No laurels yet for open directive

Praise for Obama's Open Government Directive tempered by concern that agency officials will not embrace it

The excitement about last month’s release of President Barack Obama’s long-awaited Open Government Directive didn't last very long. And why would it? A president’s good intentions might convince, say, a Nobel Peace Prize committee, but open-government advocates are difficult to impress.

That’s not to say Obama didn't earn points for the directive, which laid out an ambitious plan for making government information and operations more widely accessible to the public. The document runs 11 pages, with specific goals for each component of the plan: transparency, participation and collaboration.

However, praise for Obama has been tempered by concern that many administration officials might undermine the initiative, either by disregarding the directive or, more insidiously, by complying with it but not embracing it (see related story: White House directive offers little guidance on what makes for open government).

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), recognizes the excitement and the doubt.

“Moving beyond the familiar rhetoric of openness, the directive imposes substantive new publication requirements, sets deadlines, promotes sharing of best practices and promises further steps to come,” he writes on FAS’ "Secrecy News" blog.

The problem is that presidential authority does not rest solely with the president, Aftergood notes. Instead, it “is dependent on innumerable acts of compliance by scattered officials, any of whom can, whether through disobedience or incompetence, frustrate the implementation of policy.”

And even the best intentions of agency officials might be undone by an inherent flaw in the Open Government Directive.

Andrea DiMaio, an analyst at Gartner, says the directive assumes that the federal government is the dominant player in any Web 2.0 initiative that pushes data to the public and invites people to collaborate.

“How can government agencies collaborate unless…a bidirectional flow of information and collaboration can take place — depending on topics and constituency — on government and citizen turf at the same time?” DiMaio writes.

The lack of two-way communication makes it difficult for employees to know if the data they are publishing is any good and identify potentially valuable data being created by private companies or the public.

Given that blind spot and the many milestones agencies are required to meet, “this directive risks turning into yet another exercise in compliance,” she writes.

And what happens if an agency fails to live up to Obama’s vision? Based on the directive, not much, says Meredith Fuchs, blogging for the National Security Archive, a nongovernmental research institute and library located at the George Washington University.

Given the lack of negative incentives for failure, White House officials should be prepared to “coax, cajole, push, pull and prod the over 90 federal executive branch agencies to meaningfully meet the directive’s goals and deadlines," Fuchs writes.

Although the Nobel committee might want to hold off on awarding a Peace Prize for the directive, Obama clearly has received a lot of respect from open-government advocates.

Aside from the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, Fuchs writes, “this is the most significant effort of which I am aware to open up our government to the light of day."

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