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Open Government Ideas Look All the Same: Are You Surprised?

By Andrea Di Maio | February 23, 2010 | 21 Comments

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I decided to spend some time browsing the Federal Agency Ideascale Dashboard summarizing the progress of various US federal agencies that are collecting ideas in compliance with the Open Government Directive.

I started with the Environmental Protection Agency, for no other particular reason than my interest for the environment and my appreciation of what EPA did in the past with social media.

I found out that the most popular idea so far is the following:

The EPA should live webcast all meetings. The EPA should live webcast all meetings for proposed rule making and regulations where the public comment should take place. They should make these meetings available for on demand viewing and have the ability to have that content be indexed for video search. By doing this the public and stakeholders will be able to see the inner workings of the rule making process and make the content and proceedings transparent to the public. It will also effectively use internet video technologies for transparency and government efficiencies.

I decided to move to the Department of Transportation, which has been one of the most active on the topic of open government and organized an early seminar about open government plans. Here is the most popular idea so far:

The DOT should live webcast all meetings. The Department of Transportation should live webcast all meetings for proposed rule making and regulations where the public comment should take place. They should make these meetings available for on demand viewing and have the ability to have that content be indexed for video search. By doing this the public and stakeholders will be able to see the inner workings of the rule making process and make the content and proceedings transparent to the public. It will also use effectively use internet video technologies for transparency and government efficiencies.

Well, this looks remarkably similar to the previous one. So I started looking at all other agencies in the dashboard and I found out that

Dept. of Energy’s Most Popular Idea: DOE should live webcast all meetings

NSF’s Most Popular Idea: NSF should live webcast all meetings

Dept of Treasury’s Most Popular Idea: The Department of Treasury should live webcast all meetings

Dept of Labor’s Most Popular Idea: The Department of Labor should live webcast all meetings

Small Business Administration’s Most Popular Idea: SBA should live webcast all meetings

Dept of Housing and Urban Development’s Most Popular Idea: HUD should live webcast all meetings

Dept of Commerce’s Most Popular Idea: The Department of Commerce should live webcast all meetings

Social Security Administration’s Most Popular Idea: SSA should live webcast all meetings

Office of Science and Technology’s Most Popular Idea: OSTP should live webcast all meetings

GSA’s Most Popular Idea: GSA should live webcast all meetings

Wow, twelve different agencies – including the GSA that offered the IdeaScale tool to other agencies – have the exact same most popular idea, which – as you would expect – has been submitted by the same person.

Other agencies have done only marginally better, since

Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Second Most Popular Idea: NRC should live webcast all meetings

Dept of State’s Second Most Popular Idea: The Department of State should live webcast all meetings

DHS’ Second Most Popular Idea: DHS should live webcast all meetings. …

Dept of Defense’s Fifth Most Popular Idea: The Department of Defense should live webcast all meetings

Dept of Education’s Sixth Most Popular Idea: The Department of Education should live webcast all meetings

Dept of Justice’s Sixth Most Popular Idea: The Department of Justice should live webcast all meetings

DOI’s Eight Most Popular Idea. DOI should live webcast all meetings

Office of Personnel Management’s Eight Most Popular Idea: OPM should webcast all meetings

The only agency for which this (indeed not very original) idea did not make the top ten is NASA, where it is ranked 22nd.

Behind this quite extraordinary unanimity about the importance of webcasting, going through the list one can find other similar, although not equally straightforward, patterns. In particular calls for open source (portals, software, books) pop here and there and tend to come from the same corners.

For instance OpenDefense v2.0: A Next Gen Opensource/OpenSocial Portal is remarkably similar to OpenOPM v2.0: A Next Gen Opensource/OpenSocial Portal and to OpenSSA v2.0: A Next Gen Opensource/OpenSocial Portal or OpenDOT v2.0: A Next Gen Opensource/OpenSocial Portal , and so forth.

I do not want to sound too cynical, but – as I said in a previous post – this engagement mechanism rewards the usual suspects: both those who have a genuine passion for open government like the NASA Ames Research Center employee who is fond of the OpenSocial portal, and those who may just be playing the system, like the rather mysterious proponent of webcasts for all agencies.

I do hope that open government enthusiasts will learn from this first experience and realize that they need a tighter connection between the idea collection process and the nature and mission of individual agencies. I suspect that some level of orchestration would make the whole initiative far more effective, figuring out earlier rather than later what are the few really original ideas.

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  • Lou says:

    Your last seentence about the nature of individual agencies seems appropriate here. Tools like IdeaScale can only go so far to encourage interaction; organizations based on command-and-control structures that are highly siloed will not find IdeaScale, forums, or other modern comment/suggestion boxes very helpful.

    I know an organization with an electronic suggestion box that works like this: someone (usually a new employee) makes a suggestion. The entire company is notified that a new suggestion has been made. The department director responsible for implementing or discussing the idea goes online and basically flogs the individual for making the suggestion, telling them it’s outside of the procedures. Everyone then gets notified that there has been an “update” to the suggestion. Guess how often the suggestion box is used?

