Tuesday, September 7, 2010

USTR Addresses Weaknesses, Improves Open Gov Plan

Although Version 1.1 of the Office of the United States Trade Representative's (USTR) Open Government Plan was not completed in time to be included in the final updated results of our open government plan audit, USTR should be applauded for producing an updated plan that largely meets all of the directive's requirements.

USTR's progress in meeting the requirements is clear from the explanation of changes the office has posted with the updated plan. In this document, USTR directly responds to the weaknesses pointed out by our initial evaluation. Most notably, the updated plan provides additional detail on how the office obtains and uses data, and its plans for making more data available for the public to use. The updated plan also addresses how USTR will measure the success of its flagship initiative, and how it will make the initiative sustainable.

There is still room for improvement in the plan, however. As the results of our final ranking show, agencies that are leaders in open government are going beyond just meeting the requirements of the directive. One of the key characteristics of "leading plans" are deadlines and specific steps to accomplish goals. As USTR's plan focuses on "goals" that are already accomplished, it does not include this level of specificity. Future versions of the plan would be strengthened by including more planning for the future, and less description of past actions.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Better Broadcasting of Open Gov at the BBG

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) recently released Version 1.1 of their Open Government Plan. The updated version is notable both for the substantive improvements in the plan, and the continued commitment of BBG to work on improving their openness, participation, and collaboration -- despite not being required to by the President.

Our evaluator noted in his evaluation of the original plan that BBG communicated a strong interest in complying with the OGD; Version 1.1 of the plan reflects that desire. The new draft makes progress on meeting most of the Open Government Plan requirements that were not met by the initial version. Specifically, BBG includes information about how it handles Congressional requests for information, and highlights plans for future releases of data in more user-friendly formats. However, the plan would still be greatly strengthened by a clear articulation of BBG's key audiences, and their information needs.

Notably, the new plan proposes a Flagship Initiative to post an interactive map to highlight the breadth and width of the BBG's international audience. Undoubtedly, the map will improve public understanding of BBG's operation by presenting a clear picture of their world-wide operations. However, the description of the initiative is missing crucial elements that explain how the agency will measure success, engage the public, or make the initiative sustainable.

BBG's update is a good sign for open government at the agency, and across the federal government. The fact that an agency not required to make openness a priority continues to update and revise their plan indicates the level of commitment to improving transparency, participation and collaboration goes well beyond the Administration. Even though this project has moved from evaluating Open Government Plans to focusing on implementation, we are happy to see agencies continue this work.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New Open Gov Energy

The Department of Energy recently issued a draft of version 1.2 of its open government plan for public comment. Some of you may remember that the open government plan released by Energy on April 7 was evaluated to be among one of the weakest plans in our over-all rankings. While noting that the plan met many of the Open Government Directive's requirements, our initial evaluation offered Energy several specific suggestions for strengthening the plan.

Specifically, our volunteer evaluator pointed out that Energy could:
  • identify key stakeholders for agency information and their needs as required by the OGD;
  • provide greater clarity in how it currently engages the public and employees, and how it plans to better engage these stakeholders;
  • offer proposed actions and clear future milestones, specifically regarding upcoming open government public meetings;
  • propose changes to current practices, internal management, and administrative policies to improve public participation;
  • explain how the agency will measure improved transparency, participation, and/or collaboration as a result of its flagship initiatives, and how it will sustain and improve the initiatives.
Most of these suggestions should be fairly easily addressed in a revised draft. Do you think Energy's draft open government plan is a substantial improvement over its initial plan? Do you have suggestions for further improving the plan? The good news: Energy wants to hear your thoughts.

We will be working with our volunteers to re-evaluate the revised plans in July. We hope more agencies will follow Energy's lead soon.

Monday, May 24, 2010

We Took the FCW Challenge

Please note, this entry was written as part of the FCW Challenge, the post can also be read, and discussed, here.

FCW and GovLoop posit that “The first drafts of agencies’ open-government plans are Twinkies. You can put them on the shelf and they will last forever, but no one’s going to eat them.” Agency plans that meet all of the requirements of the open government directive could never successfully be compared to a Twinkie.

Although OpenTheGovernment.org’s recent audit of the agency plans released on April 7 found that no agency met all of the requirements, all agencies made some progress toward meeting most of the requirements, some agencies developed plans that exceeded the requirements in several ways, and already agencies are working to strengthen their plans. The open government plans are not perfect, but they are a strong first step toward increasing transparency, participation, and collaboration.

At the most basic level, the difference between Twinkies and open government plans is that, although probably okay in moderation, Twinkies are not staples of a healthy diet. Increased transparency, participation and collaboration, on the other hand, are staples of a healthy democratic government. How else are these plans different from Twinkies?

