Open Government Plan - Participation and Collaboration

Open Government Plan - Participation and Collaboration (Why Commerce Needs to Do This )

IV.     Participation and Collaboration

Why Commerce Needs to Do This 

In his January 21, 2009 memorandum on open government, President Obama said:

“Government should be participatory.  Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions.  Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge.  Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public input on how we can increase and improve opportunities for public participation in Government.  

Government should be collaborative.  Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government.  Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.  Executive departments and agencies should solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation.”

Commerce’s long-standing, close relationship with external partners makes the Department an ideal candidate to adopt leading practices in proactively soliciting participation by the public.  Additionally, Commerce is seeking to increase employee participation in the formulation of significant policies and strategic plans.  The Secretary has called for breaking down barriers to cooperation previously existing between the Department’s operating units to create a Commerce Department that is a fully integrated service provider positioned to support sustainable economic growth across the entire business life cycle.  In order to realize this vision, managers across the agency have been asked to encourage communication and collaboration across operating units.

Open Government Plan - Participation & Collaboration (What Commerce Will Do )

What Commerce Will Do

  • Open Commerce Website – The Commerce.gov/open website was launched on February 2, 2010, creating an easily accessible location for Americans to find how the Department is making itself more transparent, participatory, and collaborative.  The new site meets all relevant guidelines established in OMB’s “Open Government Directive.”

    Commerce sought input from the public for the development of this Open Government Plan on its Ideascale Web page, http://www.OpenCommerce.Ideascale.com.  Suggestions that have been received have been incorporated as appropriate.  Moving forward, Commerce will post additional strategic questions on its Open Government website for public input.
  • Online Partnership Tools – Commerce’s NTIA and the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) were appropriated $7.2 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to award competitive grants to expand broadband capability.  Both Commerce and USDA have embraced the principles of open government and launched multiple online information and collaboration tools.  Among these, the BroadbandMatch tool has proven to be a signature initiative.  This new online tool facilitates partnerships among prospective applicants to the agencies’ broadband programs.  BroadbandMatch – at http://match.broadbandusa.gov – allows potential applicants to identify partners for broadband projects and helps them to combine expertise to create stronger proposals.  For example, a broadband infrastructure provider might partner with community institutions, such as universities, hospitals, or libraries, on a proposal to bring high-speed Internet service to their facilities.  Any company, nonprofit organization, state or local government, or qualified individual interested in applying for funding under NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program or RUS’ Broadband Initiatives Program can post a profile, including key information about the contribution they can make to a broadband project, and search for other stakeholders whose skills and resources match their needs. 

    Commerce is exploring ways to use the technology and approach developed for the BroadbandMatch site for other Departmental initiatives that seek to connect grantees and better use government resources.  One project currently under consideration involves adopting this model for EDA’s Regional Innovation Clusters Program, which seeks to connect established businesses and entrepreneurs to pursue joint projects that will promote  regional economic growth.   
  • Long-Term Vision for e-FOIA – Commerce employs a decentralized approach to implement the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  The Departmental FOIA Officer, located within the Office of the CFO/ASA, exercises oversight for the program, coordinates the implementation of government-wide policies and initiatives, facilitates regular meetings held for training and collaboration, and processes FOIA inquiries that involve multiple operating units.  Each operating unit has at least one FOIA Officer to coordinate implementation of the Act within their organization; larger operating units may have several FOIA Officers.

    Incoming FOIA inquiries are directed to a lead operating unit that is most likely to have the requested records.  The lead operating unit coordinates with others as needed to locate all responsive records, determine the extent to which any redactions are necessary, and respond to the request.  The Departmental FOIA Officer is responsible for processing requests that relate to Commerce as a whole.  In the event that a requestor wishes to file an appeal, the Department’s Assistant General Counsel for Administration serves as the Departmental appeals official with the exception of USPTO, which – under the Patent and Trademark Office Efficiency Act – retains responsibility for processing its own appeals.

    Commerce receives and processes an average of 2,100 FOIA requests each year.  Recently, it has experienced an increase in both the number and scope of FOIA inquiries received.  The Department has maintained a backlog of inquiries, which during the last two fiscal years has involved an average of 151 requests.  The operating units are taking various steps to help reduce this level, which include additional training, steamlining procedures, augmenting staff, and automating processes.

    The Department is also exploring options for procuring FOIA management software.   While each operating unit uses information technology (IT) software and systems to a varying degree, a single approach has not been adopted across the Department.  As an example, USPTO currently utilizes FOIAXpress (http://www.foiaxpress.com/) to manage all aspects of FOIA processing.  At the Census Bureau, certain portions of its process are automated, e.g., redaction, while others are not.

    By increasing its use of technology Commerce expects to enhance its ability to receive and track requests, produce and post FOIA reports to the Web, and manage documents responsive to FOIA requests.  The Department is considering the purchase of a site license for software that could be used by the Departmental FOIA Officer and each operating unit’s FOIA Officer.  Also being considered by the interagency Chief FOIA Officers Working Group, is the use of a government-wide IT solution.  One possible option is Privasoft’s “AccessPro Suite” (http://www.prweb.com/releases/2010/02/prweb3578074.htm), which has recently been purchased by the Department of Justice for its FOIA processing needs.

