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Open Govt: Does the Govt Know What the Govt Knows?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, April 7 2010

At first glance, yesterday was a big day for open government in Washington, DC. Responding to the White House's Open Government Directive of last December, 29 departments and agencies published detailed plans describing how they are going to make themselves more transparent, participatory and collaborative. The "flagship initiatives" highlighted by the White House include:
-Involving the public in developing the Forest Service's new forest planning rule;
-An interactive dashboard for visualizing and understanding Medicare spending;
-A new legal framework to allow NASA to accept open source software from non-NASA developers
-A bunch of new data hubs in development by the Departments of Education (ED Data Express), HUD (tracking and predicting homelessness), Justice (FOIA Dashboard) and State (, to point to the ones that most caught my attention.

But before we all pat ourselves on the back about all the cool stuff in the pipeline, let's remember that announcing a plan isn't the same thing as getting the job done, and that god is in the details. Take two examples, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. The Open Government Directive specifically tasked agencies with producing, by yesterday:

A strategic action plan for transparency that (1) inventories agency high-value information currently available for download; (2) fosters the public’s use of this information to increase public knowledge and promote public scrutiny of agency services; and (3) identifies high value information not yet available and establishes a reasonable timeline for publication online in open formats with specific target dates. High-value information is information that can be used to increase agency accountability and responsiveness; improve public knowledge of the agency and its operations; further the core mission of the agency; create economic opportunity; or respond to need and demand as identified through public consultation.

It also required, by yesterday, that agencies publish:

A link to a publicly available webpage where the public can learn about your agency’s declassification programs, learn how to access declassified materials, and provide input about what types of information should be prioritized for declassification, as appropriate.

By that measure, it appears that only a few government agencies are actually meeting their transparency obligations. Many are instead simply announcing that they have a plan to make a plan. For example, the Department of Homeland Security says (p. 3), "The following Open Government Plan is the first step in creating, maintaining and institutionalizing a plan for transparency, participation, and collaboration for DHS operations." It offers a timeline (p. 29) for the posting of new datasets, but does not actually identify "high value information not yet available." The Department of Defense says on page 13 of its Open Government Plan:

Under the leadership of the Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer, the Department is in the process of establishing an internal working group with representatives from across various Components to more fully and effectively support its future participation in specifically, and Open Government in general.

Like DHS, DOD doesn't identify high value information not yet available.

Neither DHS nor DOD included a link to their declassification programs, instead pointing the public to a more generic program run by the National Archives.

I suppose there are two ways to interpret what is going on inside the government in response to the Open Government Directive. The less charitable interpretation is that the bureaucracy has little real interest in opening up and is just stalling and hoping that if they toss some information into and start using social media, the pressure to really reverse decades of secrecy and data-hoarding will abate. (Actually, that's not the least charitable interpretation; given the decades of governmental lying and cover-ups, many of which continue to this day from the Pentagon to numerous domestic agencies captured by the industries they are supposed to oversee, there are plenty of reasons for bureaucrats to try to dodge the Open Government imperative.)

The other interpretation, which probably explains some of what is going on, is that the government simply doesn't know what the government knows. I'm reminded here of something Bev Godwin and Sheila Campbell, leaders of the government web managers council at GSA, often pointed out in the past year: The government doesn't even know how many .gov websites it has--20,000 was their rough guess. Getting a handle on all the data departments and agencies collect and figuring out how to make it available online and in searchable, downloadable formats is no small task.

If the glass is half full, then yesterday's publication of all these plans represents progress toward that larger goal. But I don't think anyone should rest of their laurels. Given that the bureaucracy has had three months to actually chew on the clear requirements of the Open Government Directive, failure to actually identify new high value datasets not yet available, and failure to simply identify an online declassification hub, in the two cases cited above, is worrisome. The work of actually opening government has just begun.