OpenGov Citizen Engagement Tool: Frequently Asked Questions for Federal Agencies

1. General Open Government Information

a. What are the Open Government Directive requirements related to public engagement?  

See the Open Government Directive for all requirements and Sunlight Foundation timeline for all deadlines.  Two of the deadlines related to online engagement are:

  • February 6, 2010 – All agencies must launch an Open Government Web Page that incorporates a public feedback mechanism (a method for engaging the public during development of the agency's Open Government Plan).
  • April 7, 2010 – Agencies' Open Government Plans due to OMB.

b. Who is leading the Open Government Directive implementation at my agency?  

Agencies must name a senior official to the OGD working group by January 22. OMB/OIRA is maintaining the list.  If you do not know who the senior OGD person is in your agency, ask within your agency; email opengov@omb.eop.gov; or call Nicholas Fraser, Information Policy Branch, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at (202) 395–3785. 

c. Who is GSA working with in my agency related to the citizen engagement?

The White House Office of New Media provided GSA with a list of New Media points of contact for the agency.gov/open sites and online engagement. Agencies can tell GSA if their one point of contact for online engagement changes, but GSA requests one lead point of contact per agency for this initiative. We ask agencies to coordinate internally through their lead point of contact.

2. GSA Offering an Ideation Tool

a. What is an online ideation tool and why would an agency want to use one?

Online ideation tools (sometimes call brainstorming or social voting tools) can supplement what agencies may already be doing to engage the public (in person town halls, etc.). Such online tools make it possible for agencies to engage with many more people and help analyze, absorb, and use the public's ideas and suggestions.

b. What is GSA offering?

GSA developed a generic citizen engagement tool, powered by IdeaScale.com, which can be used and shared across government to:

  • Make it easier for agencies to engage with the public during the development of their Open Government Plans and beyond.
  • Enhance citizen engagement with government.
  • Use government resources efficiently and effectively.

c. Why did GSA choose IdeaScale for this ideation/collaboration tool?

After considering the short timeframe for implementation, available resources, user requirements, and market research, IdeaScale was chosen for many reasons:

  • No cost (it's free)
  • Functionality – allows public to search ideas, contribute solutions, discuss and expand upon the ideas of others, vote ideas up and down, flag ideas
  • Easily customizable for agency branding purposes
  • Easy to use
  • Metrics reporting capability
  • Can export data in .xml (to Data.gov and elsewhere)
  • Offers single sign–on (from a variety of popular social media providers)
  • Several other federal agencies are currently using it and were available to assist GSA with the quick implementation of a government–wide tool
  • Federal-compatible terms of service already signed by GSA

d. Are other federal agencies already using this or similar ideation tools?

Yes. Several agencies have used IdeaScale and similar ideation tools. Here are some examples of federal government use of ideation software:

3. Deciding Whether to Use GSA-Provided Tool

a. Why would an agency choose to work with GSA in implementing this tool?

This tool is a fairly turn-key product for agencies that choose to use it. GSA has done much of the research and much of the heavy lifting related to the policy issues related to using such an online ideation tool. Rather than have 24 agencies expend resources to create a tool for the same purpose (to solicit input on creating agency Open Government Plans), GSA worked with OMB, the White House Office of New Media, and agencies already using these tools to develop one tool that could be cloned and customized 24 times. As of February 2, 2010, 22 of the 24 CFO Act agencies are using this tool for their online engagement.

b. When will the GSA tool be available?

GSA plans to have the tool available by January 27, 2010, for your agency to practice using the tool. Agencies will also be asked to review/QC the site and report any problems to GSA. GSA will launch the tools for public input from February 6 through March 19, a five week period which closes a little more than two weeks before agency Open Government Plans are due to OMB.

c. Do federal agencies have to use the GSA-offered tool (IdeaScale)?

No. The Directive requires your agency to "extensively engage employees and the public in formulation of the agency Open Government Plan" but it can be through any method/tool you choose.

d. How much will this tool cost my agency?

GSA will provide the 24 CFO Act agencies with the tool and training at no cost. You are required to cover staff resources needed to moderate the online engagement/dialog , interact online with the public, and analyze and use public input.

e. Can agencies use the tool to engage our own employees?

Yes. This tool can be used to encourage your employees to provide input on your Open Government Plan.  The GSA–configured online engagement tool is not limited to soliciting input from agency employees. It is open to all – employees and the general public.

f. Has any user testing been done on IdeaScale?

