Obama Plans to Further Harness Technology for Transparency

A new White House strategy could revolutionize transparency by reforming the fundamentals of how government uses technology. The plan lays out procedures for establishing openness as the default for public information and raises the bar for usability, efficiency, and innovation. The reforms promise to make government information easier to find and use through a series of concrete actions to be taken over the next year and would help Americans engage with their government.

"The New Normal"

On May 23, President Obama issued a memorandum, "Building a 21st Century Digital Government." The memo introduces a new strategy developed by the Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO), Steven VanRoekel, entitled, "Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People." The strategy builds on previous administration initiatives, such as its effort to reform federal websites and using online technologies to improve service to citizens.

The strategy is designed to "ensure that agencies use emerging technologies to serve the public as effectively as possible" and will require agencies "to adopt new standards for making applicable Government information open and machine-readable by default." The memo directs agencies to comply with the strategy's requirements within one year and to publicly report on their progress.

A Plan for Success

The plan calls for strategic coordination and enhanced oversight of IT services across the federal government. Central to the strategy is a shift to designing IT systems to support greater openness. "We will have, from its creation to its dissemination, open data as the new normal," said VanRoekel in an interview with O'Reilly Radar.

This strategy is not entirely new to the federal government, but it is different in important ways that may make it more successful than past efforts.

First, the strategy explains the benefits of greater openness to the public as well as to government itself, giving agencies a clear self-interest in delivering on the transparency commitments.

Second, the strategy emphasizes the role of systems design in facilitating or inhibiting transparency, moving the consideration of openness earlier in the information lifecycle – when systems are being created or information is being collected. For instance, by collecting information electronically, non-disclosable information such as an individual's Social Security Number can be easily segregated and automatically withheld, rather than requiring time-consuming and expensive manual redaction of paper records later in the process. Agencies are already required to make such considerations under OMB Circular A-130. OMB Watch has recommended focusing on openness at the earliest stages of designing IT systems (for instance, see our recent testimony to the House Oversight committee on improving implementation of the Freedom of Information Act.)

Third, the strategy requires OMB to issue a policy within six months that will require new IT systems to be designed for openness. Agencies will be required to evaluate new systems to consider whether the information they contain can be released to the public. Each agency must transition two existing major systems within a year and publish a plan for transitioning others. The new policy plus concrete deadlines will set clear expectations for agencies to successfully implement the strategy.

Putting the Public First

The strategy also contains a number of additional reforms to make government more transparent and accessible to the American people:

  • Metadata: The use of metadata, which helps users find and evaluate information by describing characteristics such as its date and author, will be expanded and standardized.
  • APIs: Agencies will expand the use of application programming interfaces (APIs), which allow third parties to develop innovative online tools that pull data directly from government databases. Data.gov will expand to include a catalog of agency APIs.
  • Machine-readable: The strategy also supports greater use of machine-readable data formats, including industry standards such as XML and XBRL, which help citizens analyze the data and facilitate third parties in developing tools that use the data.
  • Mobile: Within a year, each agency must make two existing services accessible on mobile devices, which are increasingly used by the public, including particular groups – such as African Americans – who trail in home broadband adoption but lead in mobile adoption. Agencies must also publish a plan for improving mobile accessibility of additional services so people can more easily access government information from phones and other mobile devices.
  • Customer feedback: Within six months, agencies must implement online analytics and customer feedback tools. Collecting this information – standard practice in the private sector – will better inform agencies about what works well and what doesn’t and enable targeted improvements to benefit the needs of users.
  • Shared services: The strategy emphasizes interoperability and shared infrastructure between agencies, which can save money as well as provide more consistent services to the public. For instance, the FOIA portal, a central website currently under development to coordinate information requests across agencies, could reduce costs, speed up processing, and better inform requesters of the status of their requests.


The plan also includes new support systems to aide implementation. A new Digital Services Innovation Center will be created within the General Services Administration (GSA) to support agencies in this work. GSA has already named staff to head the center. Additionally, a new advisory group will publish guidance on optimizing websites to be more usable, coordinating information delivery across agencies, using customer feedback to make improvements, and complying with web standards.

Coinciding with the release of the strategy, the White House also announced a new Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which could bring new energy and expertise to federal IT. Fellows will join the government for six months to a year of focused work on projects such as catalyzing wider use of open government data and streamlining access to government information.

Next Steps

The White House's new digital government strategy is an ambitious and forward-looking plan with the potential to make government more transparent, efficient, and accessible. The plan incorporates many key elements for success, including leadership from the White House, a clearly articulated vision, specific deliverables and timelines, assistance for implementing agencies, and public progress reporting. We anticipate working with agencies to implement the strategy in a way that prioritizes improving services that strengthen democracy and accountability, as well as those that make everyday life more convenient.

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