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Beth Noveck Discusses the Open Government Initiative

screen shot of White House Open Government Initiative innovations gallery SOURCE: Last week, the Obama administration unveiled its Open Government Initiative, a set of online tools and a process of public engagement for making its operations more transparent. This podcast takes a look at what it means for citizens and scientists, who are now asked to share their knowledge and ideas.
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Last week, the Obama administration unveiled its Open Government Initiative, a set of online tools and a process of public engagement for making its operations more transparent.

Beth Noveck was a member of the transition team and spent the 120 days following the president’s Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government of January 21 working to ready this project, which she joined us this week to discuss (see the sidebar for the full conversation). She is now the deputy chief technology officer for open government in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The January memorandum, the first of the administration, outlined the three guiding principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration, she explains. “The reason we want to have transparency is to create more accountability in government.” And participation from citizens, according to Noveck, is not solely a matter of inclusion; it also ensures that those working in government are getting the best expertise so they can make decisions about health care reform, environmental sustainability—and be certain those decisions are based on the best possible data and science.

Addressing the importance of the effort for the scientific community, Noveck pointed to, the new catalog of bulk technical information created as part of the initiative. “If we don’t make it easy to find that information,” she said, “it’s very difficult for the scientific community to do research on it, to analyze it, to assess the quality, and then, in turn, to hold government accountable.”

Noveck has first-hand experience using technology tools to crowdsource research that informs government decisions. She spearheaded the successful Peer-to-Patent pilot project that allows volunteer experts to assist with the prior art research for patent applications. Their suggestions get voted on by other participants and the top finds became part of the docket of materials sent to the overworked patent examiners who might not otherwise know about the valuable resources or preexisting intellectual property.

The lesson from the project for the current initiative is clear: “The intelligence and expertise that we need to make the best quality decisions is not all located in Washington. We don’t have a monopoly on all the good information that we need to make decisions,” she said.

The administration’s government transparency work has drawn some criticism for hosting discussions with stakeholders behind closed doors—though information on the content or results of those talks, as well as other ideas on transparency, is now available on OSTP’s “From the Inbox” page. “For far too long, too much of the way that we have made policy has happened behind closed doors, without adequate opportunities for participation,” Noveck said, “and also without adequate rationale and feedback at the back end when decisions are made that actually justify and explain why a certain decision was made.”

The first public phase of the transparency idea-generation process is an online brainstorming session at the Open Government Dialogue. The final day to submit and vote on ideas is tomorrow, May 28th, after which the second “discussion” phase begins on June 3. When the coordinators—the White House Chief Technology Officer in OSTP, the Office of Management and Budget, and the General Services Administration—have digested all the input from this multi-stage process, OMB will prepare a set of open policy directives for federal departments, which have already been asked to create more of what Noveck calls “open government innovations.” A gallery of such innovations already in place appears on the White House website.

But part of open governance, Noveck emphasizes, is decentralization, and transparency is not the sole responsibility of any one person or single office. “Everyone is in charge. We’re all responsible,” she said.

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