White House, agencies get low marks for transparency

Wednesday - 10/20/2010, 5:51pm EDT

Bryan Rahija, Open Government Directive Project Coordinator, Project on Government Oversight

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Aliya Sternstein, staff correspondent, Nextgov

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When he took office, President Obama pledged to make government more transparent, launching the Open Government Initiative. Under his leadership, the White House has actively used social media, made visitor logs available, put more information online (like Recovery.gov for tracking stimulus funds and Data.gov for accessing federal agency data sets), and even set up a Flickr feed.

But are the White House and federal agencies fulfilling the open government directive?

According to a study by ForeSee Results and Nextgov, Americans give the government low marks for transparency. On a scale of 100, the White House earned a 46, federal agencies earned 40 and Congress earned 37. Government overall received a score of 42.

In an interview with the DorobekINSIDER, Nextgov staff correspondent Aliya Sternstein said the internet has set a high bar for transparency. However, some agencies put information online that people may not want or need.

Instead of an "all-you-can-eat buffet" of information, agencies should make information "easy to understand, easy to find," Sternstein said.

As government and federal employees are suffering from negative public perception, access to useful information from agencies creates trust, Sternstein said.

"Agencies could really improve the scores if they went out and met with their customers," Sternstein said. For example, the Department of Education met with teachers to find out what they and students would like to see on the DoE website.

The low marks of the study should not be a sign that government transparency isn't working; rather, the initiative is in its early stages, according to the Nextgov article.

One challenge for agencies trying to fulfill the Open Government Initiative was the lack of specifics. Good government groups have established an "Openness Floor," a list of basic requirements for an agency to be considered transparent.

Bryan Rahija, Open Government Directive Project Coordinator at the Project on Government Oversight, told the DorobekINSIDER that these good government groups -- spearheaded by OpenTheGovernment.org and OMB Watch -- are not trying to "play gotcha." They do want to help agencies, he said.

Each good government group adopted an agency to evaluate, Rahija said.

"There was a lot of collaboration and talk and discussion and dialogue between the good government groups and these agencies," he said. "There 's some growing pains ... But overall, we saw some really positive development."

The Openness Floor list is divided into six broad categories:

  • Accountability and influence
  • Spending
  • Records and data
  • Policies
  • Participation
  • Collaboration

Among the data the Openness Floor standards call for are lobbying disclosure forms, calendars of top-level officials, meetings with Congress and a list of inspector general reports.

"There's a lot of reports out there that we don't even know exist," Rahija said.

The Freedom of Information Act is the "main level we can pull to pry information out of the government," he said. One of the suggestions by the good government groups is agencies put that information online once it is released.

Rahija also said strengthening whistleblower protections plays a part in government transparency.

"It's about an agency being receptive to feedback and receptive to ideas," he said. "If we don't have protections in place so the whistleblowers can bring up issues, then we have a real problem."