Government transparency may seem like an oxymoron if ever there was one but the Obama Administration is seeking to change all that.
On Tuesday, the administration issued its Open Government Directive to federal agencies in an attempt to pump out more information that resides in federal computers to the public.
It all stems from campaign promises President Barack Obama made about greater openness, a vow he sought to set in motion his first week in office with an executive order.
In a nutshell, the goal of the 11-page order issued by Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag is to make it easier for the public to find and understand government information and data.
As Orszag explains in his memo accompanying the directive:
The three principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration form the cornerstone of an open government. Transparency promotes accountability by providing the public with information about what the Government is doing. Participation allows members of the public to contribute ideas and expertise so that their government can make policies with the benefit of information that is widely dispersed in society. Collaboration improves the effectiveness of Government by encouraging partnerships and cooperation within the Federal Government, across levels of government, and between the Government and private institutions.
Here's an excerpt from the directive to federal agencies:
1. Publish Government Information Online
To increase accountability, promote informed participation by the public, and create economic opportunity, each agency shall take prompt steps to expand access to information by making it available online in open formats.
a. Agencies shall respect the presumption of openness by publishing information online (in addition to any other planned or mandated publication methods) and by preserving and maintaining electronic information, consistent with the Federal Records Act and other applicable law and policy. Timely publication of information is an essential component of transparency. Delays should not be viewed as an inevitable and insurmountable consequence of high demand. With respect to information, the presumption shall be in favor of openness (to the extent permitted by law and subject to valid privacy, confidentiality, security, or other restrictions).
b. To the extent practicable and subject to valid restrictions, agencies should publish information online in an open format that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched by commonly used web search applications. An open format is one that is platform independent, machine readable, and made available to the public without restrictions that would impede the re-use of that information.
c. To the extent practical and subject to valid restrictions, agencies should proactively use modern technology to disseminate useful information, rather than waiting for specific requests under FOIA.
d. Within 45 days, each agency shall identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value data sets (see attachment section 3.a.i) and register those data sets via Data.gov. These must be data sets not previously available online or in a downloadable format.
e. Within 60 days, each agency shall create an Open Government Webpage located at http://www.[agency].gov/open to serve as the gateway for agency activities related to the Open Government Directive and shall maintain and update that webpage in a timely fashion.
Huffington Post is playing this as the biggest story of the moment with a piece by Peter Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.
What is arguably most impressive about the Directive, as highlighted in a public briefing by CIO Vivek Kundra and and CTO Aneesh Chopra, is its specificity and focus on execution.
Agencies get 45 days to "identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value data sets. "
Agencies get 60 days to "create an Open Government Webpage . . . to serve as the gateway for agency activities related to the Open Government Directive and shall maintain and update that webpage in a timely fashion."
Agencies have 45 days to "designate a high-level senior official to be accountable for the quality and objectivity of, and internal controls over" publicly disseminated Federal spending information.
Each agency has 120 days to "develop and publish on its Open Government Webpage an Open Government Plan that will describe how it will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities."
This is exciting stuff, but it only heightens the need for what communication scholars call "trusted intermediaries" to help everyday citizens make the maximum use of new information resources.