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

The Open Government Directive requires federal agencies to make more information available online to the general public. But with fast deadlines and little in the way of concrete guidance, transparency remains in the eye of the 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.

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