Jeff Gerding on the Federal Source Code Policy Public Comment Period

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Today my guest is Jeff Gerding, a graduate student in technical communication at Purdue University, and we’re talking about his research looking into the way that the government uses GitHub to solicit public comments about its federal source code policy. For Jeff, this is a way that the government can produce more dialogic interactions with citizens, get actual feedback from people, make actual changes to their policies, and it points the way for the Federal Government to use more technologies creatively, strategically, to get better civic engagement from citizens. As technical communicators this matters to us because we can participate in these processes and because we want to know how people are using technology to foster dialogue and productive revisions of documents. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Jeff, welcome to the program. We really appreciate you joining us today. It looks like you’re doing some really interesting research about civic engagement and how it relates to technical communication. I guess just to start with kind of a broader question, why should technical communicators be interested in civic engagement and then how that relate to technical communication?

[Gerding] Yeah, well first of all thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it. Civic engagement, kind of as how I understand it, involves engaging the citizens more fully in sort of the processes and systems that impact their lives. So, looking at the kind of government digital services, which could be everything from kind of a whole website to an application, a single web forum on a single website, some kind of tool that citizens are meant to use. It could also be sort of the larger infrastructure involved in kind of delivering these services. So, bringing citizens into this process to me, feels kind of like a natural extension of tech comm’s interest in user experience. So, thinking about the users of government digital services, which are primarily citizens. A lot of the agencies that I talk to, they kind of split their user base between other federal employees but sort of the citizens are kind of the end user in a lot of cases. It complicates what we mean by users and a really sort of productive way because citizens might be the end user for process but by virtue of being citizens they have different rights, privileges, and responsibilities. So, government service the needs of its citizens and those citizens are in a sense kind users or stakeholders, or owners of the services that they use.

[Weber] That’s interesting because you’re’ right, like a citizen does have, say more rights, than probably an iPhone user, but also responsibilities than an iPhone user doesn’t have.

[Gerding] Right.

[Weber] And so there’s kind of a different-we can use user experience models and theories and everything but there’s some additional wrinkles that come when you’re talking about the government and citizens.

[Gerding] Exactly, and so I’ve kind of been digging through these ideas and one thing that’s sort of been really helpful for me connecting it kind of to technical communication theory, was Robert Johnson’s distinction between three types of user knowledge. So, not to go into detail but he kind of says, “Users as practitioners, users as producers, and then users as citizens,” and just as you just mentioned, you know users as citizens not only kind of bring their expertise to bear as users, but they also are kind of responsible for bringing that expertise into like political and social forms of decision making. They have this responsibility to contribute back to the polis, back to the kind of community that they live in.

[Weber] You have looked at this in a lot of ways, but one of the case studies you have for this is the federal source code policy comment period, and so can you tell us a little bit what was this and why was it an interesting case for analysis?

[Gerding] Yes, so the federal source code policy was a policy started by the Office of Management and Budget, which is in the Executive Office of the President. It was done in 2016, I think they started developing it in 2015 and then it was released to the public in, I think it was March 2016, and so the federal source code policy is a regulation created to standardized how government agencies use free and opensource software in their kind of day-to-day activities. So, it did kind of three things, it created a sort of repository for all this code so that there wasn’t duplication or people kind reinventing the wheel if something existed, everyone in the government had access to it. It created a kind of this tree or pilot program, where agencies had to report the amount of opensource software that they are using and then it sort of created a minimal threshold of at least 20% of opensource software must be used by those agencies in the pilot program. So, it kind of set a standard for how it should be used and for how it should be shared. I got really interested in the federal source code policy because it exemplifies how a federal agency can actively seek out and facilitate a sort of more substantial level of civic engagement. They held a public comment period, which is standard for a lot of policies. It’s usually, you know 30 to 90 days where stakeholders can kind of respond to a policy and usually it’s the stakeholders are special interest groups, corporations, people who have a lot of power. So, the federal source code policy comment period was really different because they hosted it on GitHub, which is a software development diversion control platform that’s commonly used in the opensource software community. So, it allows users to create kind of a repository of code, edits, save multiple versions, and then share that code with either select users or it can be made public. In this case the federal source code policy, the actual policy itself was put on GitHub and anyone could look at it, read it, provide comments on it, and then actually suggest revisions to it. So, it was an, in a sense a kind of open revision system for a government policy.

[Weber] Interesting, so I as a user could go and read the policy, suggest changes, put those changes in.

[Gerding] Yeah so there’s a whole kind of community of people who are interested in this topic, whether they are in the opensource software community or in the federal government or in the technology industry or just private citizens who are interested in technology, were all kind of contributing to this active and lively conversation about this public policy.

[Weber] How many comments did they get? Did you see like how many people participated?

[Gerding] Yeah, so they received over 2,000 comments, and there were over 250 individual threads that they had. I don’t know exactly the number of participants that they had, but with 2,000 comments, it was a fair number, and I actually I went through and read every single comment.

