Reining in “Controlled Unclassified” Information: Time to Get the Job Done

locked up documents

The administration’s 2nd Open Government National Action Plan, released Dec. 6, includes a welcome commitment to implement the reforms laid out in President Obama’s 2010 executive order on controlled unclassified information (CUI).


CUI refers to information that is “sensitive but unclassified” and therefore has certain restrictions on how it must be stored, whether it can be shared, and the like. For instance, individual data collected by the Census Bureau must be protected in certain ways and restricted from public access.

While there are valid reasons why unclassified information could need to be controlled, there is also a risk that such restrictions could be misused to withhold information that ought to be public. Before the 2010 executive order, agencies created numerous vague categories of CUI without coordination or oversight. In the resulting confusion, information was sometimes improperly withheld from the American people.

As an attempt to rein in the previous system, President Obama’s executive order created a unified program to manage restrictions on unclassified information in order to increase oversight and consistency across agencies. However, agencies haven’t implemented the new system yet.

The executive order left key procedural requirements to be developed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the agency charged with overseeing the CUI system. The CUI office in NARA issued initial guidance in 2011 but left out many significant details. Those details have to be worked out before full implementation can begin. NARA has made some progress in filling in the missing pieces, but in the meantime, agencies have been stuck in an awkward transition stage.

New Commitments

Thankfully, 2014 should bring major progress in implementing the CUI reforms. In its 2nd Open Government National Action Plan, the administration commits:

Over the next year, NARA will issue implementation guidance, with phased implementation schedules, and an enhanced CUI Registry that designates what information falls under the program.

The administration’s CUI commitment has two distinct components.  First, the long–awaited issuance of CUI guidance and plans for its implementation, as called for in the executive order. Completing the guidance and developing schedules for agencies to phase in the new system will be important steps to reining in the chaotic patchwork of restrictions that agencies applied to unclassified information. Issuing strong guidance in 2014 would make it much more likely that the executive order’s reforms will be on solid footing before the administration leaves office. (Of course, until the guidance is published, we won’t be able to evaluate the details of the policy.)

The second component of the commitment promised to enhance the CUI Registry, which would also be a valuable improvement. The registry is a core component of the new CUI system because it lists, in one place, all the authorized CUI categories throughout government – currently, 22 categories, with dozens of subcategories. That list increases transparency and helps agencies and the public to understand what the various categories mean.

At present, the registry is short on details, with just a short description of each category and a link to the authorizing source (such as the law that created the category). Although the National Action Plan isn’t clear as to how the registry will be “enhanced,” hopefully one improvement will be to add more accessible explanations of the categories: when (and which) agencies can use them, what types of information they include, and how the information can and can’t be shared. Adding such details would make the registry much more useful for members of the public.

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