Technology Reforms Pave the Way for Greater Transparency

9/10/2012

The federal government recently unveiled a number of valuable reforms that will pave the way to a more transparent, efficient, and innovative government. The reforms implement and complement the Digital Government Strategy released by the Obama administration in May.

The strategy establishes a vision for modernizing the technology government uses to improve the delivery of information and services to citizens, with a detailed one-year plan for doing so. Reporting on their progress at the three-month milestone, agencies highlighted several accomplishments designed to make government more accessible and responsive.

Prioritizing Improvements to Federal Agency Data and Services

Federal agencies recently identified their priority projects for modernizing digital services. The Digital Government Strategy directs agencies to make more information accessible through application programming interfaces (APIs) and on mobile devices. APIs allow third parties to develop innovative online tools that pull data directly from government databases, facilitating the broader use of public information. Meanwhile, the rising popularity of smartphones and tablets offers the opportunity to make government information accessible to users of those devices, but this requires a different approach than designing solely for desktop computers.

Under the Digital Government Strategy, agencies are required to implement APIs for two high-value data sets, as well as optimize two customer-facing services for mobile use, within a year. Agencies were required to engage with customers in selecting those services; many agencies sought public feedback on identifying or prioritizing candidates, although some agencies did so only at the last minute.

Many agencies have now published their selected services to convert or a short list of candidates. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering developing APIs for Envirofacts, Regulations.gov, and the Facility Registry System. An API for the latter service would allow external software developers to make on-demand queries of EPA's database of regulated facilities and incorporate that information into tools for the public, such as OMB Watch's RTK NET.

Some agencies are even further ahead. The Census Bureau released its first mobile app, as well as its first API. The free app, which has been downloaded more than 30,000 times since its release, provides the latest statistics on economic indicators, such as unemployment and homeownership. In addition to converting their two initial services, agencies will have to publish a plan for how they will convert remaining services.

Improving Services by Harnessing Customer Feedback

Agencies also have new guidance on how to use digital metrics and customer feedback as tools to improve their online services. The guidelines were developed by the Digital Services Innovation Center, a new center within the General Services Administration (GSA) established to help agencies implement the Digital Government Strategy.

Metrics and citizen feedback can reveal problems with and potential improvements to transparency tools, such as USAspending.gov, and other government websites. Effective feedback mechanisms also invite public engagement and encourage government to be more responsive to citizens.

The new guidance explains how agencies should collect metrics and feedback, such as whether users were able to find the information they wanted and whether the information was easy to understand. Each agency is directed to then "use the data to make continuous improvements to serve its customers." Agencies are to implement the common metrics within three months.

In addition, the guidelines establish a common set of measurements to be used across agencies. These standard metrics will enable greater cross-agency comparisons and facilitate a government-wide view of digital performance.

OMB will publish guidance on how agencies will be required to report their metrics. However, the GSA guidance suggests that such reporting will be open to public view, noting that such transparency "will lead to greater accountability and improved management of public websites."

Better Management Processes for Digital Services

Another new guidance document offers recommendations on how agencies can improve their governance of digital services. The document notes that without effective governance, agencies "struggle to develop coherent priorities, ensure current and accurate services, and take advantage of new capabilities."

The guidance explains effective structures and policies for managing digital services. Several of the requirements will facilitate greater public access to government information, including the direction to "ensure that digital services are created in such a way that they maximize sharing." Agencies are to implement the guidance within three months.

Empowering Innovators to Tackle Key Projects

The White House also recently launched its Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which allows technology innovators to enter public service to work on targeted technology projects. The new fellows will carry out six-month projects in government designed to catalyze wider use of open government data and streamline access to government information. The program could help change the culture of government to embrace more innovative use of technology to deliver information to the public.

Looking Forward

The next round of milestones under the Digital Government Strategy will arrive in three months. Key on the list of expected deliverables is a new OMB policy on websites and open data.

To date, the strategy has focused on making existing public information more accessible and laying the foundation for making additional information available to the public, rather than requiring agencies to immediately release new information. The new OMB policy could change that. The seven-year-old memo that the new policy will replace includes some specific elements of information that all agencies are required to post online. The administration has subsequently added requirements for several new elements, and the new policy may well incorporate those elements to reflect the current requirements.

OMB Watch and the open government community have advocated for the establishment of a broader "floor," or minimum set of information, that every agency must post online. In its new policy, OMB could adopt some of those elements as new requirements in order to further advance transparency.