    Open government directives are important, but right along with that needs to come education and sometimes institutional change, difficult change, to adapt the organization internally to the very idea of participation and interaction. In some agencies, this change is not going to come easily, nor is it inevitable. Maybe gov3.0 needs to focus on these internal silo-busting transformations, to make collaboration and innovation (and mistake-making) more acceptable.

  • After seeing the results of two Open Government Directive Workshops (January and February), I have suggested that individuals (government and non-government) need to be challenged/empowered to write and carry out individual Open Government Plans in collaboration with others doing the same to really make this happen in an innovative way. These individual plans can be aggregate up within agencies to support Agency Plans that will be more innovative.

    I followed the outline suggested by the February Open Government Directive Workshop and created “an individual plan” called MyOpenGovPlan – see I hope that the mid-April OGD Workshop will foster more of these individual plans. NARA likes my idea of “having government employees put their desktops in the cloud in support of the OGD and”, assuming the cloud desktops support NARA standards and guidelines for record keeping and preservation.

  • Megan says:

    Some of this is to be expected. This is the first time many of us have had an open forum to express our ideas across many Agencies, not only our own. So the IdeaScale process is proving to be a forum for communication across Agencies as well as out to the general public, who at this point is likely daunted by the idea of helping to reform gov’t without a ANY preliminary groundwork helping them to navigate the sometimes treacherous waters.

    Some of these cross-posts simply give the general end user insight into the workings of gov’t.

    – The NASA Ames Research Center employee who is fond of the OpenSocial portal – and OPEN platforms in general!

  • I could not agree more and have been following and noticing the same tendencies. It is also similar to the Open Government dialogue that took place in the May-June 2009 period ( where, when you dig an inch deep, you find that proving the President’s birthplace dominates the dialogue. We have always strongly believed that a) not all crowdsourcing platforms fit every engagement and b) that, particularly for the public sector and government, to ensure business objectives are met through your crowdsourcing initiative you need a structure and methodology that aligns properly. The analogy of Web 1.0 when organizations would devote all of their energies to creating a beautiful website and then be surprised when there was no activity on the site comes to mind. There is both a science and an art to crowdsourcing and unfortunately, those that just dive in (or are forced to dive in) without understanding that do so at their peril (as well as that of the sponsors and participants). The good news…it is all a great learning experience that undoubtedly will produce some terrific benefits in the short and long term.

  • Mark Drapeau says:

    More citizens care about American Idol than American Open Government, because they feel engaged in the first one, and not in the second.

    Nice article.

  • I think you make a good point about the ideas surrounding webcasts. Often, people will suggest it’s a good think but will not actually watch them. Therefore, a cost benefit analysis needs to occur as there is an opportunity cost associated with this that potentially people do not realise.

    Mark Pack ( makes a good point when he outlines the low audience figures for webcasts. Unless they were made easily searchable, and viewable in segments (e.g. like, I cannot really see them being particularly beneficial to wide audiences.

    The webcasting idea is very easy to suggest, but in reality its efficacy in terms of transparency, is questionable given the costs involved.

  • Kevin Curry says:

    I’m confused. I see an observation followed by some loosely connected criticism. What’s wrong with all of the sites having the same most popular idea submitted by the same person? That person just took the trouble to enter the idea on all of the sites. Other people voted for it. Who says an idea has to be original to be effective…or even stated? Is it a bad idea because it’s the same idea? Would we complain if none of these agencies had a website and the most popular suggestion for all of them was “put up a website?” In what way does this observation of same-ness suggest that the process is inherently flawed? How does the suggestion to webcast lead to a reward for “the usual suspects?” Either it is a good idea or it isn’t. The merits and demerits of the idea aren’t addressed here at all. Instead, this observation of consistent similarity is being used suggest that the process itself is inherently flawed. That’s not logical. Doubtless there are aspects of the ideascale drive worth criticizing – for sake of improvement – but this doesn’t seem to be one of them.

  • Nice one Andrea,

    This post has hit a nerve that’s stimulating some conversation out there. One thing that I have found to be very interesting in some of your other posts and my own experience is the notion that ‘if you build it they will come’ is very flawed. The U.S. Census Bereu ran a commercial during the superbowl that I thought was great because it represented an attempt to engage people in a space that they paid attention to.

    I find that government officials often claim citizen ‘apathy’ or other excuses when they don’t want to try harder or break out of traditional molds. An agency with a ‘page’ on the internet probably isn’t enough these days.

  • Megan says:

    Building on Justin’s comment – how can we better leverage traditional media to better lay the foundation for outreach efforts such as the IdeaScale process?

    Creative, innovative, exciting tv, newspaper and radio spots would be a great starting point.

