Government is not a glass house and likely never will be, but it is inching towards greater transparency, at least by its own standards. A milestone of sorts was reached late last month when agencies submitted, and received judgement on, their plans to apply technology to foster a culture of openness. That’s how Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra put it. Leading the scoring of the agency plans according to 30 criteria were Chopra and his CIO counterpart, Vivek Kundra. They talked about the results in the Open Gov blog hosted by the White House. The scores for 29 agencies show a touch of Lake Wobegon, with no one failing any part of the plans. Yet only Health and Human Services, NASA and Transportation got green marks for their plans overall.
A different picture came from OpenTheGovernment, a coalition of several dozen good-government groups. It ranked the same agencies on a 1-60 numerical grade, and was a bit tougher. The lowest ranking plans, in its estimation, were Defense, Energy, Justice, Treasury — and the Office of Management and Budget itself. It gave its highest marks to NASA. Why? Mainly, OpenTheGovernment evaluators said, because of the level of detail about each program that NASA makes available online. The lowest ranked Justice Department was dinged because it promised a lot of generalities without specific deadlines, the group said.
It might be tempting to think of the open government exercises as just that, another requirement coming down from yet another administration. Agency managers have been watching quarterly report cards for a long time now. But Chopra is urging them not to treat the directive as a check-box exercise.
One new study supports the idea of really working at openness. From the Pew Internet and American Life Project comes the finding that most Americans accessing government web sites are looking for just the sort of information being fostered by data.gov and the Open Government Directive. Pew, in a big study of how people use federal information, reported that 40 percent of adult Internet users have gone online for data about government spending and activities. And 16 percent have visited sites such as data.gov. “Such as” is an important caveat, because the raw numbers for unique visitors to data.gov so far have been small in the grand scheme of things, maybe 50,000 per month according to one official. This implies people are still going in large numbers directly to the agencies where they think the information they seek may be housed.
Although not addressed directly in the context of the Open Government Directive, the plans submitted by agencies also can give a hint as to whether they are open to an important constituency besides the public, namely other agencies. Usually this is expressed as information sharing — but information sharing is really another way of saying horizontal openness. And information sharing was underscored this past week when terror suspect Faisal Shahzad almost got away after nearly bombing Times Square. Faster uptake of the No-Fly List and the airline’s passenger manifest would have given law enforcement a bigger lead, avoiding the close call of having the FAA call the plane back to the gate. The case also shows the importance of public-private openness and the need for exploring where tighter coupling of private transactions and public safety is required. I’m thinking of the fact that, according to published reports, it was several hours before the United Arab Emirates airline notified the Transportation Security Administration that the suspect had used cash to purchase an international ticket for a Pakistan destination.
When mistrust of government, whatever that may mean, is on the rise, Chopra is right that transparency is an important tool in maintaining and improving trust.