User testing of the tool template (the template that will be tailored for each agency) was conducted January 14–15, 2010. A total of 41 tests (in-person and remote user tsts) were done. Results from the user testing will be incorporated into the tool as much as possible prior to the February 6, 2010 launch date. Some improvements noted in testing may be implemented after the launch. User testing results will be posted on HowTo.gov.

g. Has the tool been reviewed/approved re: privacy policies, Paperwork Reduction Act, security regulations, cookies?

Yes. GSA, as administrator of these IdeaScale accounts, is working hard to be sure that the tool is within current policy parameters. Because GSA is the administrator of these accounts, the policy issues/resolutions will apply to all participating agency accounts.

  • Terms of Service – GSA has signed a federal-compatible Terms of Service with IdeaScale
  • T erms of Participation and Privacy Policy – GSA counsel–Approved Terms of Participation and Privacy Policy will appear on each account/site.
  • Paperwork Reduction Act – OMB has approved emergency clearance to GSA (for all agencies) so agencies can meet the requirements in the Open Government Directive.
  • Security  –  IdeaScale is exercising due diligence using generally accepted commercial business practices for IT security to ensure that systems are operated and maintained in a secure manner and that management, operational and technical controls will be employed to ensure security of systems and data. GSA took the following steps to review the security controls:
    -- reviewed SAS 70 Type II audit results
    -- interviewed senior company officials on their software engineering practices, configuration management, the system architecture, and their update cycles for patching and upgrades
    -- conducted a penetration test, a Foundstone Vulnerability Scan and a WebInspect Vulnerability Scan  for OWASP vulnerabilities
    -- conducted a PIA to ensure incorporation of privacy considerations
    -- studied the configuration options and implemented options to ensure IT Security and privacy for the public dialogues
  • Cookies – GSA's Acting Administrator has signed a waiver to allow use of persistent cookies on this tool for ease of log-in by users.

h. Has GSA done a Privacy Impact Assessment on this tool?

Yes.

i. Is this collaboration tool only to be used for collecting public input on agency Open Government plans or can we use it for other public engagement purposes/needs?

GSA will offer agencies (that are ready) the option to take over the administration of their tool after the online engagements related to development of the agency Open Government Plans are closed to new ideas (on March 19). Agencies can use their accounts to establish community dialogs for internal and external engagement. However, agencies will need to ensure compliance with all federal policies and regulations.

j. Is this tool Section 508 compliant?  If not, what are the accommodations possible?

  • IdeaScale believed that their product was 508 compliant, and other agencies already using IdeaScale found the product to be 508 compliant in their testing. However, to ensure that the product meets Section 508 requirements, GSA conducted accessibility testing with many assistive technologies and found the product had some problems that need to be resolved. We will do whatever is possible within the burden of the deadlines mandated by the Directive and have a plan in place to bring the product to full compliance that has been approved by our 508 experts here at GSA.
  • IdeaScale is committed to fixing all outstanding issues and is trying to do so in time for this launch, and GSA is actively working with them to resolve these problems and to retest iterative improvements. We will keep agencies up to date on progress on this and other aspects of this tool.
  • As a best practice, GSA will include an Accessibility link in the footer of of each site where users who cannot or do not want to take part in using this tool can find an alternative way to provide input. The alternative is provided by each agency using the tool.
  • All agencies should offer an alternative way for users to provide input to the agency. Agency email boxes, phone/contact centers, or web forms may serve this purpose. Agency moderators should then enter that information into the tool so the broader community can view and vote on the ideas.

k. Do the comments/ideas posted on the tool appear online without approval of the agency?

All IDEAS and COMMENTS (two of the 3 forms of engagement via this online tool) pass through a "curse" filter before they are published to the live site. You have the option to approve all IDEAS before they are posted. However, COMMENTS cannot be vetted/approved before they are published to the live site. However, COMMENTS can be voted down or flagged by the community, and can be removed/redirected by agency moderators any time after they are posted. Agencies were given the opportunity to decide whether or not they wanted to pre-moderate ideas.

l. If an agency chooses to use this tool, what are the agency's responsibilities?

