Making Transparency a Reality

On his first day in office, President Obama promised a “new era of transparency” for the U.S. government.  On December 8, 2009, the administration finally pinned down its transparency policy when it released its “Open Government Directive [pdf].” The directive requires that all agencies develop and implement an agency-specific Open Government Plan to improve transparency, participation, and collaboration in the release and use of that agency/department’s data.

The directive is comprised of four main components centered on very simple but important themes:

  • publishing information;
  • creating a culture of openness;
  • improving data quality;
  • updating policies to allow for greater openness.

Each section tasks agencies and other key offices with specific goals, complete with deadlines and clear requirements that the public be informed and permitted to participate in almost every project.  The directive also requires agencies to set up their own open government websites to showcase their transparency efforts, within 120 days.  These sites must include information about compliance with records management requirements, address FOIA request backlogs, and inform the public about declassification programs.

The Office of Management and Budget will regularly check on the agencies’ innovations in implementing the “transparency, participation and collaboration” participation by publishing an Open Government “Dashboard,” within 60 days, that will allow the public to see the best data sets and also to view OMB’s evaluations of how each agency is doing – and how the executive branch is progressing overall – toward greater openness, collaboration, and participation for accountable and responsive government.   If the directive works as intended, it could change the public's relationship with government.

The directive reflects (in great detail) the efforts of Open Society Institute grantees such as OMB Watch, Project on Government Oversight, OpenThe Government.org, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Union of Concerned Scientists that developed a blueprint for transparency policy in the new administration last year.  That blueprint, “Moving Towards a 21st Century Right to Know Agenda [pdf],” formed the basis for most of the directive’s provisions.  These grantees were consulted throughout the process of developing the directive by officials, and have been asked to remain engaged as implementation progresses.

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