New Media Directors: What to Do

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New media directors and web managers in agencies across the federal government got an additional responsibility earlier this week.  Part of the Administration’s new Open Government Directive is a set of requirements for agencies to each set up a transparency web page, to be located at [agency].gov/Open.

For those in charge of these new pages the Sunlight Foundation has:

1. Specific suggestions, in a bullet list below

2. A Chance to Brainstorm with Sunlight Foundation staff

3. Key passages of the Directive

Specific Suggestions for New Media Directors

These /Open pages are intended to create public accountability for implementing the Directive.  Since public scrutiny is one of the primary ways the administration will hold agencies to their new requirements, agencies have a new set of expectations to live up to.

This puts the creators of these web pages in an influential position.  Agency heads, often used to thinking in terms of strategic plans and budgets, now have to think in terms of web design and digital content.  New Media Directors will be situated (as they often are) between public expectations and agency culture, tasked with crafting a real, and possibly uncomfortable, dialog about openness, right on the agency’s home turf.

This is exactly the tension the Open Government Directive has been designed to create.  Expectations, new standards, public stakeholders, and specific requirements are all coming to bear on longstanding agency procedures and policies, all enabled by technology.

At Sunlight, we’ve been brainstorming some ideas about what New Media Directors can do to help these /open pages be as successful as possible.  Here are our ideas:

  • First and foremost, the /Open pages should be viewed as a tool to help agencies become more transparent.  They should be designed to encourage productive interaction, not to self-promote.
  • /Open pages themselves should abide by the principles and spirit of the Directive itself, encouraging reuse of information, especially through data access, RSS feeds, and interactive technology.
  • No one has all the right answers, so experimentation should be encouraged.
  • /Open pages should have a blog.
  • Pages should list contact information for communications and other relevant staff, including officials named to responsibilities outlined in the directive.
  • One of the best ways to fulfill requirement regarding preservation is to publish your agency’s record retention policies.  Savvy reporters FOIA for this document often, and publishing it voluntarily makes this unnecessary.
  • /Open pages should have updates regarding events and public notices — serving as a central place for interested stakeholders to be involved in how your agency shares information.
  • Your agency should be a better storyteller about its information than anyone else — explaining the value of agency datasets may help to connect with stakeholders.
  • /Open pages should enable the central Open Government dashboard to aggregate information.
  • While the Directive only requires an audit of high quality datasets, the /Open page will empower fuller discussion of you can provide a full accounting of public datasets, or those that could be made public.
  • If your agency uses its /Open page as a place for public discussion on data sources, it should offer contact information for each dataset, feeds of available data, and links to third party sources for similar data.  If data has a known quality problem, that shouldn’t be a sufficient reason to fail to release it, and should be explained in the documentation.
  • The Directive asks for a detailed description of how agencies handle congressional information requests.  If your agency has identified appropriate constraints on disclosing these requests, they add more value than a process description.
  • The data you publish on your /Open pages should be easily discoverable by outside parties. Publish an inventory of the datasets you’re publishing along side any relevant meta-data (update schedule, file size, file format, contact info, etc…) in a machine readable JSON or XML file. Create a /Open/data.xml file that updates as you publish new data.
  • To the extent possible, use standards for publishing data on your /Open pages. When publishing a schedule, use the hCal or iCal format. When publishing contact information, use the vCard or hCard format. And when publishing tabular data (like spreadsheets, etc) use a parseable option like CSV or TSV.

A Chance to Brainsorm with Sunlight Staff

If you’re an agency New Media Director who would like to talk through these new requirements, key staff from the Sunlight Foundation and Sunlight Labs would be interested in brainstorming as a group.  Sunlight is hosting open office hours for New Media Directors on any of following times:

Monday 12/21 from 2 to 5 PM

Tuesday 1/5/10 from 10 AM to 1 PM

Friday 1/15/10 from 2PM to 5 PM

Please RSVP to info@sunlightfoundation.com, with subject line: brainstorm

Key Passages of the Directive

Here are the key excerpts of the Directive about the /open pages:  (First are the specific mentions of the /Open pages, and then the section of the Directive devoted to requirements for each agency’s Open Government Plan, which will be a centerpiece of the agency’s Open Government Page.  The requirements for agency Plans will all end up being features on the /Open pages, but some aspects of the Plans, as outlined in the Directive, have specific online requirements we’ve pulled out below.)

e.            Within 60 days, each agency shall create an Open Government Webpage located at http://www.[agency].gov/open to serve as the gateway for agency activities related to the Open Government Directive and shall maintain and update that webpage in a timely fashion.

f. Each Open Government Webpage shall incorporate a mechanism for the public to:

i. Give feedback on and assessment of the quality of published information;

ii. Provide input about which information to prioritize for publication; and

iii. Provide input on the agency?s Open Government Plan (see 3.a.).

g.    Each agency shall respond to public input received on its Open Government Webpage on a regular basis.

h.    Each agency shall publish its annual Freedom of Information Act Report in an open format on its Open Government Webpage in addition to any other planned dissemination methods.

a.            Within 120 days, each agency shall develop and publish on its Open Government Webpage an Open Government Plan that will describe how it will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities.

Additional details on the required content of this plan are attached. Each agency’s plan shall be updated every two years.

b.            Within 60 days, the Federal Chief Information Officer and the Federal Chief Technology Officer shall create an Open Government Dashboard on www.whitehouse.gov/open. The Open Government Dashboard will make available each agency’s Open Government Plan, together with aggregate statistics and visualizations designed to provide an assessment of the state of open government in the Executive Branch and progress over time toward meeting the deadlines for action outlined in this Directive.

2.            Publishing the Plan: Consistent with the deadlines set forth in this Directive, the Plan should be published online on the agency’s Open Government Webpage in an open format that enables the public to download, analyze, and visualize any information and data in the Plan.

…v.            A link to a publicly available website that shows how your agency is meeting its existing records management requirements.            These requirements serve as the foundation for your agency’s records management program, which includes such activities as identifying and scheduling all electronic records, and ensuring the timely transfer of all permanently valuable records to the National Archives.

vi.            A link to a website that includes (1) a description of your staffing, organizational structure, and process for analyzing and responding to FOIA requests; (2) an assessment of your agency’s capacity to analyze, coordinate, and respond to such requests in a timely manner, together with proposed changes, technological resources, or reforms that your agency determines are needed to strengthen your response processes; and (3) if your agency has a significant backlog, milestones that detail how your agency will reduce its pending backlog of outstanding FOIA requests by at least ten percent each year. Providing prompt responses to FOIA requests keeps the public apprised of specific informational matters they seek.

vii.            A description or link to a webpage that describes your staffing, organizational structure, and process for analyzing and responding to Congressional requests for information.

viii.            A link to a publicly available webpage where the public can learn about your agency’s declassification programs, learn how to access declassified materials, and provide input about what types of information should be prioritized for declassification, as appropriate. Declassification of government information that no longer needs protection, in accordance with established procedures, is essential to the free flow of information.

i.    The Plan should include descriptions of and links to appropriate websites where the public can engage in existing participatory processes of your agency.

e.    Public and Agency Involvement: Your agency’s Open Government Plan should include, but not be limited to, the requirements set forth in this attachment. Extensive public and employee engagement should take place during the formation of this plan, which should lead to the incorporation of relevant and useful ideas developed in that dialogue. Public engagement should continue to be part of your agency’s periodic review and modification of its plan. Your agency should respond to public feedback on a regular basis.

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  • Thank you for this great list of suggestions. We will encourage our clients to schedule brainstorm sessions with you on this specific set of requirements in the open gov directive. This is extremely helpful. Great job!