Leaders and Laggards in Agency Open Government Webpages
Complying with requirements of the Open Government Directive (OGD), federal agencies launched transparency pages on their websites Feb. 6. The content and functionality of the pages varied from non-compliant to barely compliant to above and beyond expectations. OMB Watch conducted an assessment of the webpages between Feb. 15 and 22, based on factors that make for sound accountability and transparency.
The OGD required agencies to create open government webpages as the first step toward Open Government Plans, which are required by April 7. The transparency webpages are intended to serve "as the gateway for agency activities related to the [Directive]." A standard for these webpages was set at www.[agency name].gov/open.
OMB Watch's review sought to be more expansive then the administration's grading through the White House's recently launched Open Government Dashboard. The dashboard assesses the state of progress on initial deliverables required by the OGD. The dashboard does not grade the quality of the products produced by the agencies; instead, it is simply a check-off on whether the agency has complied. Thus, for the requirement to establish the open government webpage, the dashboard simply indicates whether the agency has a webpage and does not provide any information about the quality or usefulness of the page. The administration did issue some content recommendations for agency open government webpages, but it remained limited in specifics and has not evaluated the agencies’ performance on content. OMB Watch's assessment is the first to review how well the agencies did in creating their pages.
Since the administration has offered agencies limited guidance on what components should be included in an open government page, OMB Watch developed criteria that cover basic information that should be provided in a central space on an agency's openness page. We have included all requirements of the OGD, such as the designation of a Senior Accountable Official for the quality of spending data. Additionally, OMB Watch included some items that were not specifically identified by the administration but that fall within a reasonable and logical application of the OGD. Therefore, OMB Watch identified several basic disclosure functions that would make agency open government pages more useful to the public.
In assessing the information available to the public, OMB Watch utilized a simple method of locating specified information on the site. First, the information must be accessible from the agency.gov/open page and not require the use of a search engine to find. Second, the information must be located in an intuitive manner, requiring no more than three mouse clicks to access. If those requirements were not met, then the website was deemed to not have the information and received no points. An agency could receive half points for the criteria if it attempted to comply. For example, if the agency did not list the Senior Accountable Official for the quality of spending data on the website, but did list another contact person, it would receive half points. The maximum score an agency could receive was 57.5.
While agency scores varied greatly in the review, some agencies made clear efforts to go beyond the required minimum stated in the OGD. The top five open government webpages were the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the General Services Administration (GSA), the State Department, the Department of Education, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) (see Table 1 below). These agencies scored highest because they attempted to integrate the new open government webpages into each agency's existing disclosure policies and activities.
Table 1. Top Five Open Government Webpages – Scores
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration||40.5|
|General Services Administration||37|
|Department of Education||35.5|
|U.S. Agency for International Development||35|
For example, all five lead agencies had easy links from new open government pages to their already existing agency-wide contact systems that allow users to find any employee and get his or her contact information. Some agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, had such an employee locator feature but did not make it easy to find from the open government page. Linking to pre-existing reports, such as Inspector General reports, budget justifications, and reports to Congress, were other areas that many of the higher-scoring agencies seemed to gain ground over their counterparts.
Some agencies led in specific areas, garnering points that almost no other agencies received. For instance, NASA is the only agency that has communication and disclosure policies easily found from its open government page. Similarly, USAID was the only agency that not only included a summary of where agency funds were spent but provided information on top vendors, as well as spending by program area. Additionally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, though low-scoring in the review overall, was the only agency to not only link to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reports and plans but to also list the FOIA requests received in the last month. Further, some, such as the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, even went so far as to list information on their records management and declassification programs, as called for in the OGD.
While agencies did generally meet the minimum requirements of the OGD for the new webpages, several scored particularly low in this review. The bottom five agencies, excluding those that failed to put up any open government page, were the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Agriculture, FDIC, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Justice (see Table 2 below). These agencies scored poorly for the exact opposite reason the leaders succeeded – failure to integrate the new open government page into existing agency information and activities – or not having adequate information on their pages. For instance, none of the bottom agencies' have Inspector General reports, a link to Recovery Act data, reports to Congress, budget justifications, or performance results that can be easily found from the new webpages. Similarly, several laggard agencies, including FDIC, Department of Health and Human Services, OMB, as well as others, failed to link to public participation tools for collecting input and open government ideas as mandated by the OGD.
Table 2. Bottom Five Open Government Webpages – Scores
|Office of Management and Budget||6|
|Department of Agriculture||15|
|Department of Health and Human Services||18.5|
|Department of Justice||18.5|
In some cases, however, agencies lost points and fell behind others because the information provided was outdated. The Defense Department's backlog report for its FOIA responsibilities is from the 2008 fiscal year, not from Fiscal Year 2009. Further, the Department of Veterans Affairs presented both outdated performance and financial reports. This could represent a significant problem if the administration is not considering the quality and timeliness of information disclosed when determining if the agencies are meeting OGD requirements.
The OMB and White House webpages are somewhat unique. Even though OMB is charged with overseeing much of the OGD, it is not clear whether the agency views itself as covered by the requirements of the directive. It does have an open government webpage and done a dashboard for its regulatory work. But, OMB has no directory of its employees, and its openness webpage is sparse, at best. In fact, it doesn't even link to its own regulatory dashboard. The White House does not view itself as an agency and has used its openness webpage to describe what all agencies are doing and to blog on progress on the OGD. The White House may produce an Open Government Plan, but no official decision has been made yet.
Missing in Action
Some federal agencies are lacking openness pages entirely. These include the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Election Commission, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. These offices all collect data, the public release of which could benefit citizens.
There were some areas of information that were omitted by almost all agencies throughout the government. This included communications policies that govern how information can be disclosed by employees, senior officials' calendars that would offer a window into the agency's priorities, lists of FOIA requests received that indicate demand for information, and visitor logs that would indicate with whom agencies are meeting. Many agencies also fail to provide the public with basic organization information such as organizational structure or employee and leadership contact information.
Several items reviewed are ones that are not required by the OGD but that each agency can easily undertake to enhance the usefulness of its openness portal to the public. Oftentimes, information that is important to the public was buried in other sections of an agency's website, requiring tedious searching to locate. Instead, the openness pages should serve as easy-to-use portals to information of public interest.
Ultimately, these issues reinforce the paramount importance of public participation in the OGD implementation process. The agencies utilize a collaborative online tool to solicit public input in their progress. Through this tool, the public is able to push the administrative agencies to further their efforts to be more open.
Editor's Note: This article has been modified since its original publication date to clarify the White House's role in the OGD.