Even though this is good news for transparency, it's no surprise that the media didn't think this latest move by the Obama administration worthy of reporting. And it's equally unsurprising that the communications arm of the administration failed to make sure they did. If there's one thing that's been proven throughout the Obama administration; it's that messaging has not been their strong suit.
But it is what it is... and this is definitely good news for those who believe transparency is an imperative for good democratic governance.
The Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch) has the story:
On May 9, President Obama signed Executive Order 13642, "Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information." The new policy reaffirms the administration's commitment to transparency and lays a framework for agencies to improve public access to, and use of, government data.This executive order will provide the public more access to vital information about issues that effect our daily lives in significant ways such as product safety, environmental conditions, government spending and others. The new policy also contains a number of far-reaching reforms to modernize processes and practices of information disclosure in all areas of government, thereby reducing bureaucratic inaction that sometimes ends up leaving information valuable to the public locked away.
The order was accompanied by an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) memo detailing the new policy and its implementation, as well as a set of tools and resources to assist agencies in implementing the policy.
It must be added, however, the order will leave in place the federal government's current practice of leaving decisions regarding the timing of the release of specific information up to individual agencies instead of establishing government wide standards.
That said, the new policy will work in conjunction with federal data and web policy reforms already instituted by the administration, in particular, Data.gov, the government-wide catalog of open datasets. In addition, the Open Government Directive, introduced back in December 2009, requires each agency to publish three specific datasets previously unavailable to the public, and subsequently develop plans to release additional data.
An executive order President Obama signed back in April of 2011 improving customer service prompted an OMB memo in July of that year regarding the reformation of all government websites. The following September, the administration included a commitment in its National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership to update policies governing federal websites. In turn, that commitment evolved into the Digital Government Strategy in May 2012, which went even further by committing the OMB to issue an open data policy.
Lots of evolving going on. And in this case... that's a good thing.
More from the article regarding some key features of the new policy:
• Dataset Inventories: The policy requires that in the next six months, agencies prepare and make public an inventory of agency datasets. The inventory will indicate whether the data can be made public and whether it is currently available. In addition, the policy requires agencies to consult with the public to determine priorities for expanding and improving available data. The inventory will solve the chicken-and-egg problem that leaves the public unable to provide input on which agency datasets should be released first because the public doesn't know what datasets agencies possess. Our March recommendations to the administration specifically called for disclosure of dataset inventories.The new policy aims to integrate new requirements into existing agency activities like strategic planning and reporting on performance. Potential challenges will be addressed by the policy as well. Higher costs incurred on the front end are expected. But initial capital investments will result in long-term savings overall.
• Plan for Openness from the Beginning: The policy requires agencies to plan from the earliest stages of data collection for public use and reuse of data. For instance, the policy states that "information should be collected electronically by default." This approach applies to creating particular information as well as IT systems as a whole. This reform addresses technical barriers to transparency, which can lead agencies to argue that providing public access could be cost-prohibitive due to the expense of creating "workarounds" for current legacy systems. Our March recommendations called for agencies to "create IT systems that have efficient information access built in to their design." In addition, the reforms will facilitate public use of data once released, such as by providing better metadata and utilizing open formats.
• Integrate Openness into Agency Activities: The policy integrates the new requirements into existing agency activities, such as strategic planning and performance reporting. The policy also addresses potential challenges – for instance, by noting that thoughtful planning for openness may cost more upfront but should be considered a capital investment because it will result in long-term savings to the agency. This will help to ensure that the new policy is effectively put into place and does not get siloed or sidelined by agencies.
• Support for Implementation: To support robust implementation, Project Open Data provides a bevy of resources to agencies, including checklists, specific guidelines, and ready-to-use software. The CIO Council also will create a working group to assist and encourage agencies in implementing the new policy. This will ensure that agencies with limited resources or technical know-how will have backup in applying the new policy.
As for the future, besides the timing of the data releases, one of the most rigid limitations that really isn't addressed in the new policy is that individual agencies will still make decisions on what information will be released, a process repeatedly used by the Obama administration even amidst calls for more overall transparency. Advocates are calling for disclosure of data from every agency on a consistent basis.
Without standards, agencies have often avoided posting datasets that shed light on key agency operations, such as data on lobbyist visits to agency offices. The lack of specific and measurable actions by all agencies has also contributed to charges of weak enforcement and oversight for open government policies. Inconsistent agency performance on various open government issues was one of the top complaints about the Obama administration's first-term efforts on open government.Sounds like the president needs more time to evolve.
Nevertheless, time will tell. Commitments made by the administration in September of 2011 indicated changes to the...
"... management, look and feel, and structure of Federal Government websites."
But so far in the evolution process, policy still fails to make access to data from websites and interfaces easier. However, a number of agencies have created new user-friendly websites and intuitive tools for analyzing data, and the administration plans on scaling those innovations to fit every agency in the executive branch.
It's not enough; not from the president who promised the greatest expansion of government transparency in U.S. history. But it is a significant step in the right direction. And, even though empty promises of more transparency have been a staple of every presidential campaign during my lifetime, it seems this president is at least attempting to fulfill one.
This is the kind of change that just can't happen soon enough.