Sophomore slump for Open Government?

Wednesday - 9/8/2010, 6:53am EDT

WFED's Max Cacas

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By Max Cacas
Reporter
Federal News Radio

In recent years, one of the Obama Administration's biggest and best supporters when it comes to open government efforts has been the Sunlight Foundation. But now, the head of that group is openly questioning the administration's ability to deliver on its promises of data transparency and open government.

"No organization has been more enthusiastic, optimistic, or excited, about gov 2.0 in the area of data transparency than the Sunlight Foundation," said Ellen Miller, the group's co-founder and executive director. "In many respects, this administration has gone further and faster than any administration before it, when it comes to efforts at using technology to promote open government. But now, 20 months later, it appears that the drive for data transparency has stalled."

But Miller, who spoke yesterday at the Gov 2.0 Summit, was unstinting in her position that the optimistic start to the administration's efforts at using technology for transparency, beginning with the Open Government Directive, is suffering from sophomore slump.

"As you may recall, the central thrust of that directive was its insistence that all government agencies create and implement their own open data plans aimed at releasing high value data to the public," she said. "The plans that resulted, however, were little more than inspirational. And in fact, 12 out of 30 agencies in those plans didn't list any data for future publication, and all together only 75 new data sets were listed."

She said that result as "hugely, hugely disappointing."

Miller also criticized one of the administration's signature transparency initiatives, Recovery.gov, calling the website designed to track stimulus spending "a qualified success."

"The idea of collecting job information at the most local level was extremely, overly optimistic, and ended with the Vice President making excuses for the data's poor quality on 'The Daily Show,'" she said.

Miller leveled the sharpest criticism at USAspending.gov, the website designed to track agency contract and grant spending.

"It's already gone through three redesigns, each one flashier than the last, with gradients and maps, and a map-minder tool," Miller said. "It's pretty impressive looking, but its data is almost completely useless."

Miller used her talk to announce that the Sunlight Foundation is launching "Clear Spending", a new website that is designed to closely scrutinize the grant data in USAspending.gov.

"We found over $1.3 trillion of broken reporting in 2009 alone," Miller said. "That's fully half of the spending for that year. Some of the numbers are too big, some of the numbers are too small, and some of them aren't there at all."

She added some of the data is missing key information and still other data was filed months after it was required by law.

Miller says she is beginning to wonder if, "the administration is more concerned about style than substance?"

Aneesh Chopra, the federal chief technology officer, and one of the White House's point people when it comes to the Open Government Initiative, responded to Miller's speech. He said the administration welcomed her criticism, and that "We need more people like Ellen saying what they want from our initiatives."

Chopra had come to the Gov 2.0 Summit to officially announce the rollout of Challenge.gov, the new portal for the government's prize challenge programs. While he had not had a chance to listen to her complete talk, Chopra told Federal News Radio that he nonetheless understands the source of Miller's frustration.

"We believe we're doing the best we can in the priorities and goals the President has called out for us," he said. "Others have different views and different priorities, and that's part of living in a democracy. I take it as nothing but positive and exciting feedback. We've heard it from her directly, we'll hear it again in this forum."

Chopra said he would rather have a conversation about "how much more we could do, as opposed to one where they're saying 'get started!' Do I feel happy about what we're doing? No, we want to do more! We're hungry, we want it to get done, and we want to do it faster!"

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