As part of the international Open Government Partnership, the US will soon release a National Action Plan about government transparency, intended to stretch “the country beyond current practice”, “with the active engagement of citizens and civil society.”
As the White House considers what to include in the plan, Sunlight is suggesting two specific actions for the plan.
1. The White House and the Office of Management and Budget should allow agencies to publish any open government recommendations, draft laws, and plans that they have, without fear of reprisal. Any gag orders or restrictions on sharing transparency proposals should be lifted, and agencies should be encouraged to share their draft ideas.
2. Every agency should publicly index and audit their regulatory data at least as well as the Department of Transportation has, and exceed the requirements of the Presidential Memo on Regulatory Compliance Data.
Open Sharing of Plans
The US National Action Plan should demonstrate what it means for a country to engage in good faith in the complex business of reforming transparency laws. American transparency laws should be a source of pride, often setting informal international standards for disclosure. They are also imperfect, and are the subject of intense scrutiny and analysis.
Some of the most informed expert views on any transparency law come from the government officials tasked with implementing those laws. Unfortunately, those expert views are kept away from the public. Many agencies that implement open government requirements have drafted legislative changes and guidelines for reform, but they are kept from sharing them publicly by OMB.
As part of the National Action Plan, the White House should demonstrate that transparency laws should be the domain of public discussion, not political control and review by central political staff. OMB should encourage the publication of draft transparency laws.
The complexity and importance of our transparency laws means that their expert review should not be subject to central control and gag orders. Anyone responsible for implementing an open government law (in any country) should be permitted (and encouraged) to speak publicly about how those laws might be improved.
Indexes and Audits
Open Government Directives and proclamations can do an enormous amount of good. Ultimately, though, their main limitation comes from their vague language and the lack of enforcement mechanisms. Aspirations can set a direction, but they’re rarely enough to keep us on track.
In terms of new data and information, the Open Government Directive from OMB caused an initial burst of new information, but ultimately didn’t fundamentally alter the way agencies choose what to release. That’s why we were so excited when President Obama followed up the OGD in January 2011 with a closely related Presidential Memo. If the first Directive fell short because of a lack of specifics, the Presidential Memo showed that there are meaningful ways to direct agencies to create a public list of their data, and audit how well it’s made available. Specifically, the memo asked agencies to review the data that they collect from those entities they regulate, and make plans for how to improve it.
It’s now most of a year later, and the most exciting result we’ve seen is the draft plan from the Department of Transportation. It’s worth a read, especially the appendices. It’s a well designed guide to data collected by the different parts of the agency, organized by whether or not it’s public, complete with citations of the laws or regulations that cover the information collection, and including ideas for how data publication could be improved.
While this may seem like basic stuff, it’s actually been nearly impossible to get this sort of guide out of agencies, as similar policies have been pursuing for decades. Understanding what is knowable about an agency’s work is one of the most powerful ways to approach oversight, and this plan gives any member of the public a great start. The plan also demonstrates the work that CIOs ignore far too often (as they focus more on technology procurement): active stewardship over public information.
In the National Action Plan, the White House should recommit agencies exceeding the requirements of the Presidential Memo on Regulatory Compliance Data. Every agency should create a public list of their data (and a plan to improve it) that is at least as comprehensive as what DOT prepared. Every agency should be a responsible steward of its public information, and the first good faith step in taking that responsibility is to publicly define what datasets the agency is responsible for, and to publicly define the steps that should be taken to improve them.
Ultimately, this indexing and auditing requirement should extend to other fields of information in addition to regulatory compliance, but since some of our public protections have sometimes eroded as a result of atrophying, ineffective disclosure, it’s a good, focused place to start.
By including these two changes together, the White House can demonstrate its commitment to openness, showcase the strong foundation for transparency that exists in American government, and also demonstrate that good-faith reform involves including the public closely in a complex, long term process.