[Weber] Well someone did, it’s great to know because that’s the other thing you always worry about is that no one is really reading this.

[Gerding] Right.

[Weber] So, at least we know that you read them.

[Gerding] Right.

[Weber] Do we know if the government read them?

[Gerding] Absolutely they did. So, I did an interview with someone who currently works in the Office of Management and Budget, I call him Will, is the pseudonym that I used, and he said that they actually went through and they took all of the comments, put it in to a spreadsheet, and then got together and read through and kind of adjudicated every comment that they received. And sort of determined is this sort of a substantial suggestion, is this something that we need to be considering? Is this something that we can actually kind of respond to? They also responded to comments while it was happening. So, during the, I think it was five weeks that the comment period was active, they were on there every day responding to people’s questions, clarifying things and actually kind of getting into substantial discussion, which was really, really kind of super interesting to me.

[Weber] Absolutely because you have the government engaging with you on a level that they don’t normally, you know I assume on those open comment periods, which I’ve never participated in that I would send a comment and some bureaucrat might read it and be like, “Okay we did this because we had to do it, now we’re going to do what we always wanted to do anyways.”

[Gerding] Exactly.

[Weber] You’re saying that’s not what appeared to have happened here.

[Gerding] Right. It seems that they were honestly interested in what people thought they should do to kind of integrate opensource more meaningfully into government. They’re reaching out to, you know not just experts, but kind of anyone who had a vested interest or background in that topic.

[Weber] In your analysis, you did a conference presentation on this recently, you’d thought that the comment period led to some productive civic engagement. What qualities of civic engagement were on display?

[Gerding] In my analysis, I drew from two public planning scholars named Judith Inez and David Boor, who they compared traditional public comment periods, like what you just described, a legalese version, which is very sort of one way, and you never know if you’re comments are actually being read by anyone with what they call a more collaborative model, which is marked by kind of actual interaction between stakeholders and other-other stakeholders, or the actual agency that wrote the policy. They kind of outlined briefly six characteristics of both traditional and collaborative participation in public comment periods. I kind of go through and use those six and kind of mapped them on to what I was seeing in the comments themselves as well as my interview with Will and some of the other blog posts and press releases and other things that I saw. For the sake of time, there’s two that I thought were very revealing, one was actual dialogic interaction involving two-way communication between participants. So, in the comment period there were legitimate conversations, debates, and discussions about aspects of the policy that people felt really strongly about. One example of that is a lot people that thought that the 20% threshold that I mentioned earlier was sort of an arbitrary designation. It should be a 100% open source in order to kind of meet the principles of the open source community. There was sort of lively discussion between a range of stakeholders on that, and as I mentioned the 0MB staff kind of replied to questions and requests for clarification. So, there’s interaction between government and citizens and the comment period was actually extended when several participants basically asked for more time and they extended by a week.

[Weber] And so, let me ask this. You’re-you talked to Will, you observed these comments, what is the government’s tone in this? Because I imagine they’re not like-they still have to be the government, they still have to be official and like they can’t be like, “No that’s a stupid idea,” it can’t be like a discussion board that we might be used to, you know. So, in there how do they engage in dialogue? What do they sound like when they’re engaging in dialogue with citizens?

[Gerding] It was very respectful. It was very kind of direct and if there was you know a question that they weren’t sure about or if there was a comment that was, you know wildly off based or something, they would just sort of politely say like, “You know can you explain what you’re asking? I’m not quite sure.” They engaged very kind of genuinely and very politely and it was clear from the interactions on there that they actually wanted people to participate and ask questions, kind of poke at the policy to improve it.

[Weber] Great that is interesting because you know I imagine there weren’t like flame wars with the government (chuckle) or anything, you know or trolling from the government, so.

[Gerding] Right. There were very few of those things even from citizens. Like I kind of thought, “Oh it’s an open public policy public comment period, anyone can comment on this, there’s going to be trolls, there’s going to be people just kind of deliberately causing problems,” and I saw very little of that. And it, when it happened, people just sort of quickly kind of dismissed it and moved on.

[Weber] This is another one of those occasions where people on the Internet than we expect them to be. So, you mentioned two things. So, was the first was dialogic interaction? What was the second?

