The Obama administration has often spoken of encouraging greater citizen participation in the federal government, but many have wondered just how that would work in real life. We found out, when earlier this year, one of our Senior Associates, Bim Ayandele, was asked by the Obama Administration to help with the launch of the White House's Office of Public Engagement (OPE). Here are some of Bim's reflections on his experience working in the White House for three months this spring:
Regardless of one's brand of politics, being asked by the Presidency to help out during a new Administration's first 100 days is an honor. This was a particularly stressful period for White House staffers, because they had to deal with major issues on multiple fronts, pursue an ambitious set of goals, and operate within tight budgetary constraints.
Non-politicos are now familiar with OPE due to the recent media attention surrounding the announcement that actor Kal Penn would be joining the department. But what many don't know is that OPE's precursor, OPL (Office of Public Liaison), has existed in some form or another for over 30 years. However, historically OPL has been perceived by many as a pathway to the White House only for lobbyists and powerful special interests. In recent years, the department was often seen as a tool for leveraging allies to support previous Administrations' top-down agendas.
President Obama expands OPE's role
During his inauguration, President Obama stated very clearly that "our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know." To help fulfill this commitment, the Obama Administration sought to create an expanded role for its OPL, one that would allow it to function as the open front door to the White House, engaging meaningfully with a broad range of constituencies across the country. To help underscore this openness, the Office of Public liaison was re-launched and re-branded as the Office of Public Engagement.
Within this new framework of engagement, the Administration has signaled through both words and actions that it is not just accessible to lobbyists, but that it is serious about supporting the President's philosophy that, "everyone should get a seat at the table, but no one should be able to buy up all the seats."
Communicating with the public
My typical OPE workday was often a fascinating mixture of carrying out some of the most important work in the country - helping communicate key policy points to the American people - while at the same time learning my way around the White House and the old Executive Office Building. Some days were particularly intense when I narrowly avoided bumping into the President and various members of the Cabinet as we all hurried from meeting to meeting through the West Wing's tight hallways and blind corners.
OPE has been working at a breakneck pace since the Inauguration, conducting thousands of meetings with groups that represent the many faces of America. To my surprise, some of the most consistent and emphatic feedback that we received was that many people had never been given the opportunity to engage any White House for the better part of a decade, if at all. This was a message that came not just from the left or right, but from individuals and organizations across the political spectrum. Opening up citizen access to their government is exactly the dynamic that the current Administration is looking to encourage.
On one occasion, for example, an industry organization concerned about the Administration's position on several issues affecting its members requested a meeting with White House. OPE facilitated the meeting, which resulted in a productive dialogue that enabled the Administration to better understand what the group's needs were and to take meaningful action to address their concerns. This particular group later provided feedback that even though they may have a difference of opinion with the Administration on some issues, progress was made, and they were pleasantly surprised by the openness and responsiveness of the White House.
While it's great to be home again and to be back at work at Winner & Associates, I am also very grateful to have had the opportunity to help advance the President's goal of making government more inclusive, transparent, accountable and responsible.