White House directive offers little guidance on what makes for open government

Open Government directive leaves transparency to the eye of the agency beholder

Jan. 22 will be here before agencies know it. So will Feb. 6. Here’s betting that even April 16 will be here seemingly tomorrow.

Those are the 45-day, 60-day and 120-day deadlines folded into the Open Government Directive, issued by the White House last month. The first, which arrives soon, is when every federal agency must identify and publish online at least three high-value datasets it plans to make available to the public.

Fifteen days after that, each agency must launch an open-government Web page that is ready to be updated in a timely fashion. By April 16, each agency must unveil an open-government plan that will describe how it will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities.

Those are tall orders in short times, to be sure. However, most agencies haven't devised an open-government plan, decided what data is high value or figured out how to share it with the public. The directive is a sweeping mandate designed to transform the way the federal government interacts with the public, yet even its White House authors say each agency is essentially moving through this territory on its own without a road map.

Agencies have few choices for figuring out how to comply with the directive. They can go it alone and create a plan that they hope makes the grade. Perhaps some will join forces or find industry partners that might guide them to a successful outcome. Or, counting on the kindness of strangers in the White House, they can rely on promised support from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, where the authors of the directive live.

But even though the vagueness of the directive is a challenge, most agencies agree that it could be worse. Flexibility is better than getting strict and possibly draconian requirements that don’t account for agencies' special needs and different missions. For example, the way NASA shares images of the surface of Mars needs to be different than the way the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shares airline flight delay data.

The two men behind the directive are federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra. By the Feb. 6 deadline, they are supposed to establish a dashboard on WhiteHouse.gov that will aggregate statistics and visualizations so the public can see how various agencies are doing.

The goal of the dashboard is not to highlight agencies’ failures, Chopra said.

“We intend to build an open dashboard that will reflect the key priority areas agencies should focus on, because one could spend their time on 100 initiatives,” Chopra said. “We want to make sure that the priorities are on the most highly valued areas.”

It’s not unreasonable to assume that new efforts in public engagement will be an evolution of older programs. For example, the General Services Administration published 12 years' worth of Federal Advisory Committee data onto Data.gov the day after the directive was announced.

David McClure, associate administrator of GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications, suggests that agencies take a close look at whom they serve and then provide data that will be the most valuable to people.

“Then agencies have to prioritize how to put that information up if it is not already accessible, rather than turning this into a large data dumping exercise,” McClure said, adding that a data dump “is not what this is intended to do.”

But with the directive’s deadlines fast approaching, it’s not clear if all, much less many, agencies will be able to demonstrate the early goals of openness and transparency. After all, the memo issued by President Barack Obama that got all this whole thing rolling called for the directive to be published by late May 2009. It ended up being released Dec. 8, which shows that creating a transparent government isn’t a see-through process.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

Who's Fed 100-worthy?

Nominations are now open for the 2015 Federal 100 awards. Get the details and submit your picks!

Featured

Reader comments

Thu, Jan 14, 2010 Ariel Ky

Obviously, the deadline needs to be extended for departments to comply. Perhaps a website needs to be created for people to submit their reports to, so it's accessible for everyone to surf around from department to department to see what documents they're posting. The first departments to do a good job of this could get rewarded somehow and what they put forward could be as a model for other department. There could be a forum on the website for people to give feedback about the material that gets posted, as to whether it's helpful or well-organized or some other criteria. Perhaps the people who work in the department could be surveyed as to what they think should go up on the website in the database made readily available to the public. The key is to create a website that encourages interaction. It actually could be set up similar to a Google group, where there's files and people can send a message to the group letting everyone when they post a new file. Readers only look at the file if they're interested. I don't know. It doesn't seem that difficult to implement.

Wed, Jan 13, 2010 Barry Virginia

I would suggest that the only way to achieve anything that approaches truly open government is to elect government officials who believe in being open about the decisions they are making and in the people's right to be governed in accord with their wishes subject to the Constitution. If we fail to do that, then "open government initiatives" are just eyewash to be ignored when and to whatever extent the officials find to their liking. Surely, we can see that in the past year and to a lesser extent the past 20 years. I would like to see the end of the useless palaver about "open" government, replacing it with a robust dialog on how we achieve and keep "honest" government.

Mon, Jan 11, 2010 skeptic

So, the directive was released 7 months late. And government agencies were generously granted 6 weeks afer the directive's release to begin publishing data sets? Leave it to the Chopra/Kundra tag team define transparency at their leisure, and expect the entire federal government to implement it post-haste.

Thu, Jan 7, 2010

There are already Federal Regulations and laws that require Federal Agencies to make their data available to the public and they refuse to do so or do so in such a haphazard way that it is meaningless. One more mandate will do nothing. The focus should be on data quality and reinforce current requirements, not a new one that has little or no repercussions if not followed.

Thu, Jan 7, 2010 Dale K Richmond

I am sure the White House just as much about good healthcare.

Show All Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above