[Gerding] The other one was diverse participation and this is one area where the Federal Source Code Policy did better than traditional comment periods, but still had some pretty serious limitations. When I talked to Will, he carefully pointed out that you know, “GitHub is free. It’s widely used by like technologists and programmers, but it’s not exactly accessible to your average citizen.” I have an account but most of the time I wouldn’t be able to contribute a lot because my technology expertise is not super advance. So, there’s one quote that I’m just going to read it directly because I think it sums up this pretty well. Will says, “If you think about who knows what GitHub is and who’s on GitHub, let alone who’s following the right sort of information channels to know that this public comment process is going on or who has the privilege to know that a public comment process is a thing. I’m pretty sure it’s the same way that Bay Area is skewing right now, so that’s a serious problem. It’s maybe not as serious for something like open source as it would be for say immigration policy, but if government is going to scale this approach just putting stuff up on GitHub might actually make inequities worse.” He’s very conscious that not everyone is able to participate, not everyone is able to know what this is, that it’s limited to people who are kind of in these privileged positions of power within the technology sector or within technology communities. People who are already kind of following the conversation, if you will.

[Weber] Well that’s a great point because it’s one of those things where theoretically anyone can participate but really, I have to have an Internet connection, I have to have time, I have to have expertise, I have to know how to use Git, I have to know stuff about open source. So, you’re making a smaller and smaller group who’s actually going to participate.

[Gerding] And so, I asked him in our interview, “How would he do this differently if they were to scale it across government?” And he mentioned a couple of alternatives, one was called The Madison Platform, it’s developed by the Open Government Foundation and it’s essentially meant to create sort of an open public policy writing situation. The other was Genius, which it’s a annotation, like a web annotation platform that started for annotating rap lyrics, but it’s kind of been expanded to other websites so you can kind of annotate a website in real time. But he ultimately said that if other agencies really wanted to adopt this approach, they should begin by analyzing who they are trying to reach and then considering who’s perspective they might be excluding, and then select a platform that kind of allows them to reach both groups.

[Weber] Yeah interesting and I was wondering are there other lessons besides that that other government agencies can learn from this experience?

[Gerding] Yeah, I think the first one that immediately comes to mind is that it demonstrates the potential for online platforms to impact interaction between the citizens and government. Traditional public comment periods use email or even postal mail in a passive form of recruitment. Like, people need to know it’s happening. It’s posted on the Federal Register but they don’t advertise it. Federal Source Code Policy put it out on Twitter, they put it out in White House blogposts, which you know were doing the Obama Administration were kind of widely shared. Other agencies might find similar value sort of investing in online social media or crowd-based alternatives. Second, I also thought you know 0MB deliberately selected GitHub because it’s kind of a standard for open source software development and it has a built-in community of stakeholders. GitHub wouldn’t work with for every policy that’s being considered but going where the people are, going to the communities that are investing in these concepts, not just the corporations, not just the special interest groups, or non-profits, but going where people actually are already talking about these issues is an important way for kind of extending visibility and integrating citizens in a more kind of authentic way. And then the last thing, it seemed like it was a relatively low-cost solution for 0MB, they didn’t have to develop a new platform. They didn’t have to put a ton of extra work. They had to have people who were facilitating the comment period. They had to have people who were analyzing responses and then actually revising the draft but they didn’t have to kind of create a new tool from scratch. They used something that was existing and that already had kind of a built-in buy in from citizens in a sense.

[Weber] My last question too, I meant to ask this earlier, did any substantial changes come about to the policy because of the open comment period?

[Gerding] They did, yes. So, I mentioned the 20% threshold, that was one thing where they actually revised the language to sort of tone that down and to really indicate that they weren’t kind of making this sort of mandate, that it was a pilot period that they were doing rather than making a mandate to all government agencies. And that they were seeing this not as the, the 20% limit as a minimum rather than like the ideal. So, they really kind of read that debate, which was pretty contentious at points, then Federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott, he actually mentioned the 20% threshold in kind of a post that he made at the very end thanking people as one example of something that changed based on input that they got.

[Weber] So, the citizens actually did influence their government.

[Gerding] Yeah.

[Weber] And in a productive way. Well it’s, it’s a good day for democracy. (chuckle)

[Gerding] Right. (chuckle)

[Weber] Nice to feel, you know sometimes it seems like we’re, we’re very divided but it’s nice to know in one capacity people can come together and get something done.

[Gerding] Yeah and the other thing, you know I started this project in April 2016 and I you know defended my prospectus on November 4th, and a lot has changed since then and a lot of my interviews that I’ve done have been after the new administration has come in. And it’s been honestly, it’s been very encouraging that a lot of these same tools and ideas are still being used right now.

[Weber] Cool.

[Gerding] GitHub is still being used, I mentioned the repository that they created,, that is they’re rolling that out right now and they’re-when I was in Washington, DC this past summer I talked to a few people who were on that team and their still using GitHub. They’re still recruiting citizens for that. They’re still doing all these things under the current administration.

[Weber] Great, so we, you know we have still a chance to participate in commentary on federal policy. [Gerding] Absolutely, and I think people you know citizens can push for more of this to be done. This is one example but there’s many other ways that this kind of comment period or other public participation can be implemented.

[Weber] Well, great thanks so much. This is really interesting Jeff and good luck with your research as it continues and thanks for joining us on the show

[Gerding] Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

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Episode 36