Government accountability: Keeping an eye on the big picture

I got a hint that the Obama administration might be experiencing a bit of an identity crisis with regard to open government when I heard Todd Park give one of his high-energy motivational talks a few weeks ago.

Park was recently named the new federal chief technology officer, but previously he was CTO and open-government leader at the Health and Human Services Department. In almost every public speech, he has revved up the crowd with his call to innovate and freely release government data.

Those are powerful ideas — so powerful that they tend to overshadow the broader discussion about transparency. And yet the accountability aspects of open government are even more crucial for democracy.

Agencies have generally put less emphasis on the parts of President Barack Obama’s Open Government Directive that pertain to transparency and accountability. Instead, agencies are focusing on the parts of the directive having to do with releasing government datasets and encouraging idea-sharing dialogues with the public.

For example, most federal agencies are lagging on the transparency to-do list suggested by the White House in March 2011. The goals were to post a staff directory, congressional testimony and reports to Congress online. Nearly a year later, only nine of the 29 agencies that have substantively acted on the directive had complied, according to OpenTheGovernment.org.

Even HHS hadn’t done it as of February, although it appears to have fulfilled at least one of the goals since then.

On HHS’ open-government website (HHS.gov/open), the agency’s open-government plan is available, but it is undated, which means we don’t know how recent it is. The Records and Reports page has no reports. The policy on scientific integrity is undated. There is a Web page for a public health fund budget, but where is the rest of the HHS budget and spending information? The open-government plan itself has large sections on HHS datasets but appears to be light on the types of facts and details that spell accountability.

Simply releasing data does not make an agency transparent. “It is great that the public can go to a website and rate hospitals with HHS data, but that is not accountability,” said Amy Bennett, assistant director of OpenTheGovernment.org. “We think there needs to be basic information available so that citizens can hold the government accountable.”

Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy at OMB Watch, said agencies’ initial open-government plans were focused on specific missions rather than on providing facts about spending, contracting and operations pertinent to watchdog groups and taxpayers. “It is not clear who in the administration is responsible for setting a standard for these kinds of things,” he added.

A minimum standard for openness

The watchdog groups recently put together a list of the basic information they would like federal agencies to provide. The Openness Floor list includes visitor logs, lobbying disclosures and budget documents. It is meant to be a minimum standard, but no agencies appear to have met it yet.

I would add a couple of things I would hope for from a transparent agency. All documents should indicate the date published, and they should be announced and linked from a central location on the website. They should also be tagged so major search engines can locate them. And there ought to be a way to easily go to the most recently published information on a website.

To HHS’ credit, its open-government website has improved in recent weeks. Officials have published a staff directory as recommended and added information in the sections for reports, datasets and initiatives.

Those changes happened relatively quickly, and Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, reminded me to keep my eye on the big picture.

“It has definitely gotten easier to be a government watchdog now” in comparison to past administrations, Canterbury said. “There is much more information available, and this administration has put a high value on transparency, collaboration and participation.”

The White House has led the way with Recovery.gov, Ethics.gov and the IT Dashboard. Now, with a third round of upgrades to open-government plans under way, it’s time for agencies to give more attention to accountability.

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