Obama’s Open Government Directive, Two Years On


Tomorrow is the two year anniversary of the Open Government Directive (OGD), the signature transparency policy issued by the Obama administration on December, 2009.

The transparency issues facing the administration, both before and after the 2009 policy, fall well beyond the control of the OGD, which is, after all, an OMB memo. Nevertheless, the OGD is Obama’s single broadest attempt to create transparency across the executive branch, and the most high profile attempt to live up to Obama’s campaign rhethoric on transparency.

Over the last two years, Sunlight has become familiar with the inherent limitations of directives and declarations such as the OGD, as we’ve learned that the difference between an aspiration and a mandate can be a huge gap. Announcements about new transparency policies imagine the best possible impact, while implementation often looks to the minimum requirements.

So to mark the two year anniversary of the OGD, we decided to look at implementation of the Open Government Directive.  Since much of the OGD is written in broad, aspirational language, we decided to review how well agencies have lived up to the commitments they created for themselves in their open government plans.  The OGD required agencies to publish these plans, which were all posted and revised during 2010, and often included deadlines and goals for agencies to release data and tools.

Building on the work that OpentheGovernment.org did reviewing all the agencies’ plans (we participated in that review), Sunlight has pulled out all the deadlines from the agencies’ plans, and checked to see whether the goals were met.

The results are decidedly mixed.

In some cases, agencies’ goals were clearly met.  Many of the datasets planned to be released are now available on data.gov, and the projects and tools that agencies described are underway.

Often, however, agencies have failed to live up to the standards that they set for themselves as a result of the Open Government Directive.

The Commerce Secretary never put up a schedule. The Office of Science and Technology Policy only put up 4 years of budget data. And the Department of Justice apparently decided that none of the data they identified for public release was fit for publication on Data.gov.  Perhaps most egregiously, the Department of Homeland Security rescinded part of their plan to post a schedule for new data to be released, and released a new version of the plan scrubbed of that milestone.

Any broad declaration or aspirational policy is going to face complex challenges, as we’ve noted. But the agencies applied these goals to themselves. Far too often, agencies are failing to live up to the transparency goals that they themselves created. And this review only the concrete goals that agencies set. Many agencies didn’t even go through the hassle of setting detailed deadlines for themselves. The Defense Department won’t show up on most of our evaluation, because they hardly set any deadlines at all, and mostly committed (doc file) to talking about openness and doing some untrackable internal reviews, despite their size and obvious public importance.

We’ve expressed disappointment in the Open Government Directive before, pointing out, for example, that the Open Government Directive requires:

A strategic action plan for transparency that… (3) identifies high value information not yet available and establishes a reasonable timeline for publication online in open formats with specific target dates.

Cass Sunstein (director of OIRA) once called me Oliver Wendell Holmes for insistently pointing out that agencies who said they’d make some future plans failed to live up to this requirement — that a plan to make plans was an obfuscation, and that if the White House didn’t take this seriously, they’d create the wiggle room that would let agencies evade the White House’s best intentions. If he meant that I was being too much of a realist, then I stand by that assessment even more firmly now, as most agencies have clearly failed to comply with that passage.

And that cuts to the heart of the OGD. Openness without information is emptiness.  If some agencies won’t even share the plans they’ve made for publishing new information, how far can their commitment to openness possibly go?

The Open Government Directive has caused a lot of good.  And it has also often failed to live up to its promise, the administration’s rhetoric, and agencies’ own self-imposed compliance plans. We should remember that Presidential rhetoric and bureaucratic commitments are not the same thing as results, especially as even more administration work happens through broad, plan-making executive actions and plans.

Transparency proclamations are valuable, but the path to transparent government runs through a thousand fights over information. The OGD may have moved the default slightly towards openness, but it doesn’t win those fights alone.

We’d like to invite you to review our evaluations of agencies’ progress (searching through all the agency sites and plans can be tricky), and to help us think about where the OGD should go from here.