The “blueprints for building transparency” are finally ready, said Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, at a March 19, 2010 event her organization co-sponsored with CAP that focused on the Obama administration’s commitment to an “unprecedented” level of open government. To foster a government that is “transparent, participatory, and collaborative” the administration has issued an Open Government Directive, which requires agencies to place government information online and seek new ways to collaborate with the public, among other things. Event panelists discussed how effective these efforts have been.
The event featured introductory remarks by Reece Rushing, Director of Government Reform at CAP, followed by three panels. The first focused on the White House’s efforts to require each agency to develop an open government plan and post open government pages. It included McDermott as moderator, Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform; Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute; and John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation.
Eisen highlighted the administration’s successes in making government information available to the public. When President Obama took office, for example, he inherited a backlog of approximately 130,000 overdue Freedom of Information Act requests. Eisen made news with his announcement that the administration has nearly cut this backlog in half.
More importantly, the administration has embraced a call to make information available online even if that information has not yet be subject to a FOIA request. Over More than 150,000 federal datasets are now available at Data.gov, and various agencies are taking their own steps to make information available online. The pesticide program office of the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has “made tens of thousands of records available on their website without waiting for FOIA requests for that information,” Eisen said.
As a result, EPA pesticide program requests have plummeted from 20 percent to 3 percent, which is an indication that when the culture of secrecy erodes there is less of an immediate demand for information. Indeed, “requests from the public are actually down by 46,000,” and “almost 60,000” backlog requests have been filled, Eisen explained.
“What makes all of these encouraging signs all the more noteworthy,” said Eisen, is that they reflect six months or less of implementation. Still, there is a “tremendous amount of work to be done” and the public must participate to help keep the agencies “on track” with their transparency commitments.
Wonderlich thought the broad, coordinated movement into transparency signifies a change in the national psyche. But, he added, living up to the opportunities is the biggest challenge. “I don’t want to see happen to transparency what happened to breakdancing…a brief commercial success that then becomes not hip in 2012.” Indeed, transparency must become a fundamental element of 21st century government that is “built in” and not “overpromised,” he explained.
The true measure of success for these efforts, said Harper, is when transparency websites make use of these data feeds and build a bigger culture of people who use data. Releasing hundreds of thousands of data feeds is a positive start, but the real goal of governmental transparency is for people to redevelop “their capacity for self-government” in the modern age, he added.
Eisen is confident that transparency will not be a passing fad. He believes that “the great project that the president is carrying on…is really a 18th century project that dates back to the foundations of our democracy and that is the notion of a government of, by, and for the people.”
McDermott also moderated the second panel, which focused on citizen access to government information and included Kevin Goldberg, counsel to the American Society of News Editors, or ASNE; Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services, or OGIS; Melanie Sloan, executive director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW; and Melanie Pustay, director at the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy.
Sloan warned that even though the Obama White House has shown a commitment to transparency in its policy statements, this commitment has not trickled down to many of the agencies. She cited several frustrated attempts to uncover politically embarrassing documents from agencies such as the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, and was highly critical of this failure on the administration’s part.
While it is difficult to overcome a culture of “secrecy” that was pervasive over the last eight years, “talking a lot about transparency doesn’t actually make the government more transparent,” she said. “And that’s what I feel like we’re getting a lot of…that in itself is not sufficient to make the government more transparent. We need more action,” she urged.
But Pustay insisted transparency is a presidential priority and is taken seriously by top levels of the government, which boosts the application of open government principles. Her office, for example, is pushing agency chief FOIA officers to utilize new technology to ease the FOIA process for information requesters and agency officials, as well as to gather data which can be used to improve the FOIA process in the future.
Nisbet’s office is another example of this commitment. She explained OGIS was created to review agency procedures and policies and their compliance with FOIA, and to make recommendations to Congress and the president on changes that might need to be made. OGIS is developing mediation and resolution programs that also bring in existing resources “to help the people in the FOIA area…to better be able to deliver good FOIA customer service to requesters.” And it is also integrating FOIA training into general agency training—which she said is essential to a cultural shift.
Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy at OMB Watch, moderated the third panel, which centered on developers and advocates who explained how they use government information like the data on data.gov to make a difference for the public. Laura Beavers, national KIDS COUNT coordinator at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Eric Gundersen, president and co-founder of Development Seed, offered their perspectives.
Moulton made clear that it’s not enough for a government to decide to be transparent. We need private innovators who are “using government data and getting it to the public” in useful formats that produce a “much richer picture.”
Data must be accessible for the average advocate so they can take it and use it in their everyday work, Beavers said. “There still needs to be folks who take this information and put it in front of policy folks,” and integrate it into policy so that it creates change, she added.
Gundersen remarked that bad technology is actually inhibiting flows of information, and the actual people that should be adding value and playing with the data are not receiving it. “This open data honeymoon’s going to end in a year or two,” he said, so the private sector must jump in to “help agencies assess what they should be opening up” and increase “efficiency within agencies.” It remains to be seen whether such a private-public collaboration on data occurs.
Reece Rushing, Director of Government Reform, Center for American Progress
Panel 1: Developing an Open Government Plan
Norm Eisen, Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform
Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies, Cato Institute
John Wonderlich, Policy Director, Sunlight Foundation
Patrice McDermott, Director, OpenTheGovernment.org
Panel 2: Citizen Access to Government Information
Kevin Goldberg, counsel, American Society of News Editors (ASNE)
Miriam Nisbet, Director, Office of Government Information Services (OGIS)
Melanie Sloan, Executive Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)
Melanie Pustay, Director, Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Information Policy (OIP)
Patrice McDermott, Director, OpenTheGovernment.org
Panel 3: Effects of Government Transparency on the Public
Laura Beavers, National KIDS COUNT Coordinator, Annie E. Casey Foundation
Eric Gundersen, President and co-founder, Development Seed
Sean Moulton, Director of Federal Information Policy, OMB Watch.