Federal Eye: Critics pan release of government information

Transparency advocates and good government groups rendered a mixed verdict this week on the Obama administration’s recent release of hundreds of sets of government data, arguing that many federal agencies chose to release obscure or outdated facts and figures at the expense of long-standing requests for more relevant, sensitive information.

As part of the administration’s ongoing efforts to make the federal government more transparent, President Obama last month ordered federal agencies to select at least three of their “high value” sets of statistics or other information to publish online in a downloadable format at the government’s Data.gov Web site.

The new wave of information first surfaced on the site last Friday at the height of the evening rush hour. The Department of Health and Human Services posted its annual summary of Medicare Part B spending, information it previously sold on CD-ROMs for $100. The Transportation Department provided information on child seat safety and tire quality, the State Department formatted its history of U.S. foreign relations and the Executive Office of the President published the history of economic forecasts.

But some agencies only published copies of their annual reports on Freedom of Information Act requests, a series of documents the Justice Department already posts online. Other agencies opted to publish only partial information on government contracts. Still others seemed to select obscure information of interest to only a few academic researchers.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, panned the Interior Department’s decision to release an inventory of government-owned recreation sites and population counts for wild horses and burros.

“I’m sure there are curators who want that list, but I want to see information on oil and gas leases,” Brian said.

Anne Weisman, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, singled out the Justice Department’s decision to provide 22 years worth of statistics on the nation’s jail populations.

“There might be people doing historical research for which this will be useful information, but the concept of high value data, to me, means it’s of significant value to the general public,” she said.

Bill Allison an analyst with the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, said agencies “went for the low-hanging fruit for things that’s already out there and not terribly controversial.” The Transportation Department’s statistics on tire and child seats are already available from private sources, he said.

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Darrel W. Cole

No matter what the Government posted, some critics, most notably the Sunlight Foundation, would not have been happy regardless. Let’s not confuse these select special interest critics with speaking for the general public, most of whom wouldn’t be overly excited by what was termed “high value data” (what’s high value to one is not to another). To think that government employees have nothing better to do than download information to a Web site isn’t fair to them or their workloads. This will be a gradual process that will take work hours and time to get done. But it’s surely a start.