Updated Agency Plans Show Path toward Culture of Openness

On April 9, numerous federal agencies released new versions of their Open Government Plans, detailing the activities they will undertake to bolster transparency and citizen participation. The latest versions are the second generation of plans; the original plans were published in 2010 in response to President Obama's transparency memo and the administration's Open Government Directive.

By prompting agencies to examine their operations and think creatively about opportunities for transparency, the Open Government Plans can be a powerful tool to help create a culture of greater openness in government. The new plans include a number of promising initiatives but also reveal some aspects of the process that need improvement.


On his first full day in office, President Obama issued a memo establishing the principles for open government in his administration: transparency, participation, and collaboration. That memo directed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to issue a directive with specific steps for agencies to take in order to implement those principles.

In December 2009, OMB issued the Open Government Directive to fulfill that responsibility. Among other things, the directive instructed agencies to develop Open Government Plans, with the participation of the public, and to update those plans every two years. In their plans, agencies were to address Obama's openness principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration by developing specific new initiatives that the agency would implement. Agencies published the initial plans in April 2010. After the open government community reviewed the plans, several agencies revised them to incorporate additional reforms.

The agencies’ initial open government plans resulted in a range of efforts to improve transparency and participation. For instance, the Department of Labor launched an Online Enforcement Database that contains information on inspections the department conducts to ensure businesses are complying with the nation’s worker rights and safety laws and regulations. The Department of Energy’s Open Energy Information website uses an open-source platform similar to Wikipedia to allow users to search, edit, add, and access energy-related data. The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Regulation Room, a flagship initiative of the agency’s first Open Government Plan, is a partnership with Cornell University to explore new online methods to engage the public in rulemaking. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) earlier plan detailed improvements to the AIRNow program that now allows the public to receive air quality alerts through Facebook and Twitter.

Agencies were due to publish the first update to their plans on April 9 of this year, two years after the initial plans were released. Some agencies solicited ideas from the public or the open government community while developing the new plans, but overall outreach was less robust than for the "version 1.0" plans. Many agencies published updated plans by the deadline, although several have yet to release theirs. The "version 2.0" plans include an update on the agencies' initial plans, as well as new openness commitments to be implemented from 2012-2014.

What's in the New Plans

The available plans propose a number of new agency efforts and policy changes. Several agencies included plans to strengthen the agencies' culture of openness, improve implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), increase public access to data, and make websites more user-friendly, among other topics.

Culture: The culture of an organization can influence the way policies and programs are implemented. Government needs to foster a culture of openness in order for transparency to be sustainable. The open government community's 2008 recommendations, Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-to-Know Agenda, emphasized the need to create a pro-transparency atmosphere within government, such as through incentives.

For example, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) implemented the Secretary’s Innovation Awards program from its version 1.0 plan, which recognizes employees that take initiative to promote transparency, participation, and collaboration. The Social Security Administration (SSA) and DOT also have employed similar incentive programs to reward workers that uphold open government principles.

DOT has invested in training seminars for employees so they may be better equipped to use social media to organize meetings and further engage the public. HHS will take on a similar initiative geared toward training employees in collaboration and information sharing. SSA also plans to incorporate open government into its employee training.

HHS and SSA also plan to adapt their strategic processes, such as planning, and organizational structure in order to support their open government efforts.

FOIA: The EPA plan includes the development of a cross-agency FOIA portal as a flagship initiative for the agency. SSA and the Department of Commerce plan to investigate greater use of technology for FOIA processing.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) committed to begin publishing its logs of processed FOIA requests on a monthly basis. DOJ and the Department of Homeland Security plan to update their FOIA regulations in 2012, although DOJ's previous proposal was criticized as actually detrimental to transparency.

Other initiatives: Several agencies plan initiatives relating to improving public access to data (including HHS, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the General Services Administration), making websites more user-friendly (the Treasury and Commerce departments as well as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration), and use of social media to communicate with the public (DOJ, Commerce, DOT).

Next Steps for Increasing Openness

The agencies that have not yet published an updated Open Government Plan should do so soon. Agencies that have already published a plan should begin soliciting feedback from stakeholders and the public and preparing for implementation.

Many agencies have been inconsistent at encouraging participation in developing the open government plans. Now that the version 2.0 plans have been published, agencies should make a concerted effort to reach out to stakeholders for their views. Only through outreach can agencies ensure that their plans will be useful for their stakeholders and user communities. In addition, agencies should remain engaged with stakeholders on the topic of their open government plans, rather than only seeking feedback every two years when the plans are updated.

To support effective implementation and agency accountability, agencies should also develop specific timelines and milestones for their initiatives and regularly report on progress or changes to the plan. The Open Government Directive calls for clear and detailed implementation plans, and although some agencies have included this information in their open government plans, several plans remain vague and general. Having milestones and progress reports allows the public to assess agencies' efforts. While agencies should have the flexibility to revise their plans if necessary, milestones and progress reports help ensure that open government implementation remains an agency priority.

Finally, there is an ongoing need for government-wide coordination and oversight of the open government plans. The White House should supply continued leadership to help agencies overcome obstacles to implementation and reinforce the importance of open government activities. The interagency Open Government Working Group also should continue to provide a forum for agencies to share ideas and build support for the common purpose of delivering a more open and accountable government for the American people.

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

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