Open Government

Transparency advocates give administration mixed marks

President Obama

President Obama came to office pledging to make his administration the most open in history, but a new report says that effort is an "unfinished legacy" for the president. (File photo)

President Barack Obama vowed four years ago to make his administration the most open in history. But despite thousands of hours invested in laying the foundation for transparency, a new study finds actual agency adoption of policies has been uneven and occasionally weak.

The Center for Effective Government’s March 10 report examines the Obama administration's progress on open government in three main areas: creating an environment supportive of transparency, improving the usability of government information, and reducing secrecy related to national security.

“Overall, we found that the administration has taken a lot of positive steps on the policy side to strengthen open government,” Gavin Baker, open government policy analyst at the Center for Effective Government, told FCW. “The weakness has been that those policies are inconsistent in how they’re trickling down to agencies, so over the next four years we’re hoping to see reinvigorated approach to implementation and getting these new policies into practice.”

The report found that generally, the administration did best in using technology to make information more available to the public and more user-friendly. Agencies used more social media, launched new websites, created mobile apps, and overhauled older online tools as part of their open gov efforts. The public was also able to glean more insight into federal spending thanks to and the Recovery Act -- though that effort has had problems ensuring accurate data.

A few agencies were clear front-runners of these efforts while “others seemed less interested” in transparency initiatives, Baker said. “NASA is very interested in openness, and the CIA is not – that probably doesn’t come as a shock to anyone,” he said.

While many agencies produced weak or vague guidelines for open gov efforts, NASA went against the grain and produced a very strong policy, with detailed information and concrete points on how to meet objectives. “NASA did a really great job because they engaged the public and they were interested in hearing what people thought they should do,” Baker said.

The end result was a creative and ambitious strategy including more than 80 specific milestones, with varying deadlines for most project areas. The plan also featured innovative projects such as an online status dashboard, bolstering access to scientific data, and crowdsourcing greater public involvement in research.

The Justice Department, on the other hand, came out with a plan that was “just essentially a rehash” of previously announced initiatives, Baker said. The strategy also revealed little of how the agency would accomplish its open gov goals, and instead focused mainly on the Freedom of Information Act and already-existing public relations efforts.

Similarly, when the Environmental Protection Agency’s draft policy was released, it left much to be desired, lacking specifics. “People say, the devil’s in the details, but if there are no details, then how can you know what difference it will make, if all?” Baker asked.

Hudson Hollister, executive director at the Data Transparency Coalition, agreed that Obama administration "has issued an impressive number of directives, executive orders, plans, and other actions aimed at bolstering government openness."

However, he said, "for the most important areas of government data, information that is at the core of what the government does -- spending, program management, regulation -- is still not transparent. The administrations principles simply haven't been applied."

"The main reason why the most important data is either not published, not standardized, or both is that it's nobody's job," Hollister explained. "Consider federal spending data as an example. Grantees and contractors report to the agencies on how they spend federal funds. Agencies report their financial statements to Treasury and their budget actions to OMB. GSA maintains databases of grants and contracts. Treasury cuts all the checks and maintains a record of expenditures. All of these different compilations are maintained by different offices of different agencies and organized differently.... Nobody is in charge of putting the data together and publishing it."

Baker also noted that consistent compliance and implementation management are mostly missing on the governmentwide level. Agencies also struggle with knowing who is in charge of implementing and enforcing White House-directed policies. Even when there is clear point person, he or she oftentimes does not get additional authority to ensure these new guidelines are followed, Baker said.

However, compared to past administrations, the current White House ranks “considerably higher” in transparency efforts. “There may be nobody who has been more interested and dedicated more time and effort to trying to increase transparency,” Baker said, referring to Obama.

Technology, in particular, has been the current administration’s strong suit. More federal data has become available to the public, and government-citizen interaction has seen an upswing. But the administration has been reluctant to let in any sunlight on areas related to national security, and prosecution of leaks “is unprecedented,” Baker said. By some measures, questionable national security-related secrecy has even spiked.

The report, citing Bush administration officials who testified in 2004 before the House subcommittee on national security, noted a large portion of classified information does not merit such protection. In 2011, agencies spent $11.4 billion on security classification, “a significant waste of resources if the information should never have been considered secret.”

That type of secrecy comes with more than just high costs. The report notes that the 9/11 Commission found overclassification and “excessive compartmentalization” led to poor information sharing and contributed to the government’s failure to prevent the 2001 terrorist attacks. In another instance, questionable claims were made of national security to avoid any oversight on a warrantless wiretapping program that monitored U.S. citizens’ communications.

To be remembered as “the most transparent administration in history,” the White House has a ways to go. First, the administration must strengthen its implementation efforts both governmentwide and on the agency level, Baker said. “The other big goal for the next four years is to lock into place these improvements, to prevent them from vanishing with the next administration, he said.

Hollister suggested that the administration much work with Congress to lock in transparency, "starting with the DATA Act but continuing to program management data and regulatory data."

"Legislation is the only way to make these advances permanent," Hollister said. "Why hasn't the administration tried to work constructively with the bipartisan congressional group sponsoring the DATA Act?"

And are such improvements likely to be made? The goods news is, Baker said, Obama has a track record of being dedicated to increasing spending transparency, and his administration championed the transparency provision in the Recovery Act.

“We’ve got four years to take advantage of the fact that we have a president who is so strongly dedicated to increasing transparency around taxes and spending,” Baker said.


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