Some open government advocates question administration’s transparency commitment

New federal guidance on the Recovery Act has some open-government advocates concerned that the White House is backing away from plans to have agencies broadcast easily accessible news feeds disclosing stimulus spending.

The Office of Management and Budget's April 3 guidelines for agencies on implementing the economic recovery plan "make the option available of not doing feeds . . . which leaves a little wiggle room there," said Eric Kansa, executive director of the information and service design program at the University of California Berkley School of Information. "I'm sort of reading it as feeds are becoming more optional and not getting as much attention" from the administration, he added.

The guidance stated that, for all "major communications, funding notifications, and financial and activity reports, agencies are required to provide a feed of the data. . . . If an agency is immediately unable to publish feeds, the agency should post" each update to a Web site directory. OMB's initial Feb. 18 guidelines on the act's implementation contained similar directions.

Early next week, OMB officials are expected to publish a draft of a data reporting architecture to Recovery.gov, the government's central stimulus-tracking Web site, which fleshes out the April 3 guidance, OMB spokesman Tom Gavin said on Friday.

"I can't read the inner workings of OMB, but as somebody from the outside who is very interested in using feeds as an information dissemination tool around things like open government," there is not enough detail for agencies "on actually how to go about making feeds discoverable," Kansa said. Feeds allow Web sites to transmit a constantly updated stream of news headlines and information summaries. Internet users who subscribe to feeds receive the updates in near real time.

Kansa had expected the new guidelines to specify where feeds should be posted and the content they should include. "Of a 172-page document, only three pages (68-70) discuss feeds and their implementation. This suggests that feeds are being dropped as a vehicle for disclosure," Kansa wrote in an April 8 blog entry. But some open-government advocates -- those who usually don't shy away from criticizing the administration -- say although the guidance is scant on details, they expect the administration will stick to its goal of feed availability.

"There is no question that OMB's next guidance and even this one should give more clarification on how feeds are to be done," but the administration is not granting agencies leeway, said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch.

"The intent" of the April 3 OMB message was to communicate to agencies: " 'If you cannot do a feed, then do it in a structured format so that all of us can get to it.' The point OMB is making is that there is no excuse for not providing full disclosure," said Bass.

Kansa is encouraging administration officials to give agencies more instructions on how to make feeds easy for users to obtain. If that happens, the applications for such information would be endless, he said. With constant updates on grant recipients -- including addresses -- an unemployed worker or career placement service could target job applications at companies with stimulus funding.

"You can imagine all sorts of job agencies who could aggregate this information and repackage it and make it easily accessible," Kansa said. "That vision is there [in the administration], but we're sort of looking for the follow-through and that follow-through isn't happening."

Jerry Brito, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center who co-created the accountability site StimulusWatch.org, said the White House should establish by May a structure for sharing data. Government officials have said it could be one year before public reporting "is up and running at full capacity and to me, that's unacceptable. I mean the money is already flowing," Brito said. "We need to have that up as soon as possible."

OMB officials said the purpose of the April 3 guidance was to intensify the level of reporting and standardize it across agencies.

"We want to follow the money all the way down to the neighborhood level," said Gavin.

He added OMB will look at the concerns being raised about open access to data.

"We need the feedback. We want constructive criticism," Gavin said. "We're working to create search matrices that are similar to the search engines under USAspending.gov and move forward with it as quickly as we can."

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