Open government plans are not easy to buy and forget

To develop open government plans, agencies had to think through their current work processes, and plan how to embed transparency, participation and culture into them, and plan for structural changes to agency management to sustain these changes.

Open government plans have nutritional value

Researchers, advocates, and others have been long been hampered by a lack of knowledge about what data the government holds. The open government directive alleviates this problem to a great extent by requiring agencies to publish in their open government plans an inventory of their data, and moves agencies to include information beyond datasets in meeting this requirement. The open government plans also give the public easy access to information about the process agencies use to process Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Congressional requests for information, and their records management policies.

Open government plans are not filled with preservatives

The open government directive requires agencies to produce plans that include details of proposed actions with clear milestones. As those milestones are passed, plans will go stale. Agencies are required to update these plans at least every two years, although many agencies are planning on updating them more frequently – and some are already doing so.

Open government plans don’t come in a sealed packet

The Open Government Directive requires agencies to respond to public feedback on their open government plan on a regular basis. Accordingly, a great number of agencies describe their Open Government Plans as “living documents” and many are actively seeking public comment. The public is actually encouraged to take the plans apart and look at each ingredient before deciding if the plan is a good one or not; the last time either of us tried that with a Twinkie, she ended up being chased out of the store.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Work in Progress: Some Agencies Dip Their Toes in the Open Government Pool

As many of you may know, we are currently working on evaluating the Open Government Plans that were not required to be developed under the Open Government Directive (OGD). Under the OGD, 29 components of the government, including all agencies large enough to have a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and parts of the Executive Office of the President, are required to develop and post Open Government Plans.

For every other component of the federal government - from the tiniest commission to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) - the directive is considered "guidance" that the component can disregard without penalty. Overall, 18 components of the government that were not required to develop Open Government Plans did so. We are calling these "Extra Open Government Plans."

Our full evaluations will not be released until this summer. Already though, we see a distinction between plans that are fleshed out first drafts and plans that are more correctly described as a very rough outline that does not yet have enough substance to fairly evaluate it.

While there isn't enough substance to fairly evaluate these plans, below are a couple of notes on each plan's current form:

Central Intelligence Agency - webpage; has not been updated since posted and no apparent mechanism to gather feedback

Consumer Product Safety Commission - 4 pages, with pictures - email address listed for feedback

Election Assistance Commission - asking for ideas for its plan - submit comments at the bottom of the webpage

National Indian Gaming Commission - webpage, no dates listed for initial posting, or update and no apparent mechanism to gather feedback

Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission - 6 page discussion draft; "web page will be modified in the near future to include a feedback and comment section for public use"

Office of the Director of National Intelligence
- 5 pages, open for agency and public comment, email open-gov@dni.gov

Selective Service System - "coming soon;" contact using open@sss.gov

U.S. Access Board - webpage; directs feedback to quality@access-board.gov

We look forward to seeing the plans these components of the government develop in the future.

Friday, May 7, 2010

In with the New Open Government Plan, Not Out with the Old

We are excited that several agencies are living up to their commitments to treat their open government plans as "first drafts" and "living documents." At the same time, we encourage agencies to act in the spirit of open government by maintaining publicly accessible older versions of their plans on their open government webpages. Access to older versions of the plan is crucial for holding the agency accountable for any changes it makes, and for making sure the agency gets the credit it deserves for making specific improvements.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has offered agencies a model for how to handle this issue. As we pointed out in our Audit Results, the DOT produced an updated plan between the time we conducted our evaluation and released our results that directly address many of the weaknesses in the original plan pointed out by the agency's self-assessment, and our evaluation. When DOT posted Version 1.1, they posted a clear outline of all the changes made to the original plan. Also, the version of the plan is clearly marked at the top of the plan, and DOT provides a link to archived versions of older versions.

We look forward to seeing new - and old - versions of plans from more agencies in the future.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Leading Open Government

On May 5, the White House Open Government Blog posted the "the first in a series of in-depth profiles of open government plans from across the Executive Branch."

The first plan tackled: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). By all accounts, NASA is, as the title of the blog post suggests, "Leading the Open Government Movement." NASA's plan ranked as the strongest overall in our recent audit. The plan not only addressed every requirement of the Open Government Directive, it exceeded expectations in many areas.

The final purpose of the in-depth series is not clear yet: are they only featuring agencies that produced strong plans to serve as an example for other agencies, will agencies that failed to meet the requirements explain how they will improve their plans to meet the requirements?

One thing is sure though: we look forward to reading more of this series in the future.