Agencies are responsible for:

  • Notifying GSA by January 15 if they plan to use this online citizen engagement tool or if they have alternative means to engage the public and do not wish to use this tool.  This can be done via an phone or e-mail to: Andrea Sigritz at opengsa@gsa.gov or (202) 501–4083.
  • Providing GSA the information it will need to tailor your agency's dialog (e.g., contact information, logo, moderator names, moderation level, URLs for agency–specific links, etc.)
  • Providing alternative methods for citizens/employees to provide input (phone, email, mail, etc.)
  • Participating in moderator training.
  • Using the tool to engage the public from February 6 – March 19, 2010, as they create their Open Government Plans.
  • Promoting the availability of this public input opportunity to agency audiences.
  • Incrementally implementing moderation best practices (such as seeding the tool with a few ideas before it launches on February 6 to get the conversation going, participating in the dialog, sharing ideas, commenting on citizen input, etc.). 
  • Moderating ideas/comments to move "off topic" items to an area provided in the tool, and to remove content clearly in violation of the Terms of Participation, including, for example, removing any personally identifiable information or threats users may add in comments.
  • Adding to the tool ideas that come in through alternative provided under accessibility policy.
  • Analyzing ideas/comments from the public and sharing summaries and specific ideas throughout their agency.
  • Using the public's input in the agency's Open Government Plan and citing that input in the plan.
  • Keeping the public informed of how their ideas are being used.
  • Using this opportunity to gain hands–on experience using an online citizen engagement tool with the goal of increasingly incorporating these types of tools in agency engagement, idea management, and collaboration activities.
  • Determining when they are ready to take over permanent administration of this online citizen engagement tool after April 7 (or alternatively moving to another tool of their choice that meets federal policy requirements).  

m. How do we participate in this citizen engagement tool effort? When do we need to make the decision to participate or not?

CFO Act agencies were asked to contact Andrea Sigritz (opengsa@gsa.gov or 202–501–4083) at GSA by January 15, 2010, to let GSA know if you want to use this tool or if you have alternative means for engaging the public in the development of your agency Open Government Plan.

n. How is GSA handling the Records Retention Policy related to the Open Government Citizen Engagement Tool?

GSA's considers the Open Government Citizen Engagement Tool to be part of the "continuous improvement" element of GSA's ongoing input to management improvement processes and will adhere to the same disposition as other GSA records. As such, the tool itself doesn't require a schedule. However, the aggregated comments and ideas do require a schedule for record deletion. GSA will submit a record retention schedule for the tool that will save the top 25% of ideas and comments (determined by number of votes and other criteria of value to be determined). GSA will delete the remaining lower 75% of aggregate ideas/comments annually. All federal public websites must comply with existing laws and regulations related to the management of public web records. This includes the need for organizations to comply with NARA guidance related to web records issued on December 17, 2005. See more information about Web records.

o. Does my agency have to prepare a records retention schedule for the OG Citizen Engagement Tool?

GSA is administering the tool for the participating agencies and will develop a schedule for the disposition of records maintained within the system. Agencies may download data in their area of the application, either in part or as abstracts; if they choose to do so they will need to schedule those records by submitting a schedule to NARA.

p. If my agency wants to retain all ideas/comments from the OG Citizen Engagement Tool, what do we do?

Agencies will be able to export/download the ideas/comments from the tool and should do so on a regular basis. GSA will notify agencies prior to deleting records to allow at least 30 days for agencies to download comments/ideas from the tool.

q. Is there a "blanket" records retention procedure that covers all ideation tools that government agencies might use?

Not currently, however, GSA plans to submit a request for a "Citizens" Category in the Public Input section of the General Records Schedule that could provide a blanket schedule for similar ideation tools used to solicit citizen engagement in the future. The benefit of this is that agencies would then not have to file a separate records schedule each time they conduct an online engagement and could cite this "Citizens/Public Input" section in the General Records Schedule.

4. IdeaScale Setup/Administration

a. Will we work with GSA or directly with IdeaScale to implement this tool?

GSA will provide the technology set-up and design, the management and policy support, training and best practices, user testing, and technical support of this online engagement tool until agencies can transition the tool internally for future public engagement activities specific to your agency or transition to another tool/mechanism.  By April 7, 2010 (when agency Open Government Plans are due), your agency will need to decide if it is ready to take over the administration responsibilities for the tool.

b. What are the benefits of using this tool vs. just developing an IdeaScale account ourselves?

