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Opening Up on Open Government

I had a pretty unique privilege earlier this week – and frankly, as a huge transparency advocate, I’m still a bit electrified by the experience – in getting to attend a series of briefings at the White House Conference Center by individual government agencies to collaborate with stakeholders on how best to adopt the principles set forth in President Obama’s January 21, 2009 Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government (which was later translated into more detailed instructions for federal agencies by the Office of Management and Budget via the Open Government Directive, or “OGD”). It’s not every day that one gets to sit down with Administration officials to have a dialogue about how best to transition to a more transparent, collaborative, and participatory government. Several agencies participated in the day-long series of briefings, but I only attended the meetings with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Department of Labor (DoL), and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Here is just a quick summary of what I captured from the discussions, and a bit of commentary:


This was a pretty interesting briefing, and OMB has some incredibly lofty long-term goals, including putting the Budget of the United States Government online while it’s being written/developed with a built-in mechanism for public comment, so that anyone – including John Q. Taxpayer – can collaborate on setting the federal agenda. I doubt very much that this will ever come to pass unless the Democrats miraculously sprout seriously long, muscular political legs in the near-term that can sustain them for the long-term, or at least long enough to see an initiative like this through. In any case, this is a very interesting proposal that ought to excite populists of all stripes, and it shows how seriously and creatively OMB is thinking about the President’s goals. OMB identified as its flagship initiative under the OGD a new online dashboard for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Ostensibly, with the right capabilities built in to the OIRA dashboard, citizens would be able to track the development of a regulation from statute to implementation. OMB intends to pull this feat off by tagging Federal Register publications (which OMB recognizes as an elite policy-tracking tool that is difficult to wade through in its current format) with user-friendly metadata that will help index the documents by subject matter and relevance. This too is a pretty lofty goal, but again, this demonstrates the creativity driving the initiative. It is worth noting, too, that OMB (along with OSTP) is not only responsible for meeting the requirements of the OGD itself, but as a management agency it is responsible for helping every other federal agency to pass OGD muster as well.

Personally, I’m waiting for OIRA to integrate with the Xbox 360 dashboard. Hey, if Facebook and Twitter can pull it off, why not OMB?


It should come as no surprise that this agency has made more progress than any other on complying with the OGD. Their self-described flagship initiative is to construct a digital enterprise network of scientific/technological experts (something possibly akin, they said, to NASA’s Spacebook – as if anyone could possibly make Facebook more nerdy than I can), for the purposes of collaborating on public policy. This should confront the White House with an interesting messaging consistency problem going forward, and the problem takes the form of a simple question: what constitutes a “lobbyist?” Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform Norm Eisen was in the room during this particular briefing (see WhoRunsGov.com for an interesting summary bio on Eisen). He has been notoriously unsympathetic to federal lobbyists despite pleas to the contrary. Currently, anyone spending 20% or more of their billable hours trying to shape or influence policy must register as a federal lobbyist (which comes with a whole host of restrictions on one’s ability to participate in the political process), and if this administration has its way, I think those restrictions will get tougher, particularly for anyone with corporate ties. Are scientific/technological experts on OSTP’s policy network to be considered “federal appointees?” Will they spend more than 20% of their billable hours trying to “shape or influence policy?” These are tough legal questions that the White House will have to answer going forward. If the Administration tries to manipulate lobbying standards so that it suits their political goals, they will do so at their peril. That’s just common sense punditry. Needless to say, I kept my mouth shut.

Darth Vader likes to get down on the Spacebook

Dept. of Labor

I couldn’t help but smirk a little to find out that employees at the most union-friendly federal agency in the entire government tend to view things like FOIA requests and social media as “extra work,” outside the scope of their respective job descriptions. Obviously the agency intends to comply with the OGD, but they seem to have a cultural barrier to overcome that other agencies do not. A portion of the OGD requires that agencies immediately post three high-value data sets online at Data.gov, and then inventory the remainder of their high-value data sets to see what needs to be made publicly available, and what does not. The Labor representatives meeting with us said that they had a plan for inventorying their high-value data sets (by the way, the OGD requires simply that agencies inventory these data sets – if Labor would just do that instead of spending time writing a plan for inventorying, they might not be having the issues they’re having – bureaucracy at its finest, folks), but that their largest problem – and I am somewhat sympathetic to this – has been gathering consensus on what constitutes “high-value.” High-value to whom?

This is what happened the last time someone was told to adopt social media


As John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation (@JohnWonderlich on Twitter) noted during the meeting, NARA should give themselves a big pat on the back for being one of the only independent agencies to take on the challenge of adopting the OGD (which they are not required to do at all). Going forward, as I suggested in the meeting, they can be showcased as a model for encouraging other agencies to participate, particularly if they catalog their capabilities and document their processes so that other independent agencies simply have to follow a map and purchase some capabilities to comply. Hell, NARA could even develop a handbook of best practices that struggling agencies who are actually required to comply can follow to navigate whatever challenges they encounter. NARA’s flagship initiative has been to publish their Archival Research Catalog (all the holdings of the federal government) online in XML format, and they were happy to report that this is now over 70% complete. The only caveat I offered up at the time is that their efforts will be for naught if the enterprise architecture and grading of data aren’t useful or meaningful to the consumer (John Q. Taxpayer).

Hey, it could happen, right?…Right? *crickets chirping*


The young lady from this administration focused far more of her attention on the openness provisions of Executive Order 13514 (President Obama’s energy sustainability plans for the federal government) than on the OGD itself. I’m not a procurement policy expert by any means, and I’m still somewhat unclear as to what impact EO 13514 has on vendors in the contracting community (or to what extent, if at all), but CEQ plans to make plenty of data about pollution generation and abatement across the federal government publicly available with some kind of flashy data visualization project. One can certainly imagine – if these provisions do apply to private vendors performing contract work for the federal government – that these proposed requirements (disclosure of pollution data) could be met with significant litigation, since there is no due process of law involved, and vendors are afforded certain protections under the Freedom of Information Act. The impact on the private sector could be huge, particularly if someone makes a mistake in reporting pollution data, since going green is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon (if not a global paradigm shift altogether). The Administration will need to address these questions as well.

Exxon still hasn’t lived this little mishap down…just imagine what a mistake in the government could do to a company’s brand

All in all, I was very pleased with the steps the government reported having taken since the OGD was first published. As a student of the Federalist papers, I’m not entirely comfortable with the collaborative and participatory aspects of the OGD – certainly plenty of room here for the whims of the masses and the mischief of factions to take over the public sphere (as if we aren’t there already). But these are tremendous gains in transparency, and while I have been a vehement opponent of this Administration on many fronts, I am always willing to give credit where I think it is due. Transparency as a fundamental principle of governance tends to disinfect institutions and deter governing actors from corruption, and it ought to be viewed as a political good in and of itself. I will certainly be watching closely in coming months to see how this develops; the next bit of guidance on the OGD is supposed to come next Wednesday, April 7.

Other Organizations Present:


O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Sunlight Foundation <– excellent resource

Athena Bridge

Project On Government Oversight

OMB Watch

The Media Laboratory – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Please visit these other sites too – lots of great stuff going on!

Cross-posted at IntelligencePlease.com.

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