The First Stage of an Open Government Revolution

Obama Administration Must Clarify Responsibilities or Risk Poor Execution

Obama’s Open Government Directive is a potentially groundbreaking development, but the administration must clarify responsibilities or risk poor execution, writes Ian Millhiser.

Tha website, where the Obama administration plans to house high-level government data sets. (
Tha website, where the Obama administration plans to house high-level government data sets. (

The Obama administration released on Tuesday what may be the most ambitious open government policy in American history. Although this policy will need to be substantially fleshed out in the months and years to come, it could potentially revolutionize democracy by giving ordinary Americans unprecedented opportunities to shape government policy.

The White House Open Government Directive seeks at its core to advance three values. Government must be transparent, to ensure public accountability. Government must be participatory, so that lawmakers, regulators, and other officials benefit from public input. And government must be collaborative, seeking partnerships across agencies and with the private sector whenever such partnerships will improve Americans’ lives.

The directive’s transparency agenda is the most specific of these three goals. This agenda requires a handful of swift and concrete actions—each federal agency, for example, has 45 days to add three “high-value data sets” to the library of government data publicly available at The directive also envisions a government where transparency is the default rule. Rather than waiting for Federal of Information Act requests seeking government information, “agencies should proactively use modern technology to disseminate useful information.” The directive similarly calls for a presumption that all government information should be published online, and that such publication should occur in a timely manner.

There are, of course, some caveats to this presumption for public disclosure. The directive lists a number of legitimate grounds for keeping knowledge secret, including national security. Such exceptions have been abused in the past, however, and the true test will come in implementation. Indeed, the Obama administration’s strong record on transparency is marred by a handful of questionable appeals to national security, such as its invocation of the state secrets doctrine to shut down lawsuits against the government.

Disclosure of government data is virtually useless unless it can be easily found and used. To that end, the directive requires that data be formatted so that it is retrievable by search engines such as Google and readable by any computer in any number of database applications. Data must also be reusable without restrictions by third-party designers that build interactive applications to translate raw data into more accessible maps, charts, graphs, and other formats.

Transparency is an essential aspect of open and accountable government, but the directive’s most intriguing provisions go well beyond just transparency—potentially offering an entirely new vision of democracy for the Internet age. Indeed, the directive envisions a different, collaborative form of government that empowers voters to do more than periodically decide whether Democrats or Republicans will temporarily hold the reigns of power. Born from the notion that government functions best when it is able to tap into every person’s knowledge, the directive’s goal is to build communities, social networking websites, and other structures that allow all Americans to share their expertise with the government officials who can use it.

These provisions, however, are largely in the planning stage. The directive calls upon OMB to convene “a forum to share best practices on innovative ideas to promote participation and collaboration,” and to issue “a framework for how agencies can use challenges, prizes, and other incentive-backed strategies to find innovative or cost-effective solutions to improving open government.” Agencies must develop an open government plan that includes “proposals” to “create new and easier methods for public engagement,” and to “use technology platforms to improve collaboration among people within and outside your agency.”

The administration has a number of examples of successful pilot programs that can serve as models in this effort. Consider, for example, President Barack Obama’s new SAVE Award. The SAVE Award is an annual contest that allows any federal employee to submit an idea to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget on how the government can save money and perform better. OMB officials read each submission, generating a short list of finalists that are published on the White House website. The winner is selected by a public vote; the government employee who submitted the winning idea will have the opportunity to present it to the president, and the idea will be included in the next year’s budget.

The White House received over 38,000 submissions this year, including a proposal to streamline redundant inspections of subsidized housing, a proposal to allow the public to schedule meetings with Social Security Administration officials online, and a proposal to eliminate the Veterans Administration’s wasteful practice of tossing half-used containers of medication in the trash. Many of these 38,000 submissions are common-sense proposals that will be incorporated into the budget, but White House officials would never have learned about these ideas before they devised a way to elicit them from people on the ground.

A website known as Peer-to-Patent—the brainchild of Beth Noveck, who served as the White House point person on the Open Government Directive—similarly enables government to harness the knowledge of thousands of private individuals when evaluating patent applications. Such evaluations are largely conducted by a single patent examiner—even though that person often lacks technical expertise in the subject matter of the patent. Peer-to-Patent, a pilot protect of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, offers an entirely different model. A team of thousands of volunteer experts read patent applications and submit examples of prior inventions that are too similar to the applicant’s invention to warrant granting a patent.

Rather than relying on a single, overworked government employee’s expertise to determine whether a patent should be granted, Peer-to-Patent connects government with thousands of experts who otherwise would have no input into the mechanics of government. Government is smarter because it draws upon this diverse knowledge, and the experts gain a powerful opportunity to shape an important government decision.

The very notion of a pervasively participatory and collaborative government is such a novel idea that some uncertainty in how the directive’s vision will ultimately take shape is understandable. Indeed, it would probably be troubling if the White House claimed to have discovered a way to revolutionize democracy overnight, rather than releasing a directive that largely calls on agencies to experiment. The revolution President Obama seeks will most likely be built by hundreds of pilot projects similar to Peer-to-Patent, and conceptualizing and implementing each of these projects will take time.

Even so, the White House must not forget that vision is only the first stage of transformation. The directive’s ambitious goals will not be realized until the details of open government begin to take shape. It is absolutely essential that the directive’s vision is backed by an effective management structure, staffed by senior agency officials who are committed to open government, and who are themselves accountable to senior White House officials and ultimately to the president. The directive, however, does not designate a single official who is empowered to enforce the directive, coordinate activities, and resolve disputes. Good policy could be undermined by poor execution if lines of authority and responsibility are not clarified.

President Obama took office promising to usher in an “unprecedented level of openness in government.” The directive provides a blueprint for meeting this promise. But much building lies ahead.

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Ian Millhiser

Senior Fellow