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White House Opens Doors on Major Open Government Initiative

BY Micah Sifry and Nancy Scola | Thursday, May 21 2009

As striking as it was that one of the very first acts of Barack Obama's presidency was to call for making the federal government far more transparent, participatory, and collaborative , open government advocates have waited eagerly and, ironically, mostly in the dark for some news on just how this new paradigm would emerge. In some ways, that wait is over.

Speaking on behalf of President Obama and the administration, senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett appeared in a web video posted today to announce "an important next step in this historic call to action -- one that will help us achieve a new foundation for our government -- a foundation built on the values of transparency, accountability, and responsibility." Today, 120 days after Obama's call, the White House is launching a new initiative to open government, housed at WhiteHouse.gov/Open. With it comes Data.gov, the new flagship site of the transparent politics movement.

The Open Government Initiative: A New Call for Public Engagement

What's emerged from the White House isn't a final product. Instead, it's a process. Over the course of the next month, the White House website -- under the direction of OMB, GSA, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy -- will house an on-going discussion aimed at the creation of an open government directive with buy-in from inside and outside government. Stage one, titled "Brainstorming," launches today, and is meant to establish the framework for the whole public discussion to follow. The questions the White House is asking people to address are:

  • What government information should be more readily available on-line or more easily searched? 
  • How might the operations of government be made more transparent and accountable? 
  • How might federal advisory committees, rulemaking, or electronic rulemaking be better used to improve decisionmaking? 
  • What alternative models exist to improve the quality of decisionmaking and increase opportunities for citizen participation? 
  • What are the limitations to transparency?
  • What strategies might be employed to adopt greater use of Web 2.0 in agencies? 
  • What policy impediments to innovation in government currently exist? 
  • What changes in training or hiring of personnel would enhance innovation? 
  • What performance measures are necessary to determine the effectiveness of open government policies?  

Ideas from the public will be solicited and sifted using IdeaScale, a third-party platform that enable anyone to post an idea, add comments, and vote them up or down. That process will run through May 28. The National Academy of Public Administration, which guided the discussion process on Recovery.gov, will handle the management of this effort.

In the second "Discussion" phase of the initiative, administration officials will join in an open and "two-way" dialogue around those ideas, using a blogging format hosted by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. That discussion phase will run until June 14th. The goal, in the words of OSTP's Beth Noveck, is to create a "structured dialogue" aimed at the "co-creation of government" with "many people participating in the process."  Team Obama is hoping for a vibrant public discussion, including some of the more delicate aspects of opening up government, such as, explains CIO Vivek Kundra, "How do we balance privacy and security with data and transparency?"

Noveck and Kundra don't seem too worried that the very open and interactive nature of this approach will lead to attempts by interest groups to "game" the system. She says, "There is such an outpouring of good ideas and people who want to contribute from the larger transparency communities and library communities, I expect we’ll see an outpouring of good ideas," adding, "This is a focused process, not a free for all."

Then it will be a single work week for the drafting of polished language around implementing some of the ideas highlighted on the site, to be conducted via a public wiki. The deadline for that process is June 19th. That date is aligned with the time set out in a more formal comment period published today in the Federal Register. Good government groups OMB Watch and OpenTheGovernment.org had called on the White House to add that more traditional component to their innovations in public participation, saying in an open letter they circulated that "publishing the recommendation in the Federal Register will also increase participation among members of the public who are not comfortable with social media technologies."

As for discussions that took place earlier this year within and around government about the pending directive, including an internal collection of suggestions from employees across government, Noveck says much, if not all, of that will be posted online on WhiteHouse.gov under a "From the Inbox" heading. Asked if there had been a formal agency review yet, she says, "There wasn’t a formal agency comment process. That is yet to come. First the public needs to weigh in on the crafting of the recommendations. Then we will do a formal interagency review process."

This compressed timeline is, says Noveck, a product of both design and the realities of life in a bureaucracy bigger than any one office. "A focused conversation is often a good conversation," she says, and then adds that part of the impetus is the impending FY 2011 presidential budget draft. "We want to translate the good ideas we get into projects that can get funded," she explains.

A bit of additional new news: with today's launch, Noveck takes on the title of Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government.

Data.gov Makes Its Debut

data_gov

Today also marks the launch of Data.gov, the eagerly awaited data hub promised by CIO Kundra on his appointment. "Data.gov allows us to tap into the ingenuity of the American people," he tells us. It's worked before, he notes, citing the Human Genome Project and the Global Positioning System as examples of the successes that can follow when government opens up data for public use.

