Sunlight reviews open government directive

Wednesday - 12/14/2011, 12:52pm EST

John Wonderlich, policy director, Sunlight Foundation

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By Michael O'Connell
@moconnellWFED
Web Editor
Federal News Radio

The Open Government Directive has been in effect for a couple of years, and by now, agencies should have come up with a way to make their data available to the public. It turns out that it hasn't been such an easy thing for some agencies to do.

"What we found was that there was mixed compliance among the agencies with the plans that they set for themselves for releasing new data," said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, which recently examined how well federal agencies were making information available to the general public.

The news wasn't all doom and gloom. Wonderlich told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris. that Sunlight's study identified a number of agencies that did succeed in implementing the directive.

"We've found a number of agencies that have done a fantastic job and lived up to almost all of the deadlines they set," he said. "But, a lot of agencies set deadlines voluntarily for themselves as a result of the directive and then haven't been able to meet them yet."

NASA and Health and Human Services, who have been leaders in the open government movement, were among the agencies that Wonderlich said were able to meet most of the deadlines they'd set for themselves. "They've been continuing to lead and post more information and interact with the developers and really show what it can mean to be proactively committed to open government," he said.

Wonderlich also pointed to the efforts of the Department of Transportation in releasing regulatory data as another success story. "It was a really honest accounting and review of their data publication publication practices," he said. "That's the kind of example that we'd like to see other agencies follow."

Wonderlich acknowledged that the missions of some agencies are better suited for releasing information and data, especially if they already have departments dedicated to statistics, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics within the Department of Labor. Also, agencies that had been doing a poor job of releasing data before had an easier job of looking good for the directive if they just released a flood of new data.

"What we thought was important was when the open government directive and declarations like this are really written in aspirational language, let's make a plan and let's transform things, I think it's really necessary to have some attempt at being an honest broker about whether the plans are changing things and how much new information is being released," Wonderlich said.

With that in mind, Sunlight discovered that the directive had garnered mixed results. While it inspired "a whole lot of good to happen among the agencies," Wonderlich said, it also pushed some agencies into setting deadlines that they failed to meet.

Wonderlich offfered some advice for managers trying to figure out the best way to implement the directive.

"The main thing that we're looking for is for agencies or department heads or managers is to make better decisions or to make good decisions about how information is shared," Wonderlich said. "Often, some of the most important decisions about what data is public and what data isn't public aren't made at the CIO or agency head level or even the department head level. They're just punted to whoever is most directly involved in that information." Those lower level managers may be making decisions that better serves their department rather than the public interest at large.

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