Three Misconceptions about the Open Government Directive

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There are three common misconceptions about the Open Government Directive that I’d like to clear up.

1. “It was late.” Not so, unless you’re talking about hopes rather than requirements. This misconception comes from the language in the January 21st memo, which directed the “Chief Technology Officer…to coordinate the development…within 120 days, of recommendations for an Open Government Directive.”  The deadline of May 21, 2009, was for “recommendations,” not for the directive itself.

2. “The three new datasets must be never-before-released.” This may be the confusion most likely to cause controversy, since this criterion for newness will be used to judge how well agencies fulfill the directive.  This hinges on how you read this sentence:

These must be data sets not previously available online or in a downloadable format.

You could read the sentence to mean that the data must be hitherto neither online nor downloadable, which would imply that all the new datasets released to fulfill the requirement must be brand new to the public.  This seems unlikely, since no public dataset available in a downloadable format to the public would be “not previously available online.”  In other words, the likeliest intended meaning of the sentence is agencies can publish datasets that have been published poorly before as data for the first time, and have that count.

In that case, DOJ publishing the FOIA performance spreadsheets would count as one of their three datasets required to be published within 45 days, since they’ve only been published as documents until now.

Parentheses may help elucidate the confusing sentence structure:

These must be data sets (not previously available online or in a downloadable format).

These must be data sets (not previously available online) or (in a downloadable format).

3. “High value datasets aren’t defined.” I spent part of the rush of Tuesday’s release thinking this was the case.  From the attachment to the directive:

High-value information is information that can be used to increase agency accountability and responsiveness; improve public knowledge of the agency and its operations; further the core mission of the agency; create economic opportunity; or respond to need and demand as identified through public consultation.

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  • Peter Doblinger

    I took a cursury walk through the site. I found it way to abstract and written in “Washington Speak”. Most of us are not lawyers (thank God) and even if we were we would be better off accummulating billable hours.

    If you want average Americans to give real input you’re going to have to get a bit more down to earth, more pointed and eliminate all the CYA.

    I’ll bet that most Americans don’t know the 25 listed agencies exist, much less the responsibilities they are charged with. The “inside the beltway” crowd MIGHT know something about these agencies, but do you really need to spend a bunch of $$ to get their input. Why not just visit with them?

    This is smoke and mirrors. It give you the opportunity to say you’re doing something when actually its total nonsense. Stop wasting my money please.

  • There’s a lot of parsing of those words, John, and there us a huge disconnect. Inside the administration, there is a view that their efforts are “walking the walk,” but there is a lot of disbelief that there will really be concrete changes; a “formulation of a plan” is not what many on the media who have been following this want; it’s more concrete announcements of new disclosures. some observers may expect too much.

    I’m surprised that the administration wasn’t able to get new announcements of new disclosures out of agencies to go along with the release of the directive.

    For example, concrete FOIA benchmarks for reducing backlogs is great, but the directive didn’t solve the harder problem of giving agencies tools and means to make those backlog reductions. Or after 321 days more agencies couldn’t put more FOIA reports in machine readable format, or create a centralized FOIA request center so the public could make a request without knowing where the information was. That’s just FOIA; I’m sure there are other innovative but concrete ideas for improvements in many other areas.

    I thought we’d see more concrete actual disclosures and more specifics in addition to the management plan that is the core of the directive.
    This state of affairs may be a function of the reality that the federal government is vast and not as ready to make the leaps and bounds toward transparency that we’d like to see. It may be that agencies watered down the directive during the reviews, or that the authors sought to temper their aspirations with objectives and timelines that were achievable.

  • This is the kind of justified skepticism which should help force agencies’ hands.

    Yes, the “high value” definition is largely hortatory. That level of detail, though, is probably appropriate when trying to categorize the entire body of potentially public data under the executive’s extended control.

    Other complex classification schemes (like General Records Schedules or the Classification system) are comparatively well funded, an exceedingly complex history of development, and they still suffer from inadequacy and abuse.

    Launching a new comprehensive information control for public access schema fully-baked, complete with fine grained criteria and enforcement mechanisms, would be ambitious on a scale well beyond what we’re dealing with here. This is the formulation of a plan, some early goal-setting, and a firm restatement of principle.

    To be successful, public feedback will have to be a significant modifier of agencies’ conduct, and the administration will have to continue proactive guidance and enforcement, on a more fine grained scale than this directive could possibly contain.

  • John, that definition of “high-value” is still an extraordinary loophole which I’ve been scoffing over since Tuesday. I can easily see agencies saying, “Just yank some dataset off someone’s hard-drive, deem it high-value, and let’s move on.” I was surprised during the time I was in government at the amount of time and busy-work certain federal agencies could spend in identifying and exploiting loopholes and vague but officious language – which that definition sounds like to me.

    Perhaps sunlight (from Sunlight) will be penalty enough; otherwise I’m not that impressed.