EPA Releases Open Government Plan 2.0
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other major federal agencies released updated versions of their Open Government Plans on April 9. The EPA’s Open Government Plan 2.0 discusses its ongoing efforts to increase transparency and instill a culture of greater openness through activities designed to increase participation in rulemaking, allow greater public access to EPA data, and speed the processing of Freedom of Information Act requests.
Background: The Open Government Directive
Under the Obama administration’s Dec. 8, 2009, Open Government Directive (OGD), each agency was required to produce an Open Government Plan, which described how the agency would incorporate the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration into its ongoing work. Additionally, each plan was to include at least one "flagship" initiative designed to advance the principle of openness.
The EPA’s first open government plan, or version 1.0, was released in April 2010 (and revised version 1.1 was released in June 2010) and emphasized community engagement as its flagship initiative. In the past two years, the EPA has expanded its outreach to environmental justice communities, increased public awareness of and engagement in the rulemaking process, and improved public access to environmental information by developing mobile applications. The EPA’s deputy administrator is finalizing a report on how these and other community-based outreach efforts are being coordinated across the agency.
In June 2011, the agency launched the "Apps for the Environment" contest as a way to reach out to software developers, students, research institutions, colleges, and universities and encourage them to develop mobile applications to increase environmental awareness and creatively use the EPA’s data and information. The agency hoped the contest would enable users to have easier access to environmental and public health data and that the information would enable more users to make more informed decisions.
Adam Borut and Andrea Nylund of EcoHatchery won best overall app for their creation of a Light Bulb Finder, which helps consumers select the best energy efficient replacement bulb and provides information on cost savings and the environmental impact of the replacement. Will Fry and Ali Hasan of Fry Development Company and Differential Apps won the best student award for their app, EarthFriend, which provides interactive educational games that use facts and data from the EPA’s databases to suit audiences of different ages.
To assist other government agencies that are considering launching a similar challenge, the EPA published a description of the process and lessons staff learned in conducting the Apps for the Environment Challenge. The lessons learned include: structure the challenge so all stakeholders win; make the data/user/developer connection sustainable; get internal buy-in; partner with complementary parties (the EPA sought advice from the Department of Health and Human Services); and listen to what your stakeholders need.
For the version 2.0 plans, the administration directed agencies to propose at least four new open government efforts to undertake between 2012 and 2014. The EPA selected expanding public participation in rulemaking, developing new software to better process Freedom of Information Act requests, designing tools to improve access to scientific data, and updating their Strategic Data Action Plan.
Public Participation in Developing Regulations
As the managing partner of the eRulemaking program, the EPA has included in its version 2.0 plan a number of actions to improve public access to information on regulations and participation in rulemaking. Specifically, the agency plans to undertake the following initiatives:
- Complete overhaul of Regulations.gov, which will include "a new look and feel," easier searching, more accurate search results, and more tools for accessing data and public comments. The EPA launched the redesigned website in February.
- Develop Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that will better enable government and non-government sites "to repackage and incorporate eRulemaking data into their sites and applications." APIs are technical interfaces that enable people to automatically download data from one website (Regulations.gov, for example) to another. The agency hopes that developing APIs will broaden the reach and impact of eRulmaking's data and participation platform.
- Changes to the Federal Docket Management System. The EPA will create new tools to better manage public input in rulemaking and directly deliver the input to federal policymakers.
- Use social media and partnerships with other agencies and non-governmental organizations "to improve outreach, public awareness, and public participation in the regulatory process."
Freedom of Information Act Module
As its flagship initiative for plan version 2.0, the EPA has taken the lead on developing a multi-agency Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) system that will include best practices from across the government. In September 2011, the EPA partnered with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Commerce Department to create a FOIA portal.
The portal, expected to be launched in October 2012, will increase transparency, reduce costs, and streamline back-end processing. The goal is for the portal to serve as a single interface for the public to submit FOIA requests to any of the three participating agencies. Staff could generate e-mails to requesters to seek clarifying information or send invoices for fees, reducing mail delays and postage costs. Released documents would be uploaded to a public website, and the requester would be notified of their availability. The system would also allow requesters to submit appeals electronically.
Science-Based Decision Support Tools
The agency also plans to provide environmental health information that can be more easily understood by average citizens. The EPA has long been criticized for providing environmental health data that is difficult to find and hard to understand. To attempt to improve in this area, agency scientists will form partnerships among EPA’s community programs, Native American tribal groups, and other federal agencies.
The partnerships will refine two online support tools – the Community-Focused Exposure and Risk Screening Tool (C-FERST) and the Tribal-Focused Environmental Risk and Sustainability Tool (Tribal-FERST). The goal of C-FERST is to allow local groups to better understand population-based exposure and risk assessments. Tribal-FERST incorporates information for "assessing and fostering tribal well-being."
Data-Focused Efforts and the Strategic Data Action Plan
The EPA also plans to update its Strategic Data Action Plan (SDAP), or SDAP 1.0, to:
- Support new and current Data.gov communities, such as Ocean, Energy, Law, Health, and OpenData. These communities gather related databases into one place to allow users to more easily explore connections between different collections. Also, support White House data initiatives, including "Big data" (an effort to develop tools and techniques to glean insights from large, complex data collections) and smart disclosure (helps consumers make better choices through tools such as nutrition labels and fuel economy indicators).
- Improve access and make more data available to the public.
- Align data registration and description efforts, which can be critical to making data more findable. Description and registration also provide greater context to those seeking to use complex datasets.
While the aspirations and goals of the EPA’s Open Government Plan 2.0 are laudable, it does not adequately address the weaknesses of earlier plans. Like versions 1.0 and 1.1, Plan 2.0 does not detail the concrete steps the agency will take to respond to public comments received via the Internet. Increasing public participation is as much about responding to input from the public as it is about creating avenues for them to submit ideas. Without some response from the agency, people may become discouraged and stop participating.
Also, though Plan 2.0 mentions the EPA’s efforts to employ social media and partnerships, it does not fully address the agency’s strategy for using these tools to disseminate information, especially to disadvantaged communities, or how the tools will help them form stronger partnerships. We hope future progress reports and updates will provide more details on the agency’s outreach strategy.
Unfortunately, once again, there is no mention of how the EPA will address the widely acknowledged problem of businesses using "trade secrets" exemptions to avoid disclosure of the identity of chemicals found in hazardous waste and a variety of commercial and industrial products. Businesses submitting mandatory information to the EPA frequently fail to disclose all or part of the information by labeling it "confidential business information." This label allows companies to inappropriately hide data, such as the chemicals used in fracking fluid or health risks from industrial products, from the public. EPA has taken steps recently to address this problem within the Toxic Substances and Control program by establishing boundaries on what can’t be claimed as trade secrets and disclosing information that had previously been labeled as trade secrets. However, the agency should devise a broader plan to get a handle on the scale of the problem and correct it agency-wide by developing a narrower definition of what legitimately constitutes trade secrets and procedures to detect and reject false claims.
The EPA plans to review its Open Government Plan every six months, making revisions as necessary. The public is encouraged to comment at www.epa.gov/open.