White House solicits open gov ideas for national plan

Thursday - 8/11/2011, 5:39am EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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By Emily Kopp
Reporter
Federal News Radio

The White House is asking for your ideas on making government more transparent, and it may include some of those tips in its national action plan.

Chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra asked for suggestions in a blog post this week. He said the action plan would focus on improving public services and increasing public integrity. Open government advocates have already drafted a four-page list of suggestions — from publishing detailed contract information online to making government officials' schedules more accessible.

Despite the long list of actions yet to be taken, three experts who spoke with Federal News Radio gave the administration high marks, at least for effort.

"The Obama administration has really taken a revolutionary approach to the way that transparency should be something that happens on the Internet," said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation. "By sharing primary-source data in its raw form through sites like data.gov, [the administration's] approach is really changing the way we think about making government transparent."

Next month, the United States will present its national action plan at the launch of the Open Government Partnership at the United Nations in New York.

President Barack Obama launched the partnership last year as a way to promote transparency internationally. Since then, seven more countries have joined, including Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Indonesia, Norway, the United Kingdom and South Africa.

Gavin Baker, a federal information policy analyst with OMB Watch, said the United States' open-gov efforts rank in somewhere in the middle of the pack .

"In some areas of open government, the United States really is a leader. In the area of fiscal transparency, the United States is very strong," he said. "On the Freedom of Information Act, other countries have passed us and left us in the dust."

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said the administration's heart is in the right place.

"The White House policies have been good. The White House rhetoric has been good. But it takes real follow-through and ongoing attention and holding agencies' feet to the fire," she said. In her opinion, execution of the initiatives is the major issue. For example, she said, Data.gov is supposed to give unprecedented access to facts and figures that agencies collect, about everything from crime to car seats. But agencies seem to post information at random.

"Actually, a colleague of mine says agencies have just vomited data without paying a whole lot of attention to the quality of it," she said, noting that a librarian would be helpful.

Data.gov is one of three transparency initiatives the White House wants feedback about. The other two are Regulations.gov and the federal Web policy.

Baker said he gives Regulations.gov a "C minus" and the federal Web policy a "D." The first, he said, "does the bare minimum of what it has to do. Regulations.gov is a way to get information about rulemaking process inside agencies. Essentially, it's just taken a paper-based process and put that all online."

Baker called the federal Web policy "way outdated," expensive and, again, not user-friendly. But he credited the Obama administration for attempting to address those issues.

The White House said it will accept feedback through the blog all month and may even include some of the ideas in its action plan. But its goal is relatively modest. Chopra and Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote that "the United States will produce a plan that builds on existing initiatives and practices."

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