Open Government Dashboard: “I’m OK, You’re OK”

On August 12, the Office of Management Budget updated the Open Government Dashboard, a transparency assessment tool applied to 29 federal agencies.

According to the scorecard, agencies are doing a relatively good job with transparency; which is strange considering reports that public satisfaction with the transparency of online government information is down.

Across all agencies and categories, the most recently updated dashboard shows a total of 249 green marks, indicating expectations have been met (in given categories); 41 yellow marks, meaning the agency has made “progress toward expectations”; and zero red marks, which would mean “fails to meet expectations.”

“A total of 18 agencies are ‘all green,’ which means that they have crafted plans that meet every requirement under the Directive. Moreover, agencies that are still yellow have made significant progress in revising and improving their plans,” said Aneesh Chopra, federal chief technology officer, and Cass R. Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory affairs in an OMB blog post.

The first scorecard, released April 7, showed 203 green marks and 87 yellow marks, but it also lacked any red marks for any agency, in any category.

The OMB’s reluctance to criticize any agency around transparency is a concern. It seems unlikely that every agency is meeting the mark in every category. But a red mark for an agency could be translated as a scarlet letter for OMB as well–implying that the guidance was weak or emphasizing that OMB lacks an arsenal of sticks and carrots for persuading agencies to meet this mission.

“Essentially the Open Government Directive is an OMB memo. So, as that kind of directive they can praise publically–so, we’ve seen a lot of showcasing of the good things that agencies are doing. But it’s much more difficult for them to criticize the agencies, because implicitly that would be a vulnerability for them, politically,” said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation. “So, I think it’s awkward for them to do any real, public enforcement, and I think that’s reflected in the dashboard.”

By showing how well agencies are progressing toward plans for transparency, rather than assessing actual achievement of transparency, the OMB is playing it safe. But even there, OMB has given itself a cushion against which it can muffle a lack of progress.

OMB’s definition of yellow and red ratings on the scorecard are so similar–so alike, in fact, that “the main distinction between the yellow and the red on the dashboard is that there’s no meaningful difference,” said Wonderlich. After all, doesn’t “progress toward meeting expectations” (yellow) mean that an agency “fails to meet expectations” (red)? There’s “not a really meaningful distinction between those two categories,” Wonderlich added.

While the rating system is arguably vague, it does align with the broad nature of the directive. Transparency comes more naturally to some agencies than others, given agency mission and history of citizen engagement.

“I think that’s why the administration wrote the directive in a very general framework so that agencies could come at it in different ways,” said Program Associate Amy Bennett.

But as a result, OMB may be in a position where it’s extremely challenging to bring about meaningful change and hold agencies accountable.

“There’s a certain spirit,” said Wonderlich, “that we’re all going to come together and open up in the spirit of the directive. But I think a more hard-nosed approach is sometimes appropriate, where you have to pit people against each other to have real oversight.”

“It’s much trickier as far as enforcement goes. It’s impossible to tell, from the outside, what they’re doing as far as making sure every agency complies,” he added. – Molly

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