Obama Administration Launches Open Government Initiative

Obama Administration Launches Open Government Initiative

As part of the Obama administration’s plan to change the culture of secrecy in Washington, the White House last week issued the Open Government Directive, requiring federal agencies to take immediate, specific steps to open their work up to the public.

The administration also released an Open Government Progress Report and previewed a number of other openness commitments.

The directive, released by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), sets a new standard for government agencies, insisting that they achieve milestones in transparency, collaboration and participation.

“The president has been clear from day one in office: the federal government must break down the barriers between it and the people it’s supposed to serve. Today’s announcement will help to make government more open, transparent and accountable to bridge the gap between the American people and their government,” said White House OMB Director Peter R. Orszag.

The White House unveiled the Open Government Directive on a live webchat hosted by federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra.

Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said, “We welcome today’s release of the much-anticipated Open Government Directive, particularly because it sets out specific, concrete steps that agencies must take in order to fulfill the Obama administration’s stated goal of increased government transparency. As the directive itself makes clear, the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration are fundamental to our democracy.”

Jaffer added, however, that “the administration’s stated commitment to transparency has not yet translated into real change on information relating to national security policy.”

The directive comes largely from the Open Government Initiative, which was coordinated by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the summer and got the administration to reach out to the American people for specific policy recommendations.

Thousands of citizens participated in the online forums and offered ideas on how to transform the government into a more transparent, accountable, participatory operation.

The Open Government Progress Report to the American People, also released, analyzes steps already taken to increase transparency and looks at actions on the horizon. Every cabinet department is launching new open-government projects that will spark significant expansion in public accountability and access.

“The American people know best what their government should do for them. It’s fitting that our open government directive has been significantly shaped by the collective wisdom of the American people,” Orszag said.

The Open Government Directive, called for by President Obama on his first full day in office, puts accountability and accessibility at the center of how the federal government operates.

It instructs agencies to share information with the public through online, open, accessible, machine-readable formats. Agencies are to draw existing information and create a timeline for publishing them online to increase accountability and responsiveness; improve public knowledge of agencies and its operations; further the core mission of agencies; create economic opportunity, or respond to need and demand as identified through public consultation.

The directive also requires that annual Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reports be published online in machine-readable formats.

Also, it aims to instill transparency, participation and collaboration into the culture of every agency by requiring agencies to create an Open Government Plan and web site. Each agency will be required to develop its own unique roadmap in consultation with the American people and open government experts, rather than prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach. These ideas came from the public’s suggestions.

To help agencies form their plans, the White House will create a forum and online dashboard to share best practices and track progress on transparency, participation and collaboration, including how to take advantage of the expertise and insight of people both inside and outside of the federal government.

The Open Government Directive follows up on President Obama’s January 21 Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government executive order.

That document states, “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

The Open Government Directive does the following:

  • Requires each federal agency to launch its own open government web site.
  • Requires federal agencies to make “high-value” data sets available within 45 days. For example, information was released on Data.gov earlier this year by the Federal Aviation Administration about the on-time performance of commercial airline flights.
  • Requires that within 60 days, the White House will launch a dashboard on Whitehouse.gov that will be used to hold agencies accountable for the content of the directive.
  • Requires that within 90 days, agencies will get guidance from the federal Office of Management and Budget about how to best use publicly available data.
  • Requires that within 120 days, each agency will create an open government plan geared toward ensuring openness, transparency and collaboration.

The directive reflects Obama’s priorities and places the open government initiative into the hands of the executive branch, Chopra said. Also, people involved with the directive will be collaborating with others in the federal, state and local governments, and with the public.

During their announcement, Chopra and Kundra addressed how to ensure that neither national security nor personal privacy is endangered by the open government efforts.

“We need to make sure we have proper concerns for privacy, confidentiality, and national security,” Kundra said. “That’s part of the directive itself.”

Chopra also said, “This is a key pillar of public sector work, and we hope this will be a helpful tool” for state and local governments.

The directive does not apply to classified security information and makes an exception for “information whose release would threaten national security.”

The ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer declared, “While the Obama administration should be commended for the issuance of this directive, we remain concerned that executive agencies are invoking national security concerns as a pretext to suppress records that relate to government misconduct. We are particularly concerned about the Defense Department’s refusal to release photos relating to the abuse of prisoners, the CIA’s refusal to release information about black sites overseas and the Justice Department’s refusal to release the legal memos that supplied the basis for the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.”

Jaffer added, “… the Open Government Directive is an important document and a significant step in the right direction, and we look forward to seeing it implemented,” Jaffer said. “We urge the administration to ensure that all executive branch agencies comply with the directive’s deadlines and benchmarks.”

Meredith Fuchs, the Archive’s General Counsel, commenting on the directive, said, “The administration appears to realize that even eloquent statements of principle will not shift the bureaucracy’s natural and political tendency towards secrecy.

“Now, OMB has set forth specific goals and timetables … essentially a road map … to mandate more openness. The only thing missing is a clear enforcement regime, but if the White House, OMB and the heads of the agencies are serious, then they will use their authority to make these changes real. In some ways, that is the test of how serious the Obama administration is about transparency.”