White House unveils open government directive

The plan directs federal agencies to make important data available online, and to come up with plans for how to achieve openness, transparency, and participation.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
A screen shot of the Webcast with Obama administration CTO Aneesh Chopra (left) and CIO Vivek Kundra (center) formally unveiling the Open Government Directive. Whitehouse.gov

The Obama administration on Tuesday officially unveiled its Open Government directive, a document that charges each federal agency with making high value data publicly available and with quickly coming up with formal open government plans.

The announcement follows up on President Obama's first executive act--the issuing on January 21 of his Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. That document set forth, among other things, that, "We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government."

The administration's Chief Information Officer Aneesh Chopra and Chief Technology Officer Vivek Kundra on Tuesday appeared together in a live Webcast to spell out the new directive and to answer questions from the public. The event seemed audience-appropriate in that it was extremely informal and questions were being fed to them from a colleague who pulled them off of Twitter.

Among the major points of the directive (PDF), it:

• Requires federal agencies to make a minimum of three "high-value" data sets available within 45 days. An example, they said, was data that was released on Data.gov earlier this year by the Federal Aviation Administration about the on-time performance of commercial airline flights, and which was subsequently used by a member of the public to create Flyontime.us.

• Directs that within 60 days, the White House will launch a dashboard on Whitehouse.gov that will be used to hold each agency accountable for the contents of the directive.

• Commits each federal agency to launching its own open government Web site.

• Says that within 90 days, agencies will receive guidance from the federal Office of Management and Budget about creating challenges and contests for how best to use publicly available data.

• And mandates that within 120 days, each agency will create an open government plan geared towards ensuring that the philosophies of openness, transparency, and collaboration are permanently "hardwired."

Note: Please click here for an interview with Beth Noveck, the Obama administration's deputy chief technology officer for open government, a principal contributor to the new directive.

In announcing the directive, which was posted Tuesday morning by OMB Director Peter Orszag, Chopra said there were three key themes that everyone involved in putting it together had sought to achieve. First, that the directive reflected Obama's priorities and put the open government initiative into the hands of the executive branch. Second, that those involved have been and will be working together as a team with stakeholders at the federal level, in state and local governments, and with the public. And third, that the directive is focused on results. In other words, he said, Obama has "called on us" to deliver.

For the most part, supporters of open government initiatives seem pleased by the release of the directive. While some had previously expressed concern that the Obama administration was taking too long in issuing the directive, the same people expressed their satisfaction with what Chopra and Kundra talked about Tuesday morning.

"Now that we've seen it, we are very excited," said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation. "They're really taking on a lot of initiatives and doing so in an aggressive fashion. We couldn't have written it better ourselves. It's very ambitious."

Similarly, Patrice McDermott, the director of OpenTheGovernment.org, another Washington, D.C.-based watchdog organization, said she was "pleasantly surprised" by the announcement and the contents of the directive, particularly the elements of it which formally spell out in detail the open government plan each agency has to create and put up on its Web site.

For example, McDermott said she was happy about components of the plan addressing compliance with records management and Freedom of Information Act backlogs. As well, she cited a provision that would require agencies with classified material to post a link to a publicly-available Web page where the public can learn about declassification procedures. "That's quite unusual and quite new," McDermott said.

During their announcement, Chopra and Kundra addressed one of the most common questions about the directive, that of how it would ensure that neither national security nor personal privacy are endangered by the open government efforts.

"Central [to the plan] is that it in no way compromises national security [or privacy]," said Kundra. "It may make sense, for example, to release a data set...[that] when combined with other data, creates a concern about security and privacy. We need to make sure we have proper concerns for privacy, confidentiality, and national security. That's part of the directive itself."

The two also responded enthusiastically to a question about whether the directive will trickle down to state and local government. "We highly encourage state and local [governments] to consider the same [kind of] directives," said Chopra. "This is a key pillar of public sector work and we hope this will be a helpful tool" for state and local governments.

Kundra added that when Data.gov, an earlier Obama administration effort to post federal agency data online, went live, the cities of New York and San Francisco, as well as the state of Massachusetts and even the United Kingdom quickly adopted similar programs.

Concerns about oversight
While McDermott praised the directive, she also voiced some concern that Chopra and Kundra didn't adequately spell out who would have oversight over the agencies' adoption of it, and how it would be enforced.

"The agencies are all each required to put up these open government plans," McDermott said, "but there's no indication of who's going to oversee [them] and oversee [their] implementation and the quality of their implementation. It's as if the OMB is expecting the public to do this."

But Wonderlich said he's not too worried about oversight or enforcement. In fact, he sounded satisfied with the notion that the very public nature of the program, and its specific provisions, would indeed mean that it would be the public that would be overseeing the program.

"I think you can interpret this as a management directive, or a White House directive," said Wonderlich. "There's a big dose of public scrutiny to require them to do it."

Still, Wonderlich was not completely convinced that the directive answers every question and concern his organization has had about the administration's open government plans.

"My main concern," he said, "is whether they're going to live up to everything they're taking on. There will be a lot of agency push back. It's up to all of us. It's not going to be an easy situation, so it's going to take work."