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In the Trenches: Moderation for OpenGov

2010 March 11

I’m a 20 year EPA staffer and Computer Specialist doing much more than computers these days. One of my tasks is to help moderate comments that come in to the EPA’s Open Government discussion forum.

I’ve quickly come to realize that moderating comments in the public arena, especially in these sometimes politically-charged times, requires a curious mixture of patience, firmness and humor.

  • Patience: Like our favorite teachers and professors from education, sometimes we have to let folks submit their opinions about issues that are important to them, even when they are off the topic of discussion. It’s very important to guide them toward translating that energy into ‘do-able’ suggestions so that we can include them in our Open Government Plan, if possible. Early on, we decided to allow some latitude to ensure transparency and participation in the process.
  • Firmness: When we encountered wrong information, not just opinion, we tried to provide correct information, and this was mostly well received. The forum has published Terms of Participation, and the only times we’ve moved ideas to the “off topic” area, or removed comments from the forum, was most likely because of this. We recorded all of these actions to preserve all input.
  • Humor: Occasionally I come across a comment that is “strongly worded” against government (or some other group or issue), and I am reminded about what my mother always told me: That arguing with anyone — usually about politics, sports or religion — when it was obvious that there would never be movement to the middle, was useless. “Don’t engage,” she said. “Keep it light and polite.” That seemed to be a very prudent credo. Anyone with a background in customer service, or who has spent time answering a help desk phone also knows this.

We are now into the last few days of the project, and the response has been very good. I encourage you all to visit the OpenEPA page to find out what the EPA is doing to promote transparency, participation and collaboration. Also, visit our discussion forum site to suggest ideas for our Open Government Plan. To date, there have been 150 ideas, 317 comments, 3,080 votes, and 707 users. Please join us in the discussion, vote for one of the 150 ideas or share your own.

About the author: Barry Everett is one of EPA’s OpenEPA Moderators, who is currently on temporary assignment from the EPA’s Dallas office to the Agency’s Washington, D.C. Headquarters office. This blog is part of an ongoing series about the EPA’s efforts toward the Open Government Directive that lays out the Obama Administration’s commitment to Open Government and the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

16 Responses leave one →
  1. Al Bannet permalink
    March 11, 2010

    Barry,

    I Thank you, EPA and the President for the exraordinarily liberal management of both forums. My problem is getting anyone in government to actually think about what I am trying to explain, which any scientist could verify if he or she would do a scientific study of the question, which is: How many people and how much econoomic growth can the Earth support? It would appear from pollution reports that the limit has already been passed, yet the President has pledged to “get this economy back on track and growing again” as if not even the sky is the limit. It looks as though growth is some kind os instinctive impulse in human beings that forces them to ignore any warnings of impending ecocidal disasters. Am I shoveling sand against that growing tide of economic development???

  2. armansyahardanis permalink
    March 11, 2010

    Sr. Barry Everett,
    I tried to open “forum site”, can I ask, are the list just of 150 ideas, without bla…bla….bla…..?

  3. murray mccory permalink
    March 11, 2010

    why is this the last few days of the project? My inquiry was too broad and I received a letter concerning EPA policy, but it was too broad. My feb 23 request for info is #HQ-FOI-OO774-10. I am requesting, now, the EPA policy concerning off-shore drilling in the US AND ALL OF ITS POSSESSIONS.

  4. Richard permalink
    March 12, 2010

    Thank you for all your great work.

  5. Al Bannet permalink
    March 12, 2010

    Our growing population and its growing economy is addicted to oil and the Oil Lobby is too powerful for any bureaucratic agency to oppose. Only if the people themselves become well educated enough to choose alternative sources of energy will dependence on oil be stopped. Meanwhile, growing tons of waste and garbage accumulate in growing landfills and in the global ocean, while the medical industry grows fat on the failing health of millions trapped and surrounded by all the commercial madness.

  6. Barry Everett permalink*
    March 12, 2010

    Please note again, that the OpenEPA forum has the specific purpose of gathering ideas and discussion about the preparation of the EPA’s Open Government Plan, which is due on April 7, 2010. The current OpenEPA forum (project) is limited to that topic, started on February 6, and runs until March 19, for a total of 6 weeks.

