One Small Policy Step, but One Huge Leap for Government Openness: Statement of Gary D. Bass

4/7/2010

PRESS STATEMENT
-For Immediate Release-
April 7, 2010

Contact: Brian Gumm, (202) 683-4812, bgumm@ombwatch.org

One Small Policy Step, but One Huge Leap for Government Openness

Statement of Gary D. Bass
Executive Director, OMB Watch
On Release of Open Government Plans and other Transparency Actions

WASHINGTON, April 7, 2010—The Obama administration took several actions today that will likely have a lasting and positive impact on government transparency. Each federal agency announced its Open Government Plan, complemented by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) policy changes to reduce certain impediments to transparency and to improve both regulatory and federal spending transparency.

These actions were required under the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive, which was issued on Dec. 8, 2009. At their best, the Directive and the actions taken today represent a process that could become as important to government transparency as enactment of the Freedom of Information Act. Even at their worst, today’s actions represent solid progress toward meaningful government transparency, with many details still needed.

Agency Open Government Plans
Some agency Plans appear impressive for their ambitious goals, the scope of issues tackled, and obvious commitment to transparency. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services offers five “flagship” initiatives and promises to make available by year's end a dozen high-value datasets that have never been public before. Other agency Plans appear less impressive, with fewer concrete deliverables and less grand vision. Moreover, a number of the agencies say they will be providing certain types of information in the future, which skeptics can easily criticize as “planning to plan.”

The inconsistency in agency Plans, despite being almost expected due to resource differences and agencies’ varied experience with openness, can be maddening to those of us in the open government community. Advocates want more than statements and rhetoric; they want actual data that is timely, high-quality, searchable, and meaningful to all Americans.

To objectively assess the agency Open Government Plans, advocates such as OMB Watch will work collaboratively through the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition to report on the good and the bad in these Plans.

Federal Spending Transparency
The OMB announcements on spending transparency and policy changes to reduce barriers to transparency are not monumental. The steps to begin disclosing on USAspending.gov information about sub-recipients of federal grants and contracts by Oct. 1 is already mandated by law. Additionally, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the administration already proved it could successfully collect sub-recipient information. However, OMB also announced it will develop a long-range plan on federal spending transparency. We applaud this first step and look forward to assessing the completed plan when it becomes available.

Reducing Impediments to Meaningful Transparency
Likewise, the policy changes to reduce impediments to meaningful transparency are modest. OMB issued three documents dealing with implementation of the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) and federal regulations. The first is a primer to help agencies with implementation of the PRA; the second clarifies that certain uses of social media and web-based tools by agencies are excluded from OMB PRA reviews. A third memo encourages agencies to use a Regulation Identifier Number (RIN) throughout the regulatory process to give the public a common identifier to track regulations. All of these documents are useful, with the clarification on social media tools being the highest priority. At the same time, there are many other policy impediments that OMB must address, many of which were noted in recommendations provided by a diverse group of 350 individuals and groups in November 2008.

The Big Picture
Collectively, today’s actions signal something quite profound: the sum is much greater than the parts. Never before has there been an administration as vocal about openness and transparency as the Obama administration. Never before have agencies been tasked with creating Open Government Plans. Never before has an administration committed to a comprehensive plan for federal spending transparency. Never before has there been a White House team of top-level staff with transparency issues as part of their work portfolio.

The White House has brought such an infectious enthusiasm and energy to the Open Government Directive that it appears transparency is going viral inside government. As one federal employee noted, transparency is now being raised in meetings that have nothing to do with the Open Government Directive. To the extent this behavior continues, it has the potential to be a truly transformational culture change.

President Obama is putting in place the policies and technologies that are needed to strengthen transparency. No doubt they will need to be tweaked and expanded. But from a broader perspective, the actions today represent the beginnings of a meaningful shift from a government perceived as secretive to one that makes openness an essential element of its operations.

For all of the above reasons, OMB Watch concludes that the Open Government Directive and today’s actions are only one small policy step, but one huge leap for government openness.

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OMB Watch is a nonprofit government watchdog organization dedicated to promoting government accountability, citizen participation in public policy decisions, and the use of fiscal and regulatory policy to serve the public interest.

To access the transparency recommendations referenced in this statement, visit http://www.ombwatch.org/renewinggovernment. For updates and additional analysis, visit our blog, The Fine Print, at http://www.ombwatch.org/the_fine_print.

Photo in teaser by flickr user seagers, used under a Creative Commons license.