Data.gov launched with 47 initial data feeds -- some previously published by individual government agencies working on their own, and others presented in machine-readable format for the very first time. The site will also feature, says Kundra, about two dozen "tools," or widgets that demonstrate how the data might be made into engaging and useful applications. [See here for information on a contest being launched concurrently by the Sunlight Foundation to make use of the newly-released data.] Many of the feeds published at launch have more to do with the natural world than the inner-workings of government. Included in the four dozen or so feeds are ones on bird migration patterns, mineral deposits around the world, and tornado tracking from the National Weather Service. Apart from collecting and presenting valuable government information in machine-readable format, perhaps Data.gov's most innovative feature is that it will invite people to rate the quality of the data presented, and will include the opportunity to ask for government information that isn't already being made available. "It's just a beginning," says Kundra. "In the coming months and the coming years, there will be more data, and an opportunity for people to let us know what data would be valuable to them."

Asked about President Obama's campaign promise to build "a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format" and "a 'contracts and influence' database that will disclose how much federal contractors spend on lobbying, and what contracts they are getting and how well they complete them," Kundra says that they are hard at work bringing those online, and are tackling some of the more difficult logistic challenges, like creating unique identifiers that tie disparate bits of data together. The idea of creating a single ethics identifier that would be assigned to any entity that engages with the government, either by lobbying or receiving a contract, is "absolutely" being considered, he tells techPresident. "You can create that, or create an algorithm that allows you to link that information up, or create a platform that becomes the golden source of authoritative data. What’s the most elegant technical solution?" he asks, noting that his team is exploring all of those ideas.

Ideally, says Kundra, part of the sea change in government marked by the Obama Administration will be a default assumption made in that most hidebound of fields, government procurement. "We want to fundamentally change the default position on how we buy new systems," he says, so that they are ready to publish government data in structured, feed-friendly formats from Day One. That said, "We also have COBOL-based systems that would take massive public investments to modify…We have to be pragmatic about certain systems that are very, very old."

Getting Open Government Buy-in from the Inside Out

"Open government is not something that is owned by any one official, or any three offices in government," says Noveck. To highlight the good works in open government happening outside the White House, the White House website will also feature, starting today, a curated Innovations Gallery highlighting noteworthy projects across the executive branch, like the Transportation Security Administration's Idea Factory project or the Defense Department's Aristotle project, a networking site for military scientists. "The goal is really two-fold," explains Noveck. "One is to showcase and celebrate the way we are moving to participation, transparency, and collaboration. The other is championing the people [within government] who are really the torch-bearers of this work."

Another bit of news: Regulations.gov, the much-maligned hub for agency rule-making, while be launching a forum for meta-discussion about the site, as well as a place to test new features in public commenting systems on proposed rules, called Regulations.gov Exchange.

Advocates for open government have complained that the process led by Noveck, Kundra, and others within the Obama Administration has been too closed and insular thus far. In an open letter to Noveck, they wrote, "As advocates for government openness, we are heartened by President Obama’s commitment to make the federal government transparent. We are especially pleased that on his first day in office, President Obama issued his 'Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.' We are deeply concerned, however, that of the 120 days given to develop recommendations in President Obama’s 'Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government,' almost 90% of the time has passed with no structured process for public input."

Noveck understands the critique, but says that the process was slowed in part by the delay in CTO Aneesh Chopra's naming and confirmation. Beyond that, there was a need to create a comfort level within government for the type of reform they are pushing. "I hope the criticism about how closed the process has been now will be dispelled by how open the process is going to be, she says. "You have to push the levers using law, policy, technology and culture to bring change to such a large organization. That's part of what this brainstorming, discussion process are. Part of this process is learning what these levers are."

The fact that the White House is now moving forward in robust fashion impresses Gary Bass of OMB Watch, one of the leading watchdog groups pressing the administration on all these issues. He says, "I'm really glad the administration announced the beginnings of a process -- the public comment phase.  And I'm glad they did it in both new school (i.e., interactive website) and old school (i.e., Fed Register)."

All in all, today is quite a day for open government advocates both inside and outside the Obama Administration. It's impressive to see the White House walking its own talk about transparency and public engagement, and especially to see them embrace web-based platforms for collaborative discussion and debate. Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating of the devil in the details, you might say. We'll be watching, and participating, closely, and expect more analysis from us as soon as we've had a chance to kick the devil's pudding on their tires.

***

Bonus link: Bev Godwin, on loan to the White House from the GSA and USA.gov, guest-posts on the White House blog pointing out many of the ways the government is using social media . It's clearly "everything-and-the-kitchen-sink" day over at the White House new media department!

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