    Inquiries such as yours appears to be an issue-specific request, for which you have filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Request). I don’t mean to be obtuse, but have you made inquiries to the Department of Energy, at the Energy Information Administration? (http://www.eia.doe.gov/)

    I did a web search for “policy concerning off-shore (or offshore) drilling” and found http://go.usa.gov/ltK – which is a document titled “Overview of U.S. Legislation and Regulations Affecting Offshore Natural Gas and Oil Activity”.

    The same search (“policy concerning offshore drilling”) on the EPA Home Page (http://www.epa.gov) revealed quite a bit of information about this topic. Perhaps these sources will help you modify your FOIA to an area that falls within an EPA organization or program, can guide you to other resources in the government to answer your questions.

    Hope this helps.

  7. Barry Everett permalink*
    March 12, 2010

    Thank you your tolerance, and persistence, in addressing this issue. While not strictly part of the OpenGov or OpenEPA forums, part of the whole process of OpenGov is proposing to provide multiple venues where citizens, scientists and politicians can address much broader issues impacting our lives now and even the future health of this planet and our species. But philosophical discourse, as vital in the long term as it is, is extremely difficult in a world that turns it’s attention in seconds, rather than hours. Our hope is that we can build a new framework for discourse that feeds both the pragmatic solutions for short term problems, but grows answers for the long term as well.

  8. Barry Everett permalink*
    March 12, 2010

    I can reply to this type of comment quite easily: Thanks for your comment.

  9. Barry Everett permalink*
    March 12, 2010

    The current forum does not include a summary list of all Ideas, but by clicking on each of the five individual areas:

    1. Transparency
    2. Participation
    3. Collaboration
    4. Innovation
    5. Help Us Improve This Dialog Site

    …on the left and selecting either “Most Recent” or “Most Popular” as tabs on the right of each area, you move around the Ideas pretty well.

    Also you might try the Search window on the left, for specific interest topics or key words.

    Once the forum has completed, we will be providing a reporting of the forum, but details about what form that will take have not yet been completed. In the meantime, why not take a little extra time and look into some of the Ideas and discussions more closely?

  10. Brian Turnbaugh permalink
    March 12, 2010

    Barry,
    Thank you for your efforts moderating the open government forum. EPA’s forum so far is quite successful and there are many strong ideas being offered by the public. The forum moderation has contributed greatly to this success. When moderators request that participants clarify confusing comments, or when they directly answer a commenter’s questions, the forum becomes dynamic and responsive. Also, as moderator you have directed commenters to other sections of the EPA website for information about their particular concerns and – like here in this blog – actively sought to find additional sources of information for the commenter. This in itself is a step toward greater transparency. Please keep up the good work.

  11. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    March 13, 2010

    It’s great to have the Administration concerned with new ideas to promote more openness in government. This is something that has been necessary for sometime but not done until now. Doing so will get wider suppohrt for agencies and programs. So this initiative serves to improve the public’s access into what the agency is doing and helps create greater public support at a time when increased support is very much needed. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  12. Al Bannet permalink
    March 14, 2010

    How curious that you advocate open government, but oppose an open discussion on this public forum which, with the participation of government persons like yourself, would be a good example of open government.

  13. Barry Everett permalink*
    March 15, 2010

    I believe that we have very carefully communicated to you, here and in the OpenEPA forum, that there are multiple venues for discussion existing within the EPA now, and there will be increased availability for open discussion, because of the OpenGov Initiative.

    However, to address ALL issues, no matter what the topic, in a forum that, as defined, has a limited purpose and time frame, is counter-productive. It does not serve the purpose of the forum, and more importantly to you, it does not provide you with the opportunity for serious consideration of your issues and legitimate concerns.

  14. Barry Everett permalink*
    March 15, 2010

    Thanks. EPA has always been very active in public outreach, and has worked hard to provide as open a forum as possible. We hope that OpenGov will provide the opportunity to expand those efforts.

  15. Barry Everett permalink*
    March 15, 2010

    The entire OpenEPA team thanks you for the kind words. Active moderation can be very useful. But we should remember that putting an individual face on public interaction requires the efforts and support of many. I look forward to continuing the process.

  16. Al Bannet permalink
    March 16, 2010

    It’s not working. People instinctively hide from unpleasant realities until harsh conditions interrupt their dreams, and then it’s too late to stop the disaster, because the human population keeps on growing and its economy keeps on expanding, while the planet keeps on shrinking. People are driven by their instincts, the part of the mind that ignores rational thought.

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