    Here are a couple of great YouTube examples of how inspire the innovators and thinkers in all of us:

  • @Kevin – I did not say there is anything wrong. I just feel this is very unusual . Whoever posted that idea did not try to adapt it to the peculiarities of each agency: he or she just changed the agency name in the text.
    What is depressing is that this made the top in almost all cases. I do not really think it is worth debating this, as the “gaming-the-system” aspect is way too evident here.

  • Mike Matz says:

    I would be curious to hear the thoughts of others. Do you have any thoughts on Open Source For America’s proposed Open Government Plan guidelines?

  • Gaming the system in this context means drumming up support among your friends or certain interest groups and have them vote up your ideas while also voting down everybody else’s. I don’t think that’s the case here (at least I haven’t seen any evidence yet).

    Instead, what we’re seeing once again is that ideas that reach the leaderboard (the list of “most popular” ideas) early in the process have a huge advantage over those ideas that are submitted later on.

    This is due to the way the tool is designed: allowing participants to vote on ideas while the process of idea generation is still ongoing *and* exposing the leaderboard at the same time will almost always have this effect.

    There’s probably a good reason why traditional face-to-face brainstorming usually separates idea generation from idea selection.

  • Dave Newman says:

    Aldo de Moor showed how it could be done in his GRASS system. He got loggers and environmentalists to co-write a forestry policy for British Columbia.

    They started with a list of report sections. Then each group could write their own position under each section.

    Perhaps open government consultations could start by dividing up their suggestion space into separate goals – and collect ideas supporting each goal.

  • All agencies *should* webcast their public meetings. It’s low cost, high value. Glad that idea has hit the top.

  • @Mike – I find these guidelines “really” weird. They mention “open source” all over the place, but this directive is about open data and not open code. It seems to be back to the day when people would not understand the difference between open source and open standards. Almost worth a blog post all by itself.

  • @Adriel – No doubt about that. But this approach just detracts from the whole idea collection and rating approach, showing its shortcomings rather than the value of ideas themselves. Also, do people really care about being inundated with webcasts of meetings that tend to be relatively boring? It would have been smarter to mention new ways for people to actually participate in public meetings online, taking into account the peculiarities of different agencies, but that would have taken far too effort.

  • @Tim & Dave – Great observations and suggestions. I would argue that the shortcomings of IdeaScale where already evident from Obama’s question time experience. More clustering and moderation would have certainly helped.

  • @Megan – Thanks for coming out 🙂 Incidentally I do love your posts and tweets and I have no doubt about your proposals being a genuine attenpt at promoting open platform in different agencies. Indeed the Ideascale “experiment” can be read both ways, and I just went for a more cynical interpretation. This being said, given previous experiences with idea collections and ratings, it would not have been too difficult to put some better moderation in place as well as to ensure that some cross-postings that are frankly too systematic to be worth the top spot were dealt with appropriately (e.g. adding comments that simply point to the fact that those were cross-postings).

  • Megan says:

    Thanks Andrea, I appreciate your blogs too. I think we are in synch on many of our ideas for what the next-gen open platforms will look like.

    Just one comment in defense of my cross-posts:

    My model pre-supposes multiple OpenSocial platforms (I’ll use this term interchangeably with “next-gen portal” to distinguish between my model and the traditional use of the term “portal”).

    The whole idea is to share the widgets and apps across mutiple platforms that are also designed from the start to share contacts, login, and profile info per The Open Stack:

    It wouldn’t make much sense to build an OpenNASA v2.0 without the other Agency portals, and the IdeaScale sites at each of the Agencies are providing an excellent model to demonstrate why.

    Look how easy it was for me to cross-post and move between them. That is how easy it would be to move from OpenNASA v2.0 to OpenOPM v2.0 to OpenGSA v2.0 and so forth.

    We’d like to make it equally simple to create new apps and widgets from the data sets on, and to share those apps across the various Agency next-gen portals.

  • Tim Treanor says:

    I found your position just a little too snarky. Isn’t this what is supposed to happen in this crowd sourcing ideas model…. Citizens submit an idea to the cloud and slowly but methodically an idea not generated by a lobbyist starts to gel support. Frankly, I think is a good idea to webcast meetings for transparency purposes.

    This citizen clearly took the time and energy to evangelize his idea and the public really likes the idea. So what’s the problem?

  • While I understand the point you are trying to make, I think your focus on what peculates to the top obscures the value of the ideas in the middle. Certainly, not all of the 1,000 ideas submitted relate to webcasts and social media platforms. There are a wealth of great ideas in the mix from numerous submitters. I think that your post fails to reflect on the positives of the program. To me, the bigger issue is not the value of the ideas being submitted (which I contend is valuable), but the action plans (or lack thereof) for the evaluation and implementation by the corresponding department/agency of the best ideas. Given that the sites were launched without a transparent execution plan in place, it is easy to understand why there haven’t been more ideas submitted or votes cast.