Audit: Agency Open Government Plans vary widely

Tuesday - 5/4/2010, 7:45pm EDT

Patrice McDermott, director, openthegovernment.org

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By Dorothy Ramienski
Internet Editor
Federal News Radio

Some agencies are doing well when it comes to complying with the Open Government Directive, while others are struggling, according to the advocacy group openthegovernment.org.

They recently used the requirements of the Directive as a basis for evaluating federal agencies' Open Government Plans.

Patrice McDermott is director of openthegovernment.org and explained their assessments further.

"There are several different things that distinguish among them. The really good plans tended to be from agencies that are already public-facing -- they already try to be open and to collaborate with the public. They were also pretty specific in their plans. . . . They were much, much more specific about goals and timetables and milestones, and they followed the letter of the directive."

The audit was completed between April 12 and April 23 using new media tools to compile a list of rankings.

Agencies such as NASA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the EPA scored well. The Departments of Treasury, Defense and Justice were a few that had some of the weakest scores.

McDermott said that her organization and its partners looked at how the agencies' plans and compared them to what the Open Government Directive actually says.

Many of the sites that were ranked highly were very specific and detailed when it came to following the administration's wishes.

Those that didn't rank as high wrote broader plans, and McDermott said this might be because their agencies just don't have an engrained culture of being open with the general public.

"[The] Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Justice -- both do great work [and] wrote decent plans, but their tradition is not working directly with the public. This is much more of a culture change for them than it is some agencies. We've already heard from a lot of the agencies that they are already working to improve their plans."

For some agencies, it's just a matter of adding online links to their plans, McDermott said. For others, however, there's still more work to be done, especially when it comes to the aspect of collaboration with the public, "OMB, for instance, works with agencies. They traditionally don't work a lot with the direct public, so there are some things they have to figure out going forward."

Openthegovernment.org does not have the goal of picking on any specific agency, and McDermott explained that her organization does understand that many of the agencies' plans are works in progress.

"We see [the plans] as living, evolving documents. We've invited the agencies to revise their plans and let us know and, early in June, we'll take a look at them. We're going to be going back over the year and, not only taking a look at their evolving plans, but also how they're implementing them -- what's actually happening in the agencies. It's one thing to say you're going to do something -- and some of them are already moving ahead on what they said they're going to do in their plans -- [but] it's something else to, in the day-to-day work, actually implement these promises."

One of the biggest differences between stronger and weaker plans had to do with the development of an internal structure within the agency dedicated to transparency and openness.

She also said, however, that it's not simply up to the agencies themselves to keep the culture of transparency and openness alive.

"These changes do take leadership. They're going to take leadership from the White House, and we're expecting, over time, some oversight and interest from the Hill. . . . Some of the . . . initiatives from the administration will need to be codified so that, when we have a change of administration, this won't all go away. But, I think putting in place a governance structure and a real way of sustaining these culture changes."

Best practices are already being shared between agencies, too. McDermott said many transparency heads at a lot of the agencies have met already and developed leading practices.

"One of the things that they understand is that this is not going to be sustained if [the plans] don't tie directly to the mission of the agency -- and we can see that with some of these agencies that have not seen openness as part of their mission. It hasn't been for most agencies. They have a specific mission and openness is a bi-product, at best. There's not that many that have it as part of their statutory missions."