April 7 marked a major milestone in the White House’s Open Government Initiative: 120 days since Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag issued the Open Government Directive. The 120 day mark is notable as the deadline for each federal agency to publish its own Open Government Plan describing how the agency will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities.
The Open Government Initiative is an important endeavor. Public information belongs to the public. The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy has pointed out that public ownership of public information is meaningless unless government at all levels operates transparently, facilitates easy and low-cost access to public records, and makes civic and social data available in standardized formats that support the productive use of such data (recommendation 4).
Norm Eisen, senior advisor the President Obama, highlights the initiative’s progress to date in a blog post on the White House website.
Additionally, the White House has created a series of online resources to track developments in increasing government transparency and accountability. These include a Fact Sheet of Open Government Flagship Initiatives describing a variety of dashboards, databases, wikis, portals and other tools for accessing public information and promoting engagement with the public. There is also an Innovations Gallery showcasing solutions to information-related challenges faced by government agencies. Among the featured innovations are:
- 2009 Flu Prevention PSA Video Contest, run by the Department of Health and Human Services, designed to help HHS reach teens and young adults and educate them about how to avoid the H1N1 flu. The contest received more than 250 video submissions, over 50,000 votes were cast and major media outlets sought to showcase the winning and runner-up videos.
- Peer-to-Patent, a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office pilot program using a voluntary peer review process to review patent applications, locate potential prior art, and facilitate decisions about which inventions merit a U.S. patent.
- NASA’s Spacebook, an enhanced intranet designed around user profiles, forums, groups and social tagging that lets NASA people and communities connect in a new way around issues of mutual interest. Begun in June 2009, it has over 850 members.
- Wikified Army Field Guide, which uses the same software behind Wikipedia to collaboratively and securely update Army tactics, techniques and procedures documentation. The “wikified” process incorporates the experiences and advice of battle-tested soldiers in the field, reflecting the latest knowledge within a time frame that traditional updating and editing processes cannot match.
Despite the announcements made thus far, some observers have pointed out that it’s one thing to meet deadlines and quite another to make the kind of substantial, meaningful operational and cultural changes that last (see Gartner’s Andrea Di Maio, “Open Government May Not Be Sustainable,” “What Open Government Plans are Missing,” “Open Government Aftermath Needs Both a Carrot and a Stick,” and “Not All Government Plans Are Open to Analysis“. See also Aliya Sternstein, “Agencies’ Open Government Plans Receive Mostly Positive Reviews.”)
OpentheGovernment.org is evaluating the Open Government Plans and will assign a grade to each plan. The intent, according to the announcement on the organization’s website, is to “allow people to quickly judge where an agency’s plan is lacking, and where it excels.” OpentheGovernment.org expects the evaluations to be posted in May, and has opened up the evaluation process to crowd-sourcing. To find out how you can help, click here.
We should recognize that the 120 day mark is really just a starting point, not an endpoint. Progress is made one step at a time. It is wise to applaud the Obama Administration for its efforts to make open government such a priority while still pushing for more and better results.