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The Open Government Directive has dropped. Here's what's in it -- and why it's a big deal.

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, December 8 2009

So we finally have our hands on the long-awaited Open Government Directive. In just eleven pages, it lays out the Obama Administration's vision for what transparent, participatory, and collaborative government will look like when it is pushed beyond the hub of the Obama White House and out into the many agencies, departments, and offices that make up the United States federal government. This morning's announcement of the 11-page OGD is hugely important in many ways. But none more so than that federal agencies are the places in the United States government where the financial budget and staffing resources to finally put some real meat on the bones of open government. Sixteen-hundred Pennsylvania Avenue might get the bulk of the press, but it's in the extremities of government where much of what shapes the lives of citizens takes places. The tricky part is that with that institutional heft comes a tendency towards stasis. Real change to take place inside those silos of government, agency leadership needs to commit to "changing the default," to borrow a phrase from U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra, from closed government to a presumption of openness.

Today's announcement succeeded in fleshing out just what the Obama Administration means when it talks about a new relationship between government and citizens. And some of what's in the OGD is reasonably firm -- concrete milestones and specific requirements that the Office of Management and Budget are imposing on dozens of federal agencies as core expectations baked into their missions. Each federal agency's leadership, for example, will, in 120 days, come up with a detailed Open Government Plan of their own; within 45 days, each department will release three "high-value" data sets in an open format, and appoint an internal point-person to be held accountable (and, presumably, testify before Congress when the time comes).

That said, it became clear during the web chat announcing the plan that the White House is betting some of the Open Government Initiatives success on a cultural revolution to take place inside agencies. The open question on open government: what will it take to get a United States federal government that has a momentum towards secrecy to shift its orientation to one of transparency, participation, and collaboration? Is betting on that shift taking place a reasonable gamble? The OGD marks the start of what will prove to be an intriguing, and important, journey.

First, let's deal with what's actually in the plan.

What agencies must do now

The major new requirement handed to each agency in the Open Government Directive is that by mid-winter, four months from today, each federal department -- whether that's the Defense Department, the Justice Department, the Energy Department, the State Department, the Department of Labor, the EPA, and beyond -- must submit a plan detailing how they are meeting the President's commitment to transparency, participation, and collaboration. Here, the agencies get a fair amount of guidance; pages 7-11 of the OGD describe just what OMB is looking for in a good agency plan. Among the requirements are one open-government project of which will be made an example; "Each agency’s Open Government Plan," reads the OGD, "should describe at least one specific, new transparency, participation, or collaboration initiative that your agency is currently implementing (or that will be implemented before the next update of the Open Government Plan)."

And when citizens go looking for one of these plans, we'll hopefully know where to find them. By February 6th*, each department's must set up a website at agencyx.gov/open with not only the text of the plan, but tools with which the public can comment on it and the agency's commitment to open government. The open gov sites, says OMB, should "serve as the gateway for agency activities related to the Open Government Directive" and each agency "shall maintain and update that webpage in a timely fashion."

Other concrete directives include an requirement that, as mentioned above, a single agency point person be named who is responsible for the quality of spending data, at least. "Within 45 days, each agency, in consultation with OMB, shall designate a high- level senior official to be accountable for the quality and objectivity of, and internal controls over, the Federal spending information publicly disseminated."

Then there's one order that will likely produce agita in the office within each agency responsible for handling the tide of legally-binding FOIA requests that come into every department. "Each agency with a significant pending backlog of outstanding Freedom of Information requests," reads the plan, "shall take steps to reduce any such backlog by ten percent each year" -- though the fuzziness of the language makes it likely that no agency will be held all that accountable for not complying with the order.

What OMB says it will do

And while agencies hash things out in the trenches, OMB is going to have its hands full, too. Within 60 days, the deputy director will issue a separate, mini-directive spelling out just what the White House means when it says that it wants high-quality data coming out from the agencies into its central clearinghouses like USASpending.gov.

U.S. CIO Kundra and U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra have a real fondness for online dashboards, a favorite tool of management consultants, and here is no different. "Within 60 days, the Federal Chief Information Officer and the Federal Chief Technology Officer shall create an Open Government Dashboard on www.whitehouse.gov/open," reads the plan. "The Open Government Dashboard will make available each agency’s Open Government Plan, together with aggregate statistics and visualizations designed to provide an assessment of the state of open government in the Executive Branch and progress over time toward meeting the deadlines for action outlined in this Directive."

Without any additional funding or resource allocation going towards implementing open government in the agencies, the question of motivation and incentives becomes important. And here, OMB is getting to work in putting together ideas for contests, prizes, and other tools proven to spur innovations outside government. "Within 90 days," says the OGD, "the Deputy Director for Management at OMB will issue, through separate guidance or as part of any planned comprehensive management guidance, a framework for how agencies can use challenges, prizes, and other incentive-backed strategies to find innovative or cost-effective solutions to improving open government."

OMB is but one office in a sea of agency behemoths, and it is asking for help. Perhaps in a acknowledgment that its Data.gov clearinghouse site has not yet lived up to its promise, OMB is calling on agencies to, in short order, produce three new public data feeds for inclusion there. And no more "iron smelting locations in Georgia" type files of the kind that now populate the site. "Within 45 days, each agency shall identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value data sets...and register those data sets via Data.gov," reads the directive. "These must be data sets not previously available online or in a downloadable format."

A broad vision of open government, with a focus on transparency

The spaces between the Open Government Directive's firm benchmarks and concrete performance metrics are filled with articulations of the broad principles of open government widely agreed upon by advocates. But they take on new import when it's the White House doing the talking. "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)." Beyond that, the OGD plants flags on more controversial principles of open government. "Timely publication of information is an essential component of transparency," reads the plan, an implicit critique of after-the-fact disclosure that sometimes passes for openness in government circles.

And then there are those words on standardization and format that are music to data advocates ears (even if the included caveats are somewhat dissonant). "To the extent practicable and subject to valid restrictions, agencies should publish information online in an open format that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched by commonly used web search applications," reads the plan. "An open format is one that is platform independent, machine readable, and made available to the public without restrictions that would impede the re-use of that information. "

What's left to be done

Left somewhat untackled in the White House's release version of its Open Government Directive are three things. The first two are the other legs of the stool, along with transparency, that first formed Obama's call for open government: namely, participation and collaboration. The OGD encourages agencies to involve citizens more in the practice of government. But doesn't offer much in the way of guidance in figuring out how to complete that challenging task.

And the third: policy changes. Much of what agencies can and can't do online are shape by policy barriers, even if those are restrictions that truly only exist in the minds of department lawyers, who interpret ambiguity in antiquated laws to be meaningful limitations. Here, OMB calls on OIRA, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, to handle those sticky questions. Within 120 days, directs the OGD, OIRA must "review existing OMB policies, such as Paperwork Reduction Act guidance and privacy guidance, to identify impediments to open government and to the use of new technologies and, where necessary, issue clarifying guidance and/or propose revisions to such policies, to promote greater openness in government."

* Corrected from an incorrect date.

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