December 10, 2009

Progress on the transparency front

The White House has recently released its long awaited Open Government Directive. The memo, created by the Office of Management and Budget, lays out what agencies and departments must do to become more open and transparent.

There is a continued emphasis on transparency, participation and collaboration throughout the Executive branch. I wish the same could be said about their previous efforts.

The inclusion of deadlines is extremely encouraging. Without a nudge towards compliance, the policies would never be enacted. Just take a look at the delayed document release for a perfect example of this.

The memo first directs that relevant data be placed online in open formats. This should end the use of hard to parse PDF documents, given their history as inhibitors of open government.

Second, within 45 days, each agency must publish at least three high-value datasets on Data.gov. The issues with Data.gov have been previously noted, so hopefully this represents a kick in the pants to get more interesting and relevant data on the site.

Third, each agency must within 60 days create an "Open Government Webpage" located at http://www.[agency name].gov/open. I really like this idea because it brings a modest amount of organization to what could otherwise be a chaotic enterprise. Without this, each agency would create ad-hoc schemes to publish this information, leaving the public in the dark, because of the confusion. When this is completed, you'll be able to find relevant information at justice.gov/open or irs.gov/open. It should be noted that The White House already has this and the results are quite encouraging.

Finally, on the FOIA front, annual reports are to be placed on this page. Additionally, agencies must take steps to reduce their backlog of FOIA requests by 10% a year. Given the lengthy timelines of FOIA requests, this is definitely a step in the right direction.

Presumably still stinging from the black eye caused by those phantom Recovery.gov districts, the memo states that each agency must appoint a senior official to be responsible for the "quality and objectivity" of the data released.

While this memo is certainly encouraging, it must be noted that it is only in the early stages of implementation. The devil, especially in this case, is in the details. There are many places and interlocking parts where these goals could fall flat on their face. Delays, office politics or outright refusals could all still mar what is overall a pretty positive development for transparency activists.

But, for today, we should celebrate this important announcement and hope the steps introduced actually see the light of day.

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