Where do we stand on open government plans?

An open book on a table with several closed books lined up in a row in the background
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Last week marked three months since agencies were supposed to submit the most recent iterations of their open government plans. As we found in July, a few agencies have still neglected to do so. But most agencies have now submitted plans, which gets us to the fun part — assessing the value of opengov plans, seeing what priorities agencies focused on, and again calling out those who haven’t yet complied.

So are the plans useful? Sort of.

We have talked a lot in the past about the inherent limitations of the Open Government Directive, which created the plans, and other executive policy documents that don’t have the force of law. As Policy Director John Wonderlich wrote in 2011, “We’ve learned that the difference between an aspiration and a mandate can be a huge gap.”

At their worst, the plans are merely a way to meet a minimum requirement, checking boxes off a list that has already been crossed out.

At their best, however, the open government plans represent aspirational documents outlining detailed and impactful agency goals. But even then these documents lack the force of law, relying on internal momentum and pressure from outside groups to move the ball forward.

Luckily there is a robust community, in and out of government, that sees value in these plans and puts energy into producing, reading and following up on them. The plans are a public record of agency priorities that, thanks to a genuine attempt at collaboration with civil society, often reflect some version of the advocacy community’s goals, among others. Their existence shows a willingness to try and provides leverage to those working to change government for the better, from within and without.

Sunlight’s priorities; reflected?

Of course, the plans are only so laudable when they reflect meaningful steps towards openness.

As part of this year’s open government plan process, agencies met with a wide variety of civil society groups for input, including Sunlight. These groups represented a range of priorities that were are sometimes obviously and sometimes less obviously reflected in the final products.

We were particularly interested in seeing if any agencies pledged to make a major step forward with their open data efforts, something that we talked extensively about during those meetings earlier in the year — and something they are required to do under President Obama’s open data executive order.

Specifically, we asked agencies to consider opening, to the extent practicable, their Enterprise Data Inventories to the public. These inventories contain information about datasets that agencies have decided not to release to the public and, vitally, explanations as to why. Providing the public access to this information will better inform conversations about what data should be released, help focus FOIA requests and more.

A number of agencies mentioned their efforts to comply with the open data executive order, while a few made it clear that they are ready to move beyond minimum compliance with the mandate. We want to highlight several agencies that made unique or clearly impactful commitments related to their Enterprise Data Inventories. Agencies that thought beyond the checklist.

While many agencies mentioned that they are building out Enterprise Data Inventories to comply with the EO, only a few, including the Department of Agriculture, Department of Education,and Department of the Treasury have indicated that they will make an effort to open their inventories, to the extent possible, to the general public.

It’s worth noting that the Department of Transportation has been a leader in federal open data efforts for some time, and their open government plan reflects some of that history. It’s heartening to see their continued leadership — even going so far as to hire Dan Morgan, a long time leader on open data at DoT, as its first Chief Data Officer.

Many agencies have struggled, in public and in private, while creating an Enterprise Data Inventory. As far as we can tell, only DoT proactively published their plan to do so. They published their “Model Data Inventory Approach” late last year, but by highlighting it in their open government plan and including it on Project Open Data ensured that it could serve as a guide to other agencies.

To be clear, we’re not trying to take credit for this. These agencies may have focused on open data in their plans because we pushed them to, but they are just as likely to be responding to pressure from the White House, or following up on a genuine internal interest. For instance, the Public Data Listing, which agencies do publish, is an incentive for an agency to build a strong Enterprise Data Inventory early on. Either way, however, we can use these documents in our advocacy moving forward, presenting these agencies as positive examples while also holding them accountable when necessary. It also means we aren’t the only ones who recognize the value of comprehensive data indexes.

We were also excited to see two, more specific, Sunlight initiatives reflected in the open government plans.

First, the Department of Commerce noted that our Sitegeist app made use of their data offerings. The app, and others like it, provide clear examples of the value of open government data.

Second, earlier in the year we had productive discussions with the Department of Justice around their Foreign Agents Registration Act data. This vital influence data is public, but in its current form it is nearly impossible to access and use in any systematic way. To get around its limitations, Sunlight developers spent a lot of time “hand curating bad data” into Foreign Influence Explorer. Thankfully, the DoJ has included a commitment to modernize their database as part of their open government plan, hopefully leading to less work for Sunlight and other interested parties in the future.

Noncompliant agencies

Open government plans were due three months ago. A month after that deadline, 30 agencies had released their plans, but there were still at least 8 outstanding. Now, two especially notable offices have still failed to produce their plans. We want to give them a special shout out here.

First is the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has had some high profile struggles recently and has actually responded in part by being more open and transparent. But, the agency remains one of two cabinet level agencies without an open government plan. Responding to scandal by increasing transparency is a positive step, but it is likely meaningless in the long run if the VA doesn’t articulate a coherent strategy for openness moving forward.

Perhaps more disturbing, the Office of Management and Budget has yet to release its open government plans. The open government plans stem from the Open Government Directive, President Obama’s first flagship transparency effort. When one of the White House offices charged with ensuring agency compliance with management efforts like the Directive fails to comply, it sets a particularly uninspiring example for other agencies and does little to encourage passionate actors across government.

Open Government Plans may not be a perfect vehicle for openness, but they are an important one. We are happy to see some agencies using them to make serious commitments and hope the scofflaws take note.