EPA Plan Seeks to Instill Transparency into Agency DNA

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released its plan for improving the agency's transparency as part of the Obama administration's Open Government Directive (OGD). The EPA was an early proponent of the new openness agenda, with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson calling for the agency to operate "as if it were in a fishbowl." The agency's new Open Government Plan documents numerous ongoing and future actions that should continue the agency's advance toward transparency and accountability.

The Dec. 8, 2009, OGD instructed federal agencies to create, among other things, "a public roadmap" detailing how each agency will incorporate the principles of openness laid out in President Obama's Jan. 21, 2009, transparency memo. Each plan is required to address how the agency will improve transparency, public participation, and collaboration with the public and other governmental offices. Additionally, each plan must include at least one "flagship initiative" that describes a specific initiative being implemented to advance the openness principles.

The EPA Open Government Plan chronicles numerous openness actions the agency had taken prior to the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) release of the directive. The agency plan also lays out many additional actions planned for the next several months. Throughout the document, EPA affirms its intent to instill an agency-wide culture of openness and learn from these early actions, identify what works, and spread the best practices throughout the agency. Overall, the plan depicts an agency that is making transparency a true core value of its operations and supports this assertion with numerous examples and laudable plans for future community engagement.

Flagship Initiative

EPA has chosen to undertake as its flagship initiative a broad set of actions under the theme of community engagement. According to the plan, EPA chose this theme because of its "wide applicability – potentially influencing nearly every part of the Agency." The components of the initiative include plans to push out to the public information about environmental impacts to urban waterways; air and water test results; the pollution permitting process; and the rulemaking process. Two additional projects will use new technology to create mobile phone applications that provide human health advisories and product information. An agency work group will identify ways to inform and engage communities that lack electronic access to information, as well.

EPA's approach to the flagship initiative is multifaceted, covering several agency programs, reaching different types of audiences, and addressing several aspects of agency operations. This is a prudent approach that should provide the agency with ample case studies with which to identify what works and what does not and why. It should also allow EPA to scale up the successful strategies across the agency.

OpenEPA Online Forum

In February 2010, EPA, in accordance with OMB instructions, launched a website, OpenEPA, an online forum designed to gather comments and ideas from the public on what should be included in the agency's plan. EPA, as well as many other agencies, has decided not to close the forum now that the plan is released. Rather, the agency is keeping the forum open and will report on its progress in implementing the ideas on a quarterly basis. To date, the forum has received more than 200 ideas from the public.

The online forum channeled a large amount of public input to the agency, giving staff much to work with as they move ahead with greater transparency. One reason the forum functions as well as it does is the active involvement of the forum moderator. The moderator works to ensure postings are relevant to the agency's open government activities and answers basic questions. The moderator can also serve the useful purpose of pushing information about the agency's work out to the public, directing them to the new open government actions, data sets, and tools, and communicating what progress has been made so far. Such back-and-forth communication is crucial to building public trust in the forum. Including comments and responses from additional agency staff and senior officials may also improve the forum's standing as a reliable tool for public engagement.

The agency plans to add to the OpenEPA website a section that asks the public to share innovative ways EPA data are being used. The posts will then be ranked by the public.

Measuring Success

The EPA is hoping to gather public comment on ways to judge how well its transparency initiatives are working. The agency's Open Government Plan includes some ideas on what metrics may be used to evaluate the initiatives, such as the number of electronic town hall meetings, number of data sets and tools published, and the number of opportunities for public input on EPA actions. EPA recognizes that the criteria for measuring success will evolve as the initiatives advance. Many of the openness initiatives have never been tried before, and the tools for evaluating the implementation of government openness are neither fully developed nor tested.


EPA has included a number of ongoing and planned actions to expand its collaborations with other governmental offices and the public. One such action is the EPA's work with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to link datasets for facilities that are regulated by each of the agencies. Such connections will help the public see a broader picture of the environmental, economic, and social performance of companies.

Other collaborations include a wiki for watershed managers to share best practices and learn about grant opportunities; a new mobile phone application that provides threat information to emergency responders; and a project with regulators in Massachusetts that provides real-time air quality data.

Access to Experts

The EPA has long been criticized for limiting the public's access to program staff, especially program scientists with the expertise to comment in depth on pressing issues, such as the hazards of specific toxic chemicals or the impacts of climate change. The agency's public affairs office has been regarded as an obstacle to journalists and other members of the public getting the information needed to ensure accountability.

The EPA's plan does not adequately address the degree of openness warranted to agency scientists. According to the advocacy organization Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the Open Government Plans "would not have prevented even the most flagrant examples of censorship of scientists during the previous administration." UCS's criticism, which is not limited to EPA, further notes that "many federal scientists are still not protected by policies that would allow them to speak freely with the public and the press." The idea receiving the most votes on EPA's forum calls for the development of a media policy that ensures EPA scientists can share their expertise with the public and not fear retaliation by their supervisors or political staff at the agency.

The EPA's plan only proposes to develop a "formal network of EPA staff experts to connect and respond to public inquiries." Otherwise, there is no mention of an agency-wide communications policy that would provide greater access to staff scientists and encourage the freer exchange of ideas between staff scientists and the public.

Other Potential Weaknesses

The agency's plan also does not mention how EPA will address the widely acknowledged problem of excessive trade secrets. Businesses submitting information to EPA frequently choose to hide all or part of the information under the label "confidential business information," which prompts the agency to conceal the data from the public. This privilege is overused by industry to inappropriately hide data, such as health risks from industrial products, from the public. Although EPA has taken important recent steps to address this, the agency should devise a plan to comprehend the scale of the problem and correct it.

Additionally, the agency recognizes the importance of informing stakeholders about its open government projects, but the plan's strategy for disseminating information about the openness actions is sparse. The initiatives in the plan must be publicized throughout the agency, including regional offices, to state and local governments, and to the public, especially to those citizens who may not already have experience using EPA tools or participating in EPA programs. Many noteworthy initiatives either have commenced or are planned for the near future. Their success depends to a large degree on how well the abundant stakeholders become familiar with them. The EPA's plan for the wide adoption of openness principles relies largely on the 2003 Public Involvement Policy. The addition of plans for more specific actions that mesh the 2003 policy with the 2010 Open Government Plan could prove useful.

EPA plans to review its Open Government Plan every six months, making revisions as necessary, which is far more frequently than the every two years called for by OMB. The public is encouraged to comment at www.epa.gov/open.

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