Insights from Amy Bennett, Assistant Director for OpentheGovernment.Org
Here at GovLoop we have created a knowledge network for government based on the experiences of an incredible community of government employees, consultants, and contractors. At Open The Government they seek to create another kind of knowledge network for government and constituents alike, based on transparency. “One of my passions, what drives me, is making sure the government is working effectively for the citizens. We need a good government and a good democracy. Open government is necessary for that,” said Amy Bennett, Assistant Director for OpenTheGovernment.org, an NGO focused on open government.
OpenTheGovernment.org is a coalition of 80 + organizations that are dedicated to open and accountable government. The organization helps share information among coalition partners, analyzes open government policies, and advocates for more transparency.
Open The Government gathers public information from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Capitol Hill, The White House and other sources of key information about the government and makes it available to you. Open government policies are constantly changing and bringing new kinds of access to citizens. Why should this matter to you? “Open government is central to a lot of different issues,” said Bennett. Here are 5:
1. Government has the technology to be more open but many agencies aren’t using it.
Technology exists to digitize, tag and easily locate documents, yet many government agencies are not using this technology. Some documents are digitized, but very few are tagged or searchable. Employees are not being trained on how to create and maintain digital archives, even though the technology exists. In addition, the information that could be made available is oftentimes not posted because agencies argue the documents are non-compliant with section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. “All charts, graphs, and visual data must be summarized in paragraph form for those with vision problems. Adobe has created a platform make any chart in any document 508 compliant. It appears that very few government agencies have this technology, or, if they do, know how to use it,” explained Bennett.
2. It’s your money
“If you don’t have access to the information, the public does not know if money is being spent effectively,” Bennett shared. Disputes over budget led to a government shutdown, yet how the money is budgeted is very different for how it will end being used. Department budgets and legislation are accessible to citizens, but often reports on how the budget money is actually spent are incomplete and even inaccurate. “One exception was the Recovery Act which made progress by showing citizens how the money was spent,” noted Bennett.
3. We’re challenging other countries to be more open.
“The idea of Open Government Partnership came out of the state department,” says Bennett. “The idea is to have a multi-national agreement that encourages every country that participates to take specific steps to improve openness. The United States believes our allies and neighbors should become more transparent, yet preaching that belief means nothing if we are not working to improve our own system.” I spent the last year living in Ukraine, a country notorious for corruption. Every time a corruption or abuse scandal about the United States occurred, my Ukrainian counterparts became less motivated to fight fraud in their own country.
4. Civil society depends on open government.
Are you in a church group? An organizer for Race For The Cure? How about a member of the GovLoop community? These are all examples of civil society organizations (or CSOs). Non-government organizations that allow us to engage with our community depend on an open government to do so. Open The Government is ensuring these CSOs have a place in creating policy.
Nick Sinai, U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer, posted a call for public input for the National Action Plan for Open Government on the White House blog. “The first version [of the plan] was rushed and the White House is hoping to make improvements with the second version,” said Bennett. “Part of the effort is supposed to be about setting stretch goals and having agencies really challenge themselves. We would have a hard time calling many of the commitments in first version a challenge.” Bennett believes the second version gives the administration an opportunity to take our policies to the next level. Input from government leaders will make that difference. What do you believe should be more transparent about government? Your idea might be a commitment in the next NAP. “One of the things we measure is how willing the government is to be collaborative and listen,” said Bennett. “They consistently rank high on that measure.”
Bennett also shared Open The Government’s top priorities for transparency in the next National Action Plan:
- Bring FOIA performance in line with government goals.
- Direct agencies to be proactive about sharing accountability information.
- Declassifying unnecessarily classified documents
- Protect first amendment rights while ensuring the security of classified information.
- Improve ethics disclosure.
- Make detailed government spending reports available.
How do Open The Government’s priorities match with yours? What are the benefits and challenges for open government and transparency in your agency?