Obama seeks more public input on open gov plan

Tuesday - 9/20/2011, 6:15pm EDT

President Barack Obama today unveiled an open government plan that includes weaning the government away from paper records, making websites easier to use and increasing public participation in government through new online initiatives.

Obama spoke at the first meeting of the Open Government Partnership at the United Nations Tuesday in New York.

"We pledge to be more transparent, at every level-because more information on government activities should be open, timely and freely available to our people," he said. "We pledge to engage more of our citizens in decision-making-because it makes government more effective and responsive. We pledge to implement the highest standards of integrity-because those in power must serve the people, not themselves. And we pledge to increase access to technology-because in this digital century, access to information is a right that's universal."

Eight countries are founding members of the partnership and presented their action plans today. More than three dozen other countries attended the launch and pledged to deliver their own plans in March. Obama spearheaded the partnership's creation last year to promote government transparency, accountability and public participation. The United States and Brazil lead the partnership.

The administration, ironically, explained details of its open government plan Monday in an off-the-record press briefing. State Department rules prohibited reporters from identifying the officials by name. Open government advocates lauded the plan.

"This bold, ambitious plan will push the U.S. toward fully realizing the president's goal of making our national government as transparent as possible and fully open to citizens," said Katherine McFate, President and CEO of OMB Watch, in a written statement. "The 26 commitments made in the plan incorporate a number of recommendations from open government advocates. We are impressed by their reach, inspired by their commitments, and look forward to working with the administration to implement these changes over the next year."

The partnership plan does several things:

Targets management of government records

New record-management policies would wean the government away from paper and bring records into the digital era. Agencies could use technology to search and process records to help address the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests. In addition, the Office of Personnel Management would create a new job series for those who administer FOIA and similar programs to emphasize the importance of the work.

The National Declassification Center would develop standard processes for agencies to use in declassifying material. It also would lead a multi-agency effort to declassify historical records that fall under more than one agency's jurisdiction.

Public participation to increase through online features

"We the People," a new feature on Whitehouse.gov, would let citizens draft, sign and submit petitions. The administration made the source code public today so other countries could use it.

The new ExpertNet platform would let federal workers pose questions online and solicit answers from members of the public with expertise in the area. The plan stated officials often know only a small number of experts on any given topic and would benefit from more input. A redesigned Regulations.gov with improved comment and search functions would let people find, follow and participate more easily in federal rulemaking.

The administration would revise the seven-year-old governmentwide policy that governs the management, style and structure of federal websites with an eye to making them more user friendly.

A governmentwide effort to highlight best practices would single out agencies that have made the greatest strides in increasing public participation and would lead to metrics by which all agencies could be evaluated.

White House to promote whistleblower protections

The administration will push Congress to enact legislation that would increase protections for whistleblowers, including those in the intelligence community. If Congress does not act, the White House said it will explore using executive powers.

Obama also announced that the United States would disclose the revenue it makes from oil, gas and mining leases. It would require companies to similarly publicize the payments they receive from foreign governments. By doing so, the country joins an international campaign to increase transparency over the money made from natural resources.

In drafting the plan, White House officials used the open government blog to solicit -public comments.

One person wrote to say that "FOIA.gov is embarrassing-all the information is presented in a way that says 'we are sucking less' but this doesn't offer anything prescriptive. Seeing the actual FOIA requests would be a tremendously insightful way of seeing what researchers, historians, conspiracy theorists and others are seeking."

Another said that "Going on regulations.gov, it is unclear what it's about and, more importantly, what I can do on the site."

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