Agencies struggle to meet Obama's Open Government Directive

Audit gives low grades to OMB, DOJ; finds strong work by NASA, HUD and EPA

There has been mixed progress by federal agencies in their efforts to comply with the Obama Administration's Open Government Directive, according to an audit conducted by a consortium of transparency groups.

While some agencies have developed robust and detailed plans to comply with the December 2009 directive, others have been slow to find ways to meet the requirements, according to an audit conducted by OpenTheGovernment.org, a Washington-based coalition of privacy and consumer advocacy groups, library associations, academicians, labor unions, journalists and others.

The audit found that NASA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Environmental Protection Agency have created plans that could "serve as models" for other agencies. At the same time, the White House Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Department of Justice have so far failed to create coherent road maps for making their departments more open and responsive, the audit noted.

OpenTheGovernment.org said it reviewed the open government plans released by 29 federal agencies earlier this month and then ranked them by their adherence to the requirements spelled out in the directive.

The Open Government Directive aims to make important government information more accessible to the public, to encourage feedback and to foster more collaboration among agencies. The directive required all federal agencies to publish by April 7 their initial plans for meeting the directive's specifications.

A review of those plans found a "mixed bag," said Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org.

"What we found is that agencies which have traditionally been public-facing and more open tended to see this as part of their mission," McDermott said, citing NASA and HUD. "While [openness] may not be the statutory mission of the agency, they embrace it."

Meanwhile, agencies that do not regularly interact with the public are having a harder time coming up with viable plans. Open government represents "much more of a culture change for" agencies like the OMB and the DOJ, McDermott said. "They have a hard time figuring out how to fit it into their [processes]."

The coalition ranked the plans based on how well they articulated the goals for meeting the directive and the specific steps they would take to get there.

The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, scored well in the audit by including a commitment to identify and release specific "high-value data sets" this year. Similarly, NASA's open government plans include an invitation to the public to participate in the development of new technologies, the audit found.

In contrast, the plans released by the OMB, the DOJ and other agencies offered few details and little insight on how the agencies planned to implement the open government directive.

"Of particular disappointment to many of the evaluators is the low ranking of plans developed by OMB and DOJ," the report noted. "Given that OMB has responsibility overseeing portions of the [Open Government Directive], the evaluators expected the agency to seize this opportunity to lead by example."

The DOJ's ranking at the bottom of the stack is similarly disappointing "given its charge to implement the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), America's oldest public access law," the report said.

White House spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield noted that the evaluators gave almost half of the agencies scores of 80% or higher, while a "vast majority" had scores of over 70%.

At the same time "we also agree that much remains to be done on this unprecedented effort to make government more transparent," Bedingfield said in an e-mail. "We look forward to continuing to work together with open government advocates and the public on the evolution and implementation of these plans."

A DOJ spokeswoman expressed confidence that the agency would ultimately meet its Open Government Directive commitments.

She noted that department has significantly increased the number of full and partial documents released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests and cited the DOJ's planned deployment of a "FOIA Dashboard" as an example of its willingness to use suggestions from open government groups.

"We appreciate all feedback and will continue to look for effective ways to improve our efforts, but as the facts clearly show, in terms of openness, collaboration and participation, this Department of Justice has set a new standard," she said in an e-mail.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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