You can develop an IdeaScale or other tool if you choose. GSA is here to help agencies that do not have, do not want, or are unable to obtain an alternative mechanism to solicit employee and public input on their Open Government Plans. We have anticipated many of the hurdles you may experience and have created guidelines and best practices to guide you in your activities. If you choose to use this tool along with other agencies, you will have a community of people who can be of potential assistance in this shared experience. If you choose to use other tools, the material GSA created is still available for your use.

c. We already have an IdeaScale account.  Do we need to change our current account to be consistent with this cross-federal effort?

No, but you can if you want to.

d. Who will establish our account with IdeaScale?

GSA will establish your account with ideascale. The URL for your dialog will be at Open(agency acronymn/name).ideascale.com.

e. Who will design/customize our IdeaScale page/site?

GSA will create your IdeaScale page template and will request information from you to customize it to your needs (e.g., agency logo, moderation choice, etc). GSA needs your custom information by January 19, 2010, at the latest.

f. How much can we customize our citizen engagement tool?

In this short timeframe many things are standard for agencies and users, but GSA will provide some customization. GSA will let your point of contact know what choices agencies have and get the information from your agency in order to implement them.

g. Can we customize the voting options?  Star ratings vs thumbs up/thumbs down?

No. The functionality of this tool is thumbs up or thumbs down rating. The net number of votes controls the order ideas show up when "Most Popular" tab is clicked. This functionality is allowing the community to help the agency moderate ideas and identify the most promising and innovative ideas.

h. Who manages my agency site?

GSA will be managing the sites but agencies will be in charge of monitoring content and (ideally) interacting with those who are submitting ideas/comments.

i. What does a moderator do vs. an administrator?

Administrator – the administrator configures the tool, sets the options available, manages administrative rights to accounts, etc.  

Moderator – the moderator monitors the public's ideas and comments, looks for posts that violate the Terms of Participation and ideally interacts with those who are submitting ideas/comments on the online tool.

j. What skills does a moderator need? What office should they be in?

GSA will teach moderators how to use the tool. This person will serve as their agency's main point–of–contact with GSA on implementing the tool, and will be responsible for managing the online engagement. The moderator should be someone who can regularly review the ideas, share ideas with agency management, quickly respond to the public about their ideas, and moderate comments as necessary. Moderators need no technical skills as the tool is very easy to use and requires no technical skill or knowledge. They need to have a broad knowledge of their agency so they know which ideas apply to which mission areas, be able to communicate effectively, be able to speak for their agency, and be skilled at triaging issues as necessary.

k. How many moderators do we need?

The number of moderators depends on how much participation there is in your dialog and how actively you analyze and share the comments for use in developing the agency plan. You may  name up to 10 moderators. GSA will train the lead moderator, who can then train others in their agency.

We recommend (prior to the online engagement tool launching on February 6) that your agency establish a process for how moderators will share ideas with your agency's Open Government team. We also recommend scheduling people to moderate during all business hours the first few days to assess the volume and workload.

l. Will we have administrative rights to our agency account if GSA is managing it?

GSA will maintain "administrator" rights. Agencies will assign "moderators" who will be responsible for monitoring content, removing PII and other content that violates terms of participation, engage with the public, analyze and share ideas throughout their agency for use in the agency's open government plan.

m. Can my agency run its own account?

Your agency can choose any tool it wants, including IdeaScale or any other tool. If you choose to work through GSA and GSA's policy framework, GSA is administering all the accounts until the online dialog related to development of agency Open Government Plans is closed on March 19. If agencies are ready to administer their own online engagement accounts after March 19, GSA will provide administrator access and instructions for your IdeaScale account.

n. What metrics will we get from this tool?

Number of ideas submitted, number of comments, votes up/down on input, and more.

o. Is any training on citizen engagement tools and best practices available?

On January 22, GSA held training on the IdeaScale tool and best practices for moderators and New Media Contacts for the participating agencies. The training was recorded and will be available as a webinar for others who are interested.

p. Who is the GSA lead on the Open Government Citizen Engagement Tool?

Bev Godwin, GSA's Director at the Center for New Media and Citizen Engagement, is managing the project to make this tool available to the 24 CFO Act agencies who choose to use it for public engagement during development of their agency Open Government Plans.

Steve Piacente, GSA's head of Communications and Marketing, is the lead for GSA to engage with the public on creation of GSA's Open Government Plan.

q. How will an agency know if an idea or comment has been posted?  Do we have to go to the tool or are email alerts sent out?

Agency moderators will receive emails alerting them to new ideas or comments. Moderators also have the option of logging-in to the tool to look for new posts.

r. What if profanity or other inappropriate language is used, and it's posted on the site?

