The US Office of Public Engagement (OPE)

Among President Obama’s goals for his presidency were inclusiveness and accountability. The Office of Public Engagement (OPE)  seeks to achieve them by involving American citizens in policymaking through open communication, so that decision-making properly takes their opinions into account.

The challenge

In 2009, President Obama took office with a mandate to make government more “inclusive, transparent, accountable and responsible”. He was concerned that government had become too remote from citizens and that it needed to take more account of their views and to involve them more closely in policymaking and decision-making.

The initiative

In a symbolic gesture, he changed the name of the Office of Public Liaison (OPL) to the Office of Public Engagement (OPE) in order to emphasise its closeness to the American people. The OPE, along with the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, was intended to be the means by which ordinary Americans could participate in and inform the work of the President. It comes within the Department of Labor and its objectives have included:

  • Informing and educating the public about important policy issues.
  • Improving government decisions by creating a conduit for communicating information from citizens to decision-makers.
  • Giving citizens opportunities to shape public policy.
  • Legitimising government decisions by ensuring that the voices of those impacted by government policy were taken seriously into account.
  • Involving citizens in monitoring the outcomes of policy for evaluation.
  • Restoring the trust and engagement of citizens in government.

The OPE’s role in achieving these objectives was to:

  • Build relationships with Americans by increasing their engagement with the federal government, through a two-way dialogue.
  • Enable ordinary Americans to offer their stories and ideas regarding issues that concerned them on subjects such as healthcare, energy and education.
  • Focus on getting information from the American people living beyond the Beltway, through public events as well as the OPE’s online presence.
  • Create and coordinate dialogue between the Obama Administration and the American people, bringing in new voices and ensuring that everyone could be involved in the work of the President...

The public impact

The OPE’s major impact is as a communications mediator between the government and the American people, ensuring the views of the people are heard. This is largely done through their website, which is an accessible, allowing the public to sign petitions, submit questions and directly contact the White House.

The OPE has had an impact on a wide range of projects. Major projects include engaging with young African leaders, engaging with the youth via the U.S. Senate Youth Program and the disabled (e.g. through supporting the Paralympics). It is also been involved in the development of the Citizen’s Briefing Handbook, full of ideas and concerns regarding America, on issues ranging from the Economy through to Education. [1]

Specific example of some projects that the OPE has been involved in regarding Hispanic Americans are:

  • Improving Latino Education to Win the Future – an initiative on educational excellence for Hispanic Americans.
  • Broadband and the Latino Community – a panel discussion about broadband at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
  • Immigrant Integration – a discussion to bring together advocacy organisations, business leaders and local government officials.

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Public Confidence Fair

One mechanism for engagement is a series of town meeting forums of 1,500 to 3,000 citizens. These are regularly filled to capacity and, in follow-up surveys, a majority of participants apparently indicated that they feel these kinds of forums “are good for democracy”, although these results have not been located.

Stakeholder Engagement Good

The OPE was actively involved with the Public Engagement Division (PED). It coordinates and directs agency-wide dialogue with external stakeholders, by collaborating with, and seeks feedback from, stakeholders to inform the policies, priorities, and organisational performance reviews of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Political Commitment Strong

President Obama is committed to the body and actively supports it. According the OPE website: "President Obama is committed to making this the most open and participatory administration in history. That begins with taking your questions and comments, inviting you to join online events with White House officials, and giving you a way to engage with your government on the issues that matter the most." He is quoted as saying that “this office will seek to engage as many Americans as possible in the difficult work of changing this country, through meetings and conversations with groups and individuals held in Washington and across the country.”

Policy

Clear Objectives Good

The OPE has clear goals, that is, to engage with the public and citizens to achieve transparency and be more accountable. However, these objectives are not measurable, as there is no mechanism in place.

Evidence Strong

There were previous instances of involving citizens in decision-making:

  • After the establishment of Equal Opportunities Act, 1964, citizens likely to be affected by the legislation were enabled to participate in the decision-making process, which helped in making the statute and its implementation more transparent.
  • Six municipal governments in Connecticut used hand-held devices to engage youth in the monitoring and evaluation of city services.
  • Los Angeles is experimenting with neighbourhood councils to give citizens a larger say in the development of the city budget.
  • In major cities like Baltimore and Chicago, community involvement in neighbourhood policing has helped to reduce crime while lowering costs.

Feasibility Strong

US departments had conducted various types of public engagement:

  • A random sample of 18 citizens was chosen by the Jefferson Center to be the Citizens Jury, and were asked to study various issues, such as waste management, healthcare, climate change and the federal budget.
  • In a Consensus Conference, a panel of 14 citizens meets over the course of several weekends to explore complex technical issues. Citizen panellists and experts engage in open Q&A sessions that are open to the public and the panellists then present their findings and recommendations to key decision-makers in a final report.
  • Deliberative Polling, developed by the Center for Deliberative Polling at the University of Texas at Austin, brings together a random, scientific sample of 200 to 500 citizens to discuss issues such as energy policy, foreign policy and municipal planning.

Action

Management Strong

The OPE has a robust management structure, and includes the following offices:

  • The PED, which has two divisions: Community Relations and Engagement, and Intergovernmental Affairs
    • The Community Relations and Engagement Division is responsible for developing and maintaining collaborative relationships with the wider citizen, faith, professional and business communities.
    • The Intergovernmental Affairs Division advances outreach and communication with public administrations.
  • The Customer Assistance Office, which provides customer service and case resolution in citizen problems with services such as immigration and benefits.

The US Secretary of Labor has also tasked the OPE with ensuring that all members of the American public, without exception, have a voice in the department's policies and programmes.

Measurement Fair

The OPE’s ‘core principles’ have been applied as criteria for judging the quality of its engagement with the American public, although they do not appear to be monitored in a consistent way. [2] There are seven core principles: preparation, inclusion, collaboration, learning, transparency, impact and sustainability.

Alignment Strong

All the main actors, the President, the OPE, the Intergovernmental Affairs team, the PED and the wider Department of Labor are aligned with each other in sharing a common of genuine engagement with the American people.

The OPE staff engages civil society through briefings, conferences and other events in Washington, DC and around the country. They respond to requests for briefings from groups coming to other departments and partner with organisations to sponsor major conferences and events. They report on, and reply to, citizens’ communications. They work across government agencies to create strategic initiatives and campaigns that aim to improve the lives of Americans and their communities.

The PED facilitates open and transparent communication between the OPE, external stakeholders, and the customers they represent by sharing feedback, working with the OPE’s leadership, coordinating follow-up, and reporting back to stakeholders. It also works closely with other USCIS offices to support the implementation of outreach programmes and public education initiatives.