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From the Coalition Column of the January 2010 issue of Perspectives on History

Obama Administration Issues Sweeping Open Government Directive

Lee White, January 2010

On December 8, 2009, the White House issued an Open Government Directive requiring federal agencies to take immediate, specific steps to open their operations up to the public. In addition to the directive, the Administration released the Open Government Progress Report to the American People—an analysis of the steps already taken to increase transparency and plans for future initiatives.

The watchdog group, OMB Watch, has prepared an in-depth summary of the new initiative which is presented here with their permission.

The content of the directive reflects many of the transparency recommendations collaboratively developed by the right-to-know community during a two-year process coordinated by OMB Watch. Those 70 detailed recommendations were delivered to the Obama transition team in a report called Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-to-Know Agenda. Among those recommendations were requests for creating incentives for openness, interagency coordination, and publication of high-priority data that is currently unavailable – all of which are addressed in the new directive.

The directive has been in development since the first day of the Obama administration, when the president issued a memo tasking the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and other key officials to develop the directive. The Office of Science and Technology Policy oversaw a three-phase online dialogue to publicly generate, discuss, and develop policy ideas for the directive. The three phases attracted a great deal of public participation.

The directive continues to emphasize the three principles outlined by President Obama in his original memo—transparency, participation, and collaboration. The directive is comprised of four main components centered on very simple but important themes: publishing information; creating a culture of openness; improving data quality; and updating policies to allow for greater openness. Each section tasks agencies and other key offices with specific goals, complete with deadlines and clear requirements that the public be informed and permitted to participate in almost every project.

1. Publish Government Information Online

The section on publishing government data online reinforces and broadens the presumption of openness discussed in Attorney General Eric Holder’s new guidance on implementing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Agencies are instructed to “proactively” make information available instead of waiting for specific requests under FOIA. “With respect to information, the presumption shall be in favor of openness (to the extent permitted by law and subject to valid privacy, confidentiality, security, or other restrictions),” according to the directive. The section also breaks new ground by instructing agencies, to the extent practicable, to publish information in open formats that can be “retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched by commonly used web search applications.”

The section also sets clear deadlines for agencies, including publishing three previously unreleased, “high-value datasets” on Data.gov in 45 days and establishing an Open Government web page on each agency web site within 60 days. The Open Government webpages are to serve as the primary vehicle for each agency to communicate with and get input from the public on open government issues on an ongoing basis.

2. Improve the Quality of Government Information

This section stresses the need to identify and correct data quality problems, with an emphasis on immediate action on the quality of federal spending data. The section specifically requires agencies to designate within 45 days a “high-level senior official” to be accountable for the quality of federal spending data for the agency. Within 60 days, OMB is to issue guidance on quality of federal spending data that includes a requirement for agencies to submit plans describing internal controls for data quality. At some point, the need for additional data quality guidance for other types of information will be reviewed. Finally, within 120 days, OMB is to issue guidance related to fiscal transparency, including a “longer-term comprehensive strategy” that addresses reporting methods and data quality.

3. Create and Institutionalize a Culture of Open Government

This section establishes the key deliverables to encourage genuine and consistent progress on open government issues. First, the agencies must produce a detailed Open Government Plan within 120 days that will be used to measure progress. These plans are to be updated every two years. The directive provides details on what is to go into each agency’s plan with regard to transparency, participation, and collaboration. Additionally, the agency plans are to identify at least one new “flagship initiative” that addresses transparency, participation, or collaboration. The agencies must also establish a process for soliciting public and employee feedback on the plan and respond to that feedback.

Second, the federal chief information officer and chief technology officer will create an Open Government Dashboard on the White House web site within 60 days that will provide access to the agency plans and track key metrics of openness for each agency. Although not specifically mentioned, it is possible that one example could be a FOIA dashboard that monitors agency implementation of the law.
Third, an interagency working group on open government issues will be established within 45 days to provide a forum for sharing best practices and coordinating interagency efforts.

Fourth, within 90 days, OMB will issue guidance on the use of competitions, prizes, and other incentive strategies for encouraging progress on open government.

4. Create an Enabling Policy Framework for Open Government

This section acknowledges that current policies governing information management are largely antiquated and in need of updating. The section requires that the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs review existing policies “such as Paperwork Reduction Act guidance and privacy guidance” to identify problems and issue revisions to allow openness to move forward. This policy review may prove critically important in addressing gaps on policies, such as those regarding disclosure of agency logs on meetings with people outside of government.

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at lwhite@nationalhistorycoalition.org.