By SUZANNE DERSHOWITZ
On April 9, federal agencies across the government released updates of their Open Government Plans, a key component of President Obama's Open Government Initiative. With delegates from 53 countries converging last week in Brazil for the first annual meeting of the global Open Government Partnership (OGP), now is a good time to take stock of the renewed commitments in the updated plans and evaluate the government's progress on the road to implementation. Overall, the results have been mixed.
When the initial Open Government plans were released over two years ago in response to the White House Open Government Directive (OGD), OpenTheGovernment.org and its partners (including POGO) conducted a comprehensive review and audit with agency rankings. POGO evaluated the Open Government Plans of the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). We will be particularly interested in taking a closer look at these agencies’ updated plans.
The Open Government Plans were to serve as “living documents” to be updated every two years as part of an ongoing dialogue. In the updated plans, agencies were supposed to develop initiatives and provide concrete timelines for building openness, participation, and collaboration into their standard operating procedures.
So how do the Open Government Plans 2.0 stack up? What real steps have agencies made toward implementation?
The White House began celebrating right away, but at the time, about one third of the major agencies had yet to post updated plans. Since then, almost all of them have. There is also a need for more regular progress reporting. The Department of Education has not updated its Open Government Initiative at ED page, nor has the Department of the Interior updated its DOI Open Government Initiative page since June, 2010.
It seems fairly evident that this time around there has been less White House attention and thorough review than during the first round of plans. “The Administration’s push for open government has taken hold at some agencies,” said Amy Bennett of OpenTheGovernment.org. “Other agencies have failed to get on board though, and will stay on the sidelines unless the White House steps in and tells those agencies the Administration is serious about keeping its commitment.”
On September 20, President Obama released the U.S. National Action Plan as part of an international initiative, the Open Government Partnership (many of POGO’s recommendations were included in the new action plan on transparency). One of the White House commitments was to support and improve agency implementation of the Open Government Plans. The National Action Plan promised that as a result of the Administration’s careful monitoring, agencies would improve their efforts to disclose information to the public and to make such disclosure useful, identify new opportunities for public participation in agency decision-making, and solicit collaboration with those outside government.
We are concerned that the agencies that have traditionally been more closed to the public are the ones offering weaker plans and failing to take meaningful action toward real openness. A prime example is the Department of Justice (DOJ). DOJ’s 77-page updated plan is repetitive and lacking in substance.
There are a number of problems with DOJ’s Open Government Plan 2.0. The “Innovative Methods of Collaboration” section discusses the FOIA Technology Working Group, an inter-agency forum for exploring ways to use technology to improve the FOIA process DOJ should use this forum to support the multi-agency FOIA portal being spearheaded by the National Archives, EPA, and the Department of Commerce. However, the development of a government-wide FOIA portal is not mentioned a single time anywhere in the plan.
There was also no discussion whatsoever of shortcomings in implementing the first version of the Open Government Plan. We had hoped to see not only an update on implementation of the first version, but also a discussion of why DOJ had trouble meeting commitments it initially made. For example, on page 17 the plan states that significant portions of the calendar of the Attorney General are now accessible online. These have just been sporadic releases every once in a while—to date, DOJ has posted calendars for only five months in 2009, one and a half months in 2010, and three months in 2011. Besides saying “the calendar must be carefully scrutinized before posting” to ensure that “sensitive privacy, law enforcement, and litigation interests are not compromised,” there was no real analysis of the agency’s difficulty in meeting this commitment or discussion of why these postings have taken so long and been so spotty.
On page 52, the plan says the Department is working to identify congressional reports suitable for public posting. DOJ makes no mention of the fact that the White House told the DOJ to make congressional reports available to the public over a year ago. DOJ’s treatment of the issue is opaque. Instead of explaining why there were shortcomings and what specific steps/timelines are being put in place to remedy the situation, DOJ glosses over the facts.
That said, there were a few positives in the updated plan. We were glad to see that the Office of Information Policy (OIP) is committing to post logs to their FOIA Library of Requests on a monthly basis, starting this year. By examining these logs, the public will be able to quickly identify records of interest that have already been processed and are readily available. This is a reform POGO has been calling for. We are also pleased that OIP will issue a directive mandating the reporting of key FOIA statistics on a more timely, quarterly basis. As a result, interested parties will be able to track government FOIA administration throughout the year instead of waiting for a single annual report.
OMB Watch recently analyzed the efforts of agencies across the government to implement the initial plans over the last two years and scrutinized the range of initiatives put forth in the “version 2.0” plans. Specifically it noted that several agencies included plans to “strengthen the agencies’ culture of openness, improve implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), increase public access to data, and make websites more user-friendly, among other topics.”
It is important to keep in mind that dumping new data online does not necessarily mean greater accountability. “It is great that the public can go to a website and rate hospitals with HHS data, but that is not accountability,” Bennett said. “People want to know what the government is doing—and why; agencies have a responsibility to also make that information available.”
It appears to us that agencies with the strongest updated plans (and the best records of implementation over the last two years) are the ones that didn’t have as far to go. Agencies that are already historically more public-oriented in achieving their missions have surpassed requirements and exceeded expectations. Who deserves a pat on the back? The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been doing a great job tracking their progress and updating their openness pages regularly (although NARA has not yet released its 2.0 plan).
DOE’s Plan 2.0 outlines six new initiatives. The agency plans to continue releasing high value data sets, and its new Open Energy Information website uses an open-source platform allowing users to search, edit, add, and access energy-related data.
POGO has been advocating with partners for agencies to make items from a list known informally as the “Openness Floor” available to the public since 2010. This is a list of baseline criteria including calendars from top officials, visitor logs for the agencies’ decision-makers, and lobbying disclosure forms—basic information about how government agencies are conducting the peoples’ business. POGO also has provided other openness roadmaps, such as this one for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), much of which should be adopted by other agencies as well. Although the General Services Administration (GSA) has been receiving lots of negative attention for the latest scandal in wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars, it has done the best job of releasing information from the Openness Floor. GSA is meeting the White House’s OGD and has made many types of information on the list available on its openness page, including high-value dataset catalogs and inventories. GSA also has a frequently updated Open Government Status Dashboard, demonstrating the ongoing progress of each project it has undertaken.
The NASA Open Government Plan 2.0 has also gotten kudos for its flagship initiative to support open source software that gives the public direct, ongoing access to NASA technology. But the first sentence on its website says it all: “the key principles of Open Government—participation, collaboration, and transparency—have been embedded in NASA operation for more than 50 years.”
Some agencies have made real strides in fostering a new culture of openness and initiating important reforms, but DOJ is a glaring example of the problems that remain in the execution and implementation of the Open Government Plans. In the future we hope that leading officials from agencies across the federal government will work with POGO and our good government partners to improve these plans. The White House has set the bar high for greater openness, increased transparency, and meaningful accountability, and we hope that over time it will be realized.
Suzanne Dershowitz is POGO's public policy fellow.