Agencies on track to meet open gov deadline

New social media tools for citizen engagement will be launched as agencies conform to the open government directive

Most agencies will meet tomorrow’s deadline for creating an open government Web page and securing technology for engaging with the public, as required by President Barack Obama’s Open Government Directive, a General Services Administration official told Federal Computer Week.

According to the Sunlight Foundation, as of Feb. 5, 10 out 20 agencies have posted open government Web pages leading up to the Feb. 6 deadline. Independent governmental organizations, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, are exempt from the directive, although many of those organizations are volunteering to participate.

GSA is making a citizen engagement tool from IdeaScale available to all federal agencies to meet that requirement.

The deadlines set by White House officials are aggressive, and the leadership role GSA is playing in helping agencies meet those milestones is encouraging, said Mark Drapeau, director of Innovative Social Engagement at Microsoft’s public-sector unit and an FCW columnist.

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“What concerns me about the Open Government Directive is the notion of ‘check-box government’ it seems to encourage,” Drapeau said. “Very little emphasis seems to be on the actual engaging, or even on the strategy for doing so. The focus is on the technology. Where's the focus on the humans?”

Helping the public connect with big government organizations is difficult and could take longer than artificial deadlines, Drapeau added.

“Engagement is hard, very hard, and it doesn't happen completely from behind a computer terminal in a cubicle on Independence Avenue,” he said. “It happens through genuine, human interactions with people, and through caring about the communities your agency is supposed to be supporting.”

Government organizations should concentrate on making sure the engagement tools work well rather than when they are made available, said Paul Levinson, a new media professor at Fordham University and author of the book "New New Media."

Social media can have the same impact on government that it has on political campaigns, he said.

“The access of the people to the Obama campaign was a significant factor in his win,” Levinson said. “Facebook, Twitter and YouTube also played an important role in Scott Brown's win in [the] Massachusetts” Senate race.

One signal that the open government effort has a chance of success is that the GSA has taken a leadership role in helping agencies implement it, said Jeff Gulati, an assistant political science professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.

“From a management perspective, having one agency shepherd this through is important to ensure some level of standardization and communication among departments, agencies and the White House,” he said. “The challenge, however, is getting everyone to buy into this, not only the overarching concept, but the centralized administration and uniform standards.”

However, once all the tools and technology are in place, agency leaders will face the real challenge of implementing the Open Government Directive, said Mark McCreary, a partner at law firm Fox Rothschild and an expert on Internet law.

Initially, agencies appear to have the green light to share as much information as possible, he said. The Open Government Directive explicitly states that agencies should operate under a presumption of openness, he said.

Agencies should simply follow existing rules that say the financial and private information of individuals must be protected, and publicly available information -- such as mortgage filing information -- can be disclosed.

“Likewise, the issues of the protection of state secrets and national security concerns are also largely decided,” McCreary said. “I do not see there being much of a change in the types of data that will be disclosed by agencies. I also see the Office of Management and Budget and GSA taking a supervisory role in dealing with determining what information should be withheld. From a macro viewpoint, the attorney general has already issued guidance on Freedom of Information Act compliance and efforts to disclose as much as possible.”

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.


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