A Watershed Moment in Transparency and Accountability


I was out of town earlier this week when the Open Government was released and so I am just now weighing in with a few thoughts. Without being too over the top (OK maybe I am) I think this Directive potentially represents a watershed moment for democracy, the likes of which can forever change the relationship between the government and the public it serves.

This Directive acknowledges that the Internet is the right, proper and primary medium for communicating information to the public, and that “the public” is key in helping determine the policies, directions and priorities for government’s work. In doing this, the Directive requires each executive agency to create an online portal designed to promote important agency data and provide a place for citizens and agency officials to work together.

Every citizen —  from web developers to journalists to a real estate agent in Kentucky or mother in Colorado — has something to gain from this new initiative. If you care about the health of your children, the safety of your workplace, the crime in your streets, or corporate accountability you will have new information to inform yourself and discuss with those who represent you.

Business will have a lot of new data to base their decisions on. Real estate agents and developers will be able to see migration patterns by income when the Internal Revenue Service releases their database of tax-filer migration from county-to-county or state-to-state. This will aid in decisions on where to build, what kind of market to expect and what type of people live where. Similarly, data released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development on public housing will not only help reveal slum lords, but also help renters or buyers locate Section 8 density when deciding on a neighborhood to move into.

Here are some more examples:

•    The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to release a real-time online database providing up to date information on flight delays and cancellations. This database will take existing FAA data and combine it with data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to allow the public to be able to easily access online the status and causes of airport delays and cancellations. •    The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is creating Virtual USA, an information-sharing system that will reduce lag time in responses to emergency situations. This system will likely save lives and empower local authorities with better information to reduce the costs of emergencies and disasters. •    The Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) will release raw data and “report cards” on Veteran’s Administration hospitals empowering current and former military service members and their families to know the quality of care that they are getting when they go to a given VA hospital.

The Directive will also help citizens hold their government accountable through new avenues of government disclosure and citizen engagement. For example, the Department of Justice is collecting and publishing agency reports on their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) compliance. Each agency report will include information on how long it takes to process FOIA requests and which agencies are most successful at fulfilling FOIA requests from the public (and consequently which agencies are not as well).

The Directive also requires each agency to allow citizens to request data to be released by agencies and placed online. This process will enable citizens to continue to press officials to make their data as open as possible, and that call for more information will have an affect far beyond the executive branch.

The General Services Administration (GSA) will be releasing a full database of all federal advisory committee members that can be mashed up with lobbying records and contribution databases to show the influence that resides on these important bodies – and we can similarly expect Congress, states and municipal governments nationwide to feel pressure to release information. That is, if the public demands it.

It will be our responsibility as citizens to monitor the data quality reported by agencies and the timeliness of the reporting requirements. Just like all previous open government moments, this one will require constant public engagement to ensure that will be all that it can be. Sunlight is bullish on this Directive because we believe it will make permanent the idea that open government means an online government. In the digital age how can it mean anything else?

Even if you don’t realize it yet, the plan laid out in the Directive will impact you, so we hope you’ll join us during this exciting to begin a this new dialogue with government. What we have now is a plan. And it is a plan that will require public engagement to ensure that the policies it lays out are enacted and undertaken to make our dream of an open government a reality.