Most of the profane language should be caught ahead of time by the 'curse filter' we have in place. If other inappropriate language does get posted, agency moderators will be responsible for removing the offensive language.

s. Are agencies required to respond to ideas/comments submitted by the public?

No. Agencies are not required to respond, but it is considered a 'best practice' to participate in the dialog to encourage a more informed discussion. Engagement is two way.

t. Do we have to have/offer the social media tools (twitter, rss) on our page?

No. Agencies should only offer the Twitter and RSS options if they are already engaging the public on these platforms, and it makes sense to the agency to connect ideas to these social network accounts. GSA will work with agencies to explain this functionality and learn whether agencies want to use it.

u. What volume of ideas/suggestions can we expect to receive?

The volume of ideas/suggestions will vary from agency to agency and may be influenced by how well the dialog is publicized and how engaged the agency is in the dialog.

v. We can't handle the volume of telephone and email comments we get now, so how are we supposed to solicit additional public input?

It is up to each agency how they meet the requirements of the Open Government Directive. Online tools that allow categorization of ideas and community moderation may make it easier to process and use ideas than an equivalent number of ideas that come in by email or other means.

w. Are there widgets of the comment function available?  Other widgets?

Yes. IdeaScale offers several widgets. You can view these at IdeaScale.com.

5. Going Forward

a. What staffing should we plan on to manage this effort?  What skills do they need? Is there an optimal organizational function where it should be located?  

Other agencies who have participated in online engagement/Web dialogs are sharing lessons learned, case studies, and staffing recommendations. GSA will post those on HowTo.gov for agencies to use. Since this technology is relatively new, and we're all learning how to build capacity in this field, we suggest that we be ready, see what happens, share experiences among ourselves, and adjust accordingly. Documenting the resources required to staff this effort will be helpful in building the business case to support this on a more long–term basis.

b. How will GSA keep agencies current on developments and implementation plans? (conference calls, web site, etc.)

GSA will work through the designated agency New Media Point of Contact via email, conference calls, and the Web.

c. How should we promote this citizen engagement opportunity/tool to our users?  Are there sample outreach plans?

GSA and others will provide central outreach re: Open Government, but each agency should plan to promote this public input opportunity to their audiences. GSA will provide sample outreach plans to the agency New Media POCs and will also post them.

d. When can independent agencies and sub-agencies use the tool?  Why not sooner?

GSA will be providing IdeaScale access to the 24 agencies named in the CFO Act (PDF, 228 KB, 33 pages, September 2011), all of whom are required to implement this directive by the deadlines above. GSA simply cannot administer this tool for independent agencies or sub–agencies during this timeframe. However, GSA is sharing all materials for independent agencies that want to move forward on their own. After April 7, GSA will consider administering accounts for independent agencies; and will also release administrator rights to CFO Act agencies who are ready to assist sub-agencies in setting up accounts.

e. Will the policy waivers/permissions transition to the agencies (with the IdeaScale accounts) when the transition to the agencies occurs? Or will we have to resubmit policy paperwork for our individual agency?

OMB is currently reviewing some of the policies per the Open Government Directive. GSA will provide copies of all the policies, waivers, and clearance as samples for agencies to use as needed in their agency at the time of transition.

f. Is this the only online citizen engagement tool that GSA plans to provide in the future?

No. This is the first of many tools GSA will make available to interested agencies. Another one coming soon is a .gov URL shortener for agencies to use in social networks and other places where the content they publish is limited by number of characters (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, SMS).

g. Can state/local governments use this tool?

GSA is providing these services for federal agencies. GSA cannot provide these services to state and local governments at this time, but will provide materials that will help states, localities and others. This will include policy documents, moderation guides, terms of service, moderator training materials, and more.

h. What other Open Government and Citizen Engagement training is being offered?

The IdeaScale tool is very easy to use. You can experiment with it and see the tool in action here and here .

GSA will provide training to those designated as lead moderators for agencies who choose to use the GSA provided online engagement tool. This will include in-person training on January 22 (choice of morning or afternoon session) that will cover best practices in moderation and specific instructions on use of the IdeaScale tool as configured by GSA. GSA will make additional moderator training available via webinar and best practice moderation guides.

GSA offers many other training courses related to open government. See current course schedule.  

 

 

Content Lead: Justin Herman
Page Reviewed/Updated: September 15, 2011

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