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How can the public media 2.0 framework shed light on open government initiatives?

Christopher Ali

We're pleased to present another guest post from Christopher Ali, doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Ali holds an MA in Media Studies from Concordia University in Montreal and his research interests include local and community media, broadcasting, and telecommunication policy in Canada and the United States.



The term “public media,” as defined by the Center for Social Media’s Public Media 2.0, is an analytical frame that privileges the notion of an open, participatory and collaborative mediascape. This mediascape involves a multitude of media and actors — not just media makers, but also nonprofits, community anchor institutions, educational institutions, online platforms, policy organizations, cultural organizations, and government. Using the frame of  public media as a lens, I conducted an academic research study analyzing the public participation efforts of three governmental agencies as of April 2010.

In this study, I examined the Obama administration’s 2009 Open Government Directive [PDF]. Using three benchmark keywords — “transparency,” “public participation,” and “collaboration” — the administration strove to align digital media with public participation in order to create a new culture of openness and transparency for the executive branch and federal agencies. The Open Government Directive required all agencies and departments to create their own Open Government Plans (privileging transparency, public participation and collaboration); publish “high-value” data sets in an open format; and create and maintain Open Government Webpages that included discussion forums for public comment. The Directive represents the federal government's newest foray into what has been called “e-rulemaking,” “e-participation,” or “e-government.”

With this in mind, I examined three agency Open Government Plans, as well as corresponding websites and public discussion forums, in order to investigate how closely these initiatives aligned with the public media approach. I also compared the official discourse of the agencies with that of the public discourse found on the mandatory discussion forums. I selected the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for this study, as previous research had identified the EPA as a trendsetter and the DOT and USDA as early adopters and innovators of digital participation.

My results were interesting in that the study did not focus, like so many have before, on the policy outcomes, but rather on the possibilities of public participation and engagement. I discovered four major findings through this research.

First, I found that while these are seminally important initiatives in bringing federal agencies to a standard level of public engagement, they are not entirely unprecendented. Rather, I see the move towards public participation as an iterative process, built from previous Acts, directives and regulations (for instance, the E-Government Act, the Paperwork Reduction Act, the Clinger-Cohen Act, the Plain Language Initiative, the Negotiated Rulemaking Act and the Administrative Procedures Act).

Second, there was evidence of a lack of digital education and literacy skills among discussion forum participants. There appeared to be an assumption on the part of the agencies that users would inherently or intuitively “know” how to use the discussion forums. Digital literacy is a serious challenge throughout the United States, yet none of the three Open Government Plans analyzed for this research suggested a coherent training program or digital skills curriculum for members of the public.

Third, these plans lacked a strong multi-media platform. For instance, there were consistent calls within the discussion forums for agencies and departments to move beyond the written word and text-based media, and embrace interactivity and participation. Much of the USDA and DOT’s Plans involve the digitization of older information and the posting of data sets. While webcasting, video conferencing, podcasting, Web 2.0 and YouTube are all noted in the Plans, little is provided in the way of a strategic plan to incorporate these media in to the department’s ethos of public participation and culture of open government. (The DOT is, however, working on a platform to display information visually, taking advantage of interactive mapping technology). The EPA, is an exeception, as it continues to be a trendsetter in the field of media and public participation among government agencies.

Fourth, my research suggests that the radical change that is necessary in order to create the cultures of Open Government demanded by the Open Government Directive is not apparent in the EPA, DOT, or USDA — each agency is simply replicating existing operations. In particular, I suggest that the Open Government Directive, as a standardization practice, has the potential to create a ceiling which caps experimentation, participation and transparency, rather than a floor from which to build upon.

The Open Government Directive is still in its infancy, and agencies had just released their Open Government Plans as of April 2010. Much is still in development and agencies are still engaged in conversation about what they “will” do, rather than what they have done or are doing. It was not my intention to launch into a critical polemic or didactic discussion. Rather, I attempted to use a public media approach to better understand the participatory dynamics within the Open Government Directive and explore three agency Plans.

Previous academic research on public participation in the federal rulemaking process has focused almost entirely on the way in which public comment has influenced policy-making. This is examined at the expense of other, less prescribed outcomes, such as discussion, education and media production. In contrast, a public media approach allowed me to shift the conversation away from the way in which the public contributes to the “notice-and-comment paradigm” and focus on the public’s less formal input (discussion forums) as well as the agencies’ multimedia initiatives, participatory culture and collaborative endeavors. Moreover, the Open Government Directive and agency Plans give us a renewed opportunity to revisit a conversation about public participation in the federal government — a conversation that has been stagnant and stymied amongst academics for years.

In discussing public participation from a public media perspective, we can shed new light on how the public is engaged with federal agencies and how public media can be used as a framework beyond traditional media making.

Check out these websites to check to learn more about the Open Government Directive: