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How Congress Could Claim More of the Open Government Pie

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, February 16 2011

Photo by Jonathon D. Colman

Congress has some options on the table when it comes to figuring out a response to the Obama administration's Open Government Initiative, finds a new report on the state of open government on the federal level from the Congressional Research Service, the in-house research wing of the House and Senate. The report, dated late January, was posted by the Federation of American Scientists and reported on by Federal Computer Week yesterday. Congress might codify through legislation what the Obama administration has in mind. Or it might judge open government to be too risk and pass laws banning the implementation of presidential open government policy. Or it might ignore the whole thing and leave open government on the President's desk.

Sure, that's CRS-ese, the laying out of policy options without tipping a hat in one direction or another. But the report does, gently, suggest that Congress could go from being something of a bystander when it comes to opening up the federal government to being a main player.

And that's a role takes on added significance when you consider that the Obama administration has arguably leaned very heavily on the soft power of changed culture in its bid to shift the executive branch of the United States towards openness.

Indeed, finds the report, titled "The Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative: Issues for Congress," it remains "unclear whether there will be consequences for agencies that do not maintain the OGD [Open Government Directive] requirements allow certain elements of the OGD to lapse." To drill down, under the OGD, federal agencies are required to maintain web pages at agency.gov/open tracking their progress. "Given the wide disparity of approaches used by agencies to develop the Open Government Web pages," finds the report, "if Congress chose to statutorily require agencies to maintain Open Government Web pages, it may want to include more specific criteria to make agency websites more uniform."

Another area where Congress might want to get busy making laws: in requiring that data sets pushed out by the feds, such as through Data.gov, are accessible and useable by the public "regardless of an individual's level or expertise or financial support."

John Wonderlich, the Sunlight Foundation's policy director, says that the report presents a useful primer on the progress of open government on the federal level thus far, but that missing is the context that Congress has a role to play in open government in just about everything that it does. "The only reason we're here is that there are a thousand decisions that Congress hasn't made" over the years, says Wonderlich. Open government can be baked into the work product of Congress, not just dispatched with a bill here or there. "If Congress had been involved in information policy over the years," says Wonderlich, "I doubt Obama would have had the space to run on this."

Open information requirements, said Wonderlich, have notably been included by Congress in some major legislative packages in recent days. He points to the health insurance overhaul package or the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. But, when the whole of what Congress does is considered, "information policy questions are still an afterthought."

Beyond that, says Wonderlich, CRS needn't have spent given so much time to the risks of basic government openness. The report hints that more liberal information policy might threaten both the government and American public with, if not terrible exposure, then untenable confusion. Sure, and "the Library of Congress might suddenly fill up with jelly beans," says Wonderlich.

The full report is below:

*Note: Our Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.