    The Department is also working to provide quicker access to documents that are of public interest.  It intends to create a searchable archive of FOIA responses.  This will not only make it easier for the public to find out more about how the Department has responded to requests, but also reduce the staff time associated with answering duplicative requests.  Additionally, in the past, records were typically posted to the e-FOIA Reading Room after a minimum of three requests had been received.  Commerce is now posting records that relate to topics that may be of broad interest following the receipt and processing of one request. 
  • Declassification of Records – The Office of Security, within the Office of the CFO/ASA, serves as the central point for providing policy guidance and operational oversight for classification and declassification activities throughout Commerce, and actively coordinates systematic declassification review efforts required under Executive Order 12958.  Through this effort, Commerce has exceeded the requirement for annual reviews by collaborating with the operating units to perform monthly reviews of classified holdings of national security information.

    Additionally, Commerce has reduced the number of people authorized to make original classification authority (OCA) decisions, and to ensure proper education and training has been provided to those that do have such authority.  Consistent with Executive Order 13526, Commerce is currently considering a further reduction in the number of OCAs.
  • Ideation – As one member of the public suggested in the Department’s open government Ideascale community, which has helped Commerce in implementing OMB’s “Open Government Directive,” the increased use of ideation tools could be beneficial.  Ideation refers to a family of tools designed to gather feedback from employees or the general public.  They range from systems as simple as a physical “suggestion box” or electronic mailbox to those as sophisticated as an electronic forum with a community of participants interacting with each other.

    Deployment of such electronic collaboration and idea-generation tools could aid with enhancing intra-Departmental communication.  Deployment could also help ensure that the public can reach decision-makers with their thoughts and suggestions, and share their ideas with others. Commerce is looking forward to building on its experience with Ideascale to develop an ideation platform to solicit thoughts from its employees and the public on how it can better deliver services and administer its programs.  It is currently evaluating the wide array of ideation tools that are available and anticipates launching a solution by January 2011.
  • Open Source Information Technology – Also emerging from Commerce’s Open Government Ideascale community was a suggestion to “become more open through the increased use of open source software.”  The Department has already begun using the open source tool, Drupal, for a number of its new websites and plans to increase this use in the future.  Using open source technology will allow Commerce to develop new technologies and collaborate more readily with the public and other government agencies, and within the Department itself.

    To make this happen, the Office of the Chief Information Officer and the Office of Acquisition Management will be consulted to ensure that open source offerings are fully considered during procurement processes.  That consideration will include the value that the Department can receive through increased collaboration with the public and as a contributor to open source communities.
  • Blogging – Commerce intends to increase the use of blogging tools to facilitate dialogue between leadership and the general workforce.  A blog with comment capabilities is already being used on Commerce’s Open Government website.  While more work needs to be done to keep this site regularly updated with fresh content, Commerce has ensured that comments can be posted and, most importantly, effectively addressed.

    The Office of General Counsel has assisted in devising a standard policy that can be used across the Department to ensure a clear understanding of what is and is not allowed when blogging.

    Blogging and commenting tools are planned to be a part of the next iteration of the Commerce website (www.commerce.gov) and should assist management in carrying on conversations with employees across the Department and with the general public.  The new version of the Commerce website should premier in the second half of 2010.  An intranet, featuring tools for intra-Departmental blogging, may be also put in place in the second half of 2010, pending the availability of funding.
  • Social Media Use – The Department’s current use of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube has already shown how the strategic use of social media can help Commerce collaborate with and respond to the public.  Expanded use of these tools will increase Commerce’s opportunities to interact with the public.  In order to move forward with the use of social media throughout the Department, Commerce will:

         - Create and publish policy guidance on the use of social media and other Web 2.0 technologies, e.g., blogs and wikis, so that Commerce employees can safely use these tools;

         - Develop a system that allows Departmental officials to monitor official social media usage  to ensure the adequacy and appropriateness of interaction with the public;

         - Explore new ways to monitor social media services to assist Commerce in outreach to and interaction with the public regarding programmatic and mission-related responsibilities; and

         - Encourage more Department officials to follow the example set by the Secretary and NOAA Administrator in using social media services and directly interacting with the public.
  • Responsiveness – While a great deal of Commerce’s open government work focuses on what can be done to make it easier for stakeholders to reach out to Commerce, significant progress is needed to ensure two-way interaction.

    For example, it is not enough to seek input from the public without recognizing the need to provide thoughtful, fulsome responses.  As the Department begins to adopt these new forms of communication, employees may feel overwhelmed with new technologies or other responsibilities, or confused about the appropriate channels for responding to suggestions and comments received through social media.

    To make certain that these new technologies are being used to engage in real dialogue, Commerce will:

         - Develop additional guidance explaining how employees should respond to common questions and what types of communications require approval under Department Administrative Order 219-1, “Public Communications;” and

         - Ensure that staff time needed to respond to comments and engage in online communities is considered when the Department and its operating units develop plans to engage the public online.

    Additionally, when the Department receives a request for information from a Member of Congress or Congressional Committee, the Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs works to respond to the request in a timely and appropriate manner.