Agencies struggle with transparency compliance

Federal agencies gear up for another revision of their open government plans, but how many will follow through?


As federal agencies prepare to update their transparency plans again in April, many of them still have not implemented last year's White House recommendations under the Open Government Directive.

A watchdog group's study shows that only about a third of the agencies appear to have complied with White House transparency recommendations issued in March 2011, which advised agencies to publish staff directories, their reports to Congress and congressional testimony online. Nearly a year later, only 9 out of 29 federal agencies have followed those recommendations, according to the study by OpentheGovernment.org watchdog group.

Agencies fully in compliance with the White House guidance on those three types of documents were the Agency for International Development, Commerce Department, Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, NASA, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Office of Management and Budget, State and Treasury, the watchdog group said.

"We urge the Administration to begin making sure agencies are following through on the Administration's commitments, and to direct agencies to make easily available more information that helps people understand what the government is doing and why," OpentheGovernment.org said in a statement.

Amy Bennett, assistant director for the organization, said her organization also has recommended a list of core public documents that agencies should release for greater accountability, which it calls the “Openness Floor.” The list includes things like visitor logs, available data sets and notices of upcoming proposed regulations.

“We believe there are core items that all agencies should disclose to ensure consistent transparency, accountability, and informed participation across the government,” the Openness Floor states.

However, the Openness Floor recommendations are strictly voluntary for agencies, and it is not clear whether any watchdogs will be auditing whether they are adopted. While Bennett’s organization audited how well federal agencies complied with their objectives in the first open government plans in 2010, that will not be possible this year due to limited staff capacity, she said.

Her group is encouraging federal agencies to comply with the White House guidance and to review all their previous open government plans as well to determine how well they performed on their stated objectives.

“The next round of revisions to the open government plans should include reviews of Plan One, with a discussion on ‘What did you do? What did you not do? What were the lessons learned?’” Bennett said.

Meanwhile, several federal agencies have announced they are revising and updating their open government plans once again, with public comments due in April.

For example, the Social Security Administration has set up an online public forum allowing the public to present and vote on ideas for open government. To date, 43 proposals have been submitted, with hot topics including an idea for SSA to collaborate with the IRS to identify fraud and another idea that SSA executives should pay more visits to field offices.

The Health and Human Services Department is offering an online survey available to the public on ideas for improving transparency, due by April 9.

Under the administration’s Open Government Directive released in December 2009, agencies developed open government plans in April 2010. Many of the agencies updated those plans in mid-2010 and again in 2011 and are now preparing for a third round of updates.

On the other hand, some agencies appear not to be actively soliciting comment to update their open government plans at this time. For example, the Veterans Affairs Department’s Open Government Web page has not been refreshed since October 2011.



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