Open, Accountable Government
White House Lays Foundation for Agencies to Design New Open Government Initiatives
by Gavin Baker, 3/25/2014
How can federal agencies be more responsive in making the information they gather and hold available to the public? Agencies are currently grappling with that question as they prepare new "open government plans" required by the White House. On Feb. 28, the Obama administration issued guidance to outline the approach that agencies should take with the next set of open government plans, which are due June 1, 2014.
Agency open government plans are an important way to foster a culture of transparency within federal agencies and departments. The new guidance lays the groundwork for innovative initiatives to increase government openness.
One of President Obama's first acts in office was to issue a memo establishing the principles of open government in his administration. That memo directed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to develop guidance for agencies to implement his principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration. In December 2009, OMB issued the Open Government Directive, which tasked each agency to "describe how [the agency] will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities." Agencies issued their first plans in 2010 and are to update them every two years.
The administration reiterated its commitment to openness in December when it issued its second Open Government National Action Plan. The National Action Plan promised that the White House would be more engaged in ensuring agencies follow through on their plans.
What's in the 2014 plans?
The new guidance sets out a number of requirements and reminders for agencies as they craft their new plans: they should include highlights and achievements from the 2012 plans, status updates on ongoing initiatives, and discussions of prior open government efforts. In addition to these progress updates, the guidance instructs agencies to "introduce bold, ambitious new open government initiatives." The guidance also states that planning should be collaborative and that agencies should solicit input from key stakeholders and the public.
A new element of the guidance addresses proactive disclosure (releasing information before a formal request has been made) in order to increase access to public information. Agencies have been told to identify "records or record categories for proactive disclosure and ensure that those records or record categories provide the public with key information about the operations and activities of the agency or are highly sought after." Building on the administration's previous policy commitments to affirmatively post information online, the new guidance should encourage agencies to make more records and data easily accessible. Increasing proactive disclosure can also reduce the need for agencies to process duplicative requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The new guidance reiterates the original Open Government Directive's call for agencies to reduce their backlog of overdue FOIA requests. Any agency with a "significant" backlog of requests is directed to detail how it will reduce that backlog by ten percent each year. However, the guidance still doesn't define what constitutes a "significant" backlog. To date, agencies have had decidedly mixed results in meeting the directive's backlog reduction goals, and the failure to define a hard benchmark is a missed opportunity.
How to engage
Agencies are now writing the plans, leading up to the June 1 deadline. The public is a key stakeholder in this process. Interested members of the public should visit an agency's open government page to find out how to share their ideas about what should be included in the upcoming plans.
We would like to see agencies: a) engage the public on what resources they want more access to; b) expand their use of Internet resources, including their Open Government pages, to solicit and to discuss initiatives for improving agency transparency; and c) continue to decrease FOIA backlogs and increase proactive disclosure.