that the site “is one of the most prominent legacies of the open government initiative.”[11] The center pointed this out specifically with respect to the Obama administration. The executive director of the Sunlight Foundation agreed that the tool “did make a valuable contribution” even if it was imperfect.[12]

Interviews with civil society stakeholders indicate that “public participation is one of the most often cited deficiencies by civil society in the open government agenda to date.” Government actions to incorporate civil society actors more fully into the open government process on a regular and ongoing basis would be a welcome addition going forward.


[1] We the People, https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/, consulted 4 October 2017.

[2] U.S. Public Participation Playbook. https://participation.usa.gov/, consulted 4 October 2017.

[3] “‘We the People’: Five Years of Online Petitions,” Pew Research Center, 28 December 2016, http://pewrsr.ch/2ieb9fx, consulted 4 October 2017.

[4] United States of America, Midterm Self-Assessment Report for the Open Government Partnership: Third Open Government National Action Plan, 2015-2017 September 2016, 26, https://www.opengovpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2001/01/USA_NAP3_self-assessment-report_20160916.pdf, consulted 2 October 2017.

[5] United States of America, Midterm Self-Assessment Report for the Open Government Partnership: Third Open Government National Action Plan, 2015-2017, September 2016, 26, https://www.opengovpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2001/01/USA_NAP3_self-assessment-report_20160916.pdf, consulted 2 October 2017.

[6] For the nine petitions, see archived version of We the People via the WayBack Machine, as of 1 July 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20170701053229/https://petitions.whitehouse.....

[7] We the People, GitHub, https://github.com/WhiteHouse/petitions, consulted 29 September 2017.

[8] Adi Robertson, “Will Donald Trump Keep the White House Petition Site Alive?” The Verge, 22 March 2017, https://www.theverge.com/2017/3/22/15022050/donald-trump-white-house-petition-we-the-people-update, consulted 29 September 2017; and Steven Steven, “White House Considers Dumping Petition Site,” U.S. News and World Report, 18 April 2017, https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2017-04-18/white-house-considers-dumping-petition-site, consulted 29 September 2017.

[9] Janko Roetgers, “White House Petition Site Broken since Inauguration Weekend,” Variety, 3 February 2017, http://variety.com/2017/digital/news/white-house-petition-site-broken-1201977541/, consulted 29 September 2017; and Hayley Tsukayama, “No, the White House Is Not Freezing Anti-Trump Petitions,” The Washington Post, 4 February 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/02/04/no-the-white-house-is-not-freezing-anti-trump-petitions/?utm_term=.0090810b1767, consulted 29 September 2017.

[10] Paul Hitlin, “‘We the People’: Five Years of Online Petitions,” Pew Research Center, 28 December 2016, http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/28/we-the-people-five-years-of-online-petitions/, consulted 29 September 2017.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Eli Rosenberg, “The White House Has Finally Restored a Petitions Site That Is Critical of President Trump,” The Washington Post, 1 February 2018, http://wapo.st/2omi0aQ.


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