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February 22, 2010

A Different Look at Open Government Participation

It’s been over a year, and, the evolution of Open Government is in full swing, including the definition of what Open Government is. We all pretty much agree that that OG is about transparency, participation and collaboration, but, what seems to be missing is context. Transparent to who? Participate in what? Collaborate to solve? So far, most of the efforts of the OG community have been focused on raw data sets and dashboards to answer for transparency, feedback collection sites to cover participation and various forms of social media to foster collaboration. Not a bad start, so long as we don’t allow the OG community to claim victory and quit looking for more creative innovations (or definitions of what OG could/should be).

To this point, I’d like to present a very different perspective on participation. As mentioned, generally, when participation is discussed with regards to OG, people are thinking about ways to gather feedback from or start a dialog with the public (or some subset of), typically focused on some government initiative or policy decision. Of course, this is generally a good thing, but, isn’t this an obvious use case for open government? So, let’s think outside the box for a minute and consider a whole different perspective, namely, finding ways to engage people directly with the mission of a particular agency. Still participation, right? Would this still be Open Government at work as well? I believe the answer is yes.

So what would this look like? Let’s use the U.S. Army as an example. For the Army to effectively deliver on it’s mission to defend the nation, no resource is more precious than the soldiers themselves. To ensure the Army stays fully staffed, the US Army Recruiting Command has a critical role to play. While the reenlistment rate is higher than it has been in years, there is still a need to bring in new recruits all the time. Enter If you’ve never taken the time to visit this site, now would be a good time. What a shining example of participation from an otherwise unexpected source!

In years past, think about how Army recruiters were depicted. I’m sure many of you recall the timeless Bill Murray classic, “Stripes” or even Pauly Shore’s “In the Army Now” (OK, maybe you don’t remember that Hollywood Blockbuster!) where there was an Army recruiting office in a less than desirable location, manned by a recruiter with a cheesy smile and a bunch of false promises. Obviously, these are spoofs of reality, but, a few things were true. The experience was in person, it was focused solely on the recruit and the ‘engagement’ was somewhat limited to ‘read this and sign here’.

Contrast that to the experience of In this immersive online experience, potential recruits are offered various interactions that help answer questions, set expectations and illustrate what Army life is all about. Through the judicious use of video, animations, avatars (you really need to check out SGT Star!), and various communications technologies such as Facebook, RSS feeds and discussion boards, the recruit can, among many things, discover career options, learn about weapons systems, engage with interactive games, and even schedule an audition with the Army Band! And let’s not neglect to mention the other audience of, the parents and family of any potential recruits. The family is presented with a wealth of information to help guide everyone to making the right decision for their son or daughter. Again, just like the recruit’s experience, the family is offered interactive and engaging information that gives them a very detailed look into the kind of future that is waiting.

Ok, so let’s break it down. The Army, through the development of this site, is capitalizing on the concept that ‘design matters’. By creating, they have delivered an experience that people can use, leading to widespread adoption within the community of potential recruits and families. With this adoption has come participation, the ability to actually engage in the process of becoming a soldier in the United States Army. Also, there is an element of transparency as well. Consider how much better informed a new recruit is today verses a new recruit in say the 1980′s. Isn’t this what Open Government should be about? Better informed people who are taking an active role in the mission of a government agency? And how much more participatory can one get than enlisting in a military service?

Of course making data sets available and gathering feedback from constituents is important, I would never argue otherwise, however, let’s be sure to keep our eyes open for even greater opportunities for transparency, participation and collaboration.

I welcome your commentary…….