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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Unlocking data in Washington

Telegraph Editorial

During the presidential campaign of 2008, it was not usual for then-candidate Barack Obama to talk about transparency and the importance of open government.

So it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that on his first full day in office, the president issued a memorandum to the heads of all executive departments restoring the original presumption of disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, a reversal from the previous administration.

“My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” he said. “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”

While there have been some broken promises along the way – posting all bills on the Internet five days before signing them and the pledge for televised health care negotiations on C-SPAN – the Obama administration has introduced a number of initiatives to, in essence, do what Toto did to the Wizard of Oz – pull back the curtain for all to see.

Prime among those initiatives was the Open Government Directive, an order issued through the Office of Management and Budget to all executive departments, directing them to take steps to implement the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration in their dealings with the American public.

Specifically, the Dec. 8 directive called for executive departments and agencies to:

• Publish government information online.

• Improve the quality of government information.

• Create and institutionalize a culture of open government.

• Create an enabling policy framework for open government.

The directive also set specific deadlines to get some of this work done