Keeping the Door Open

As the newness wears off, transparency could be losing its shine.

Some fear the open government movement will lose steam if the White House doesn't get serious about forcing federal agencies to stick to President Obama's transparency dictum.

According to government watchdog groups, the administration gushes over agencies that exceed expectations, but is silent about those that ignore the president's call to adhere to the principles of full disclosure, public engagement and collaboration with the private sector.

They warn recent changes in key management positions at the White House could shove enforcement of open government to the bottom of leaders' priorities. "The newness of all this is wearing off, but we are at a critical juncture and we need to re-energize and reemphasize implementation at this point," says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a government accountability group.

The day after taking office, Obama vowed to make his administration the most transparent in history and immediately ordered his technology team to devise a directive that would ingrain open government into the psyche of every agency.

The December 2009 directive, now nearly a year old, required agencies to release meaningful, accurate data in downloadable formats so educators, companies and citizen analysts could repackage the information for a wider audience. The Health and Human Services Department came through with its online system of hospital comparison data, an achievement White House officials repeatedly reference during speeches.

In accordance with the memorandum, all agencies have developed blueprints for embedding transparency into agency operations. The administration in August recognized HHS with a leading practices award. But not all agencies have robust roadmaps and reliable data, according to a coalition of nonprofit researchers that includes OMB Watch.

Bass sees a myopic, check-the-box focus on tasks assigned in December rather than a true effort to change the way Washington does business. "This president came out Day One with this operation plan," he notes. "I think we need to look at it in the broadest sense."

To be fair, the administration has set the bar high, Bass acknowledges. The White House has tried to set the tone, for example, by revealing on the Internet for the first time the names of nearly every visitor to the White House, lobbyists and all. But every department should post the equivalent of visitor logs on its website to show who is influencing senior executives, he notes.

"I think we have all said transparency is an evolving definition. What is a reasonable standard two years ago is not always a reasonable standard now," Bass says. The definition of federal spending transparency, for instance, can be expanded. He suggests agencies post tax subsidies and other financial incentives on Data.gov, the administration's clearinghouse for federal statistics, and on other disclosure websites, such as USASpending.gov, which tracks federal awards.

Reviews of agency progress on open government are mixed. In a July audit of 39 agencies, the coalition found 11 mostly met or exceeded requirements, although some were exempt from the directive. An August review on the White House's online open government dashboard found 18 of 30 agencies tracked met all criteria.

Both reports were released in the wake of job shifts at the White House that are causing transparency activists to question who, if anyone, will continue the administration's commitment to transform government. Peter R. Orszag, who issued the directive, has left his position as Office of Management and Budget director. Norm Eisen, special counsel for ethics and government reform, is expected to become the next U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic.

White House counsel Bob Bauer reportedly will take on the added responsibility of government reform oversight when Eisen exits.

The initiative has always been larger than any one person, says Michael Fitzpatrick, associate administrator of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Major architects of the movement are not leaving, he notes, citing federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra; Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra; Beth Noveck, deputy CTO for open government; and Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Cass Sunstein.

Some interest groups say the White House has a tendency to show off the successes of the directive and to avoid drawing attention to lackluster results. Data.gov, for example, has come under fire for its lack of raw, manipulable data. John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, another member of the coalition, says he wonders whether the administration has an internal dashboard that critiques slacker agencies behind closed doors.

The administration has provided no evidence to substantiate its color-coded ratings on the open government dashboard or its openness awards, members of the coalition note. "I have no idea how the awards were judged," Bass says. "That's kind of ironic for a transparency initiative."

He notes some agencies are indeed incorporating the ideals of open government, pointing to projects such as the FDA-TRACK website, which displays performance metrics for Food and Drug Administration goals, and weekly reports from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on workplace fatalities and accidents. "They should be proud of that," Bass adds. "Let's cut the fluff."

Fitzpatrick says the White House is aware that during the next several months, "the open government community will watch us like hawks, and frankly it helps us to keep on our toes."

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