The White House must release guidance on open government plans

Joe Biden and Barack Obama standing at a podium.
Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama announcing the White House’s Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government in 2009. (Photo credit: The White House/YouTube)

Sunlight has been tracking where the nation stands on open government plans since the first deadline for issuing them dropped in 2010. As John Wonderlich wrote in 2011, “We’ve learned that the difference between an aspiration and a mandate can be a huge gap.”

On April 25, the Obama administration quietly rescheduled a planned public consultation regarding the next generation of agency open government plans mandated by the Open Government Directive with an email, stating that it would reschedule for a later date:

We are canceling this Thursday’s consultation with civil society and will reschedule for a later date. The Administration is still finalizing the guidance and will be extending the deadline for agency Open Government plans and we want to have the most meaningful exchange possible. As part of the rescheduled session, we will explore how to incorporate remote participation, so that civil society could participate in lightning talks both in person and remotely.

On May 24, the administration explored the “topic areas” it expects to be in the guidance to agencies at a federal Open Government Working Group, but did not release it.

Over a month later, the White House has not provided the guidance to agencies, scheduled a consultation for the public and public interest advocates to provide feedback, nor given any set date when either could be expected. We’ve heard that the guidance is still held up in the clearance process behind other documents since April.

While we are celebrating Congress reforms to the Freedom of Information Act and President Barack Obama signing them into law, the delay in releasing guidance and rescheduling public consultations around agency open government plans is troubling, and signals a troubling lack of commitment and prioritization to transparency in the “final quarter” of this administration. It’s not enough to reference the Open Government Directive in a White House Fact Sheet detailing (welcome!) “new steps towards ensuring openness and transparency.”

President Obama’s 2009 Open Government Directive mandated that “within 120 days, each agency shall develop and publish on its Open Government Webpage an Open Government Plan” It continued to state that the website would “describe how [each agency] will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities. … Each agency’s plan shall be updated every two years.”

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) must demonstrate commitment to holding agencies accountable for carrying through on this executive order, including itself: OMB has not released updated its own open government plan since 2010.

Generally speaking, the White House’s willingness to invest political capital or focus public attention beyond the Beltway on the development or progress of agency plans has been underwhelming. We’ve seen blog posts and tweets from @OpenGov and little more. While Chief Digital Officer Jason Goldman has enhanced the capacity of the White House to speak to the American people and introduced changes in the We The People e-petition platform, the sophisticated digital communications shop at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has not been used to bring people into the development of the National Action Plans.

To date, “#SocialCivics” has not included bringing the public into the process of developing and improving open government plans, an absence that either reflects a lack of ambition or courage. While engaging a deeply polarized public with historically low levels of trust in government is a tall order, this White House and future administrations can and should commit to trying.

This lack of investment in public participation around developing open government plans would be less frustrating if the Obama administration had not developed, published and promoted a Public Participation Playbook to fulfill a commitment in the National Action Plan on Open Government.

The White House cannot expect agencies to look to it for leadership on open government if the administration itself does not run the plays itself. For instance, agencies could use the same online drafting platform used in the playbook to solicit comment on draft plans. If the District of Columbia can publish drafts of policies and laws, federal agencies can as well.

It’s worth noting that the viability of the Open Government Partnership model has some bearing upon the Obama administration performance here. The quality of public consultation for the third National Action plan was criticized by its participants. If consultations involve showing members of civil society a plan prepopulated with unambitious commitments and mostly ignore the recommendations of advocates, our government is falling short of the democratic standard that we should be upholding in front of the world. What happens with individual agency plans is a microcosm of that process. We need to do better.

At this point, what the White house press office says doesn’t matter: The guidance and OMB’s plan need to become public as soon as possible after the nation celebrates Independence Day this weekend.