New Executive Order Will Improve Data Transparency

by Gavin Baker, 5/21/2013

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.

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.

Making public data more accessible provides the public with information about product safety, environmental conditions, government spending, and other issues that directly affect their lives. The president's policy contains a number of thoughtful and far-reaching reforms to modernize government information practices and reduce the bureaucratic inertia that too often leaves valuable public information locked away. However, the administration continues to leave decisions about releasing specific information up to individual agencies, rather than establishing and enforcing government-wide standards.

History

The new policy builds off previous data and web policy reforms instituted by the Obama administration. In May 2009, the administration launched Data.gov, a government-wide catalog of open datasets. In December 2009, the Open Government Directive required each agency to publish three previously unavailable datasets and develop a plan to publish additional data.

An April 2011 executive order on improving customer service led to an OMB memo that July on reforming government websites. In turn, the administration included a commitment in its September 2011 National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership to update the policy governing federal websites, which evolved into the Digital Government Strategy, released in May 2012. The strategy committed OMB to issue an open data policy, a commitment fulfilled by the new executive order and memo.

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.

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.

Next Steps for Greater Openness

Perhaps the greatest limitation in the new policy is that it still grants agencies discretion to choose what data to release. This approach emphasizing agency flexibility has repeatedly been used by the Obama administration, despite repeated calls from transparency advocates for new standards of information that every agency must disclose. 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 measureable 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.

Although the administration committed in September 2011 to update the "management, look and feel, and structure of Federal Government websites," the new policy does not address websites or interfaces for accessing data. While some agencies have done a good job of creating user-friendly websites and intuitive tools for analyzing information, the administration needs a plan to scale those innovations across the executive branch.