IV. Participation and Collaboration
Why Commerce Needs to Do This
Participation and collaboration are central tenets of the President’s Open Government vision. Although many units within Commerce have long-standing, close relationships with external partners, the rapid evolution of collaborative technologies and practices offers new ways to engage wider and more varied cross-section of the public.
In addition to experimenting with these new tools, 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 Commerce’s operating units to create a Department that is a fully integrated service provider. In order to realize this vision, managers across the agency have been asked to explore opportunities for communication and collaboration across operating units.
What Commerce Has Done
- Commerce has led the way in experimentation with government-citizen collaboration. In 2007, USPTO collaborated with New York University in a pilot study to improve the process of patent examination. Through this project, called Peer-to-Patent, citizens were invited to share their expertise with patent examiners by suggesting “prior art” – documents that address whether or not a proposed patent is a new idea. This crowd-sourcing activity helped lay the groundwork for the President’s Open Government Initiative.
- Commerce supports public engagement in other ways as well. The public provides valuable comments on proposed rules and changes to existing rules. To encourage public comment, the Department of Commerce actively participates in the eRulemaking program, Regulations.gov. This site provides a Web-based means for the public to comment on proposed rules and changes to existing rules.
- Throughout the nation, Commerce provides community-based information resources for public access and research. Examples include: Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries (PTDLs), Census Research Data Centers (RDCs), ITA’s U.S. Export Assistance Centers (USEACs), and NOAA Library Network.
- Every federal agency provides a process to respond to congressional inquiries. To provide better visibility into that process, the Department established a new public Web site which provides a direct link to the Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs (OLIA). Launched on May 13, 2010, the site includes current telephone, postal mailing address, and e-mail contact information for OLIA. The Web page also provides a current staff directory, including listings of operating units or topics covered by each legislative and intergovernmental specialist. Furthermore, the portal also connects users to over thirty links to Web sites of key intergovernmental associations and organizations, as well as links to related congressional Web sites, constituent support data and common research tools.
The Assistant Secretary for Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs is the primary adviser to the Secretary of Commerce on legislative and intergovernmental issues and the Department’s principal liaison to Congress, state governors, and elected state and local officials. As a result, OLIA communicates directly with these stakeholders and responds to inquiries for information and constituent requests, and tracks current or proposed legislation and congressional hearings. OLIA also oversees the legislative and intergovernmental outreach strategies and communications of the individual bureaus of the Department. OLIA utilizes a multitude of public and specialized internal databases, correspondence tracking, grant tracking, and outreach tools to ensure inquiries are responded to in a timely and professional manner.
- Commerce also collaborates with non-profit and private entities through ITA’s Market Development Cooperator Program (MDCP). Using Grants.gov, MDCP awards financial and technical assistance to non-profit industry groups (such as trade associations and chambers of commerce) that support projects enhancing the global competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing and services industries. Such groups are particularly effective in reaching small- and medium-size enterprises. Industry groups that win awards pledge to pay a minimum of two-thirds of the project cost and to sustain the project after the MDCP award period ends.
- The Commerce.gov/open Web site was launched on February 2, 2010, creating an easily accessible location for Americans to see 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 Web site for public input.
What Commerce Will Do
- Online Partnership Tools – Commerce’s NTIA and the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) were appropriated $7.2 billion under the Recovery 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.
Commerce’s USPTO is designing the next phase of the Peer-to-Patent pilot, described in the transparency section of this document, in partnership with academia. As details are finalized they will be made available.
- 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 limited its backlog of inquiries during the last two fiscal years to an average less than 7.5 percent of total requests. The operating units are taking various steps to help reduce this level, which include additional training, streamlining procedures, augmenting staff, and automating processes.
The Department is also exploring options for procuring FOIA management software. While each operating unit uses IT software and systems to a varying degree, a single approach has not been adopted across the Department. As an example, USPTO currently utilizes commercial software 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.
To facilitate the transition to automated processing enterprise-wide, the Department is exploring 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, the interagency Chief FOIA Officers Working Group is considering the adoption of a coordinated, government-wide approach. 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 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.
Information on Commerce’s FOIA program and how to file a FOIA request is available at http://www.osec.doc.gov/omo/FOIA/FOIAWeb site.htm. This Web site provides access to many documents and records maintained by the Department, including frequently requested records, Departmental policy statements, administrative manuals, general counsel opinions, annual FOIA reports, online Commerce libraries and FOIA reading rooms, and much more.
- 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.
- 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 and to develop an ideation platform to solicit thoughts from its employees and the public on how it can better deliver services and administer 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 platform, Drupal, for a number of its new Web sites and, based on the experience so far, plans to increase this use in the future. The Department is amenable to using any technology that will allow it to develop new methods for collaborating more readily with the public and other government agencies, and within the Department itself.
- 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 Web site. 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 Web site (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 Web site 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 in their role as both users and providers of information;
- 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 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, OLIA works to respond to the request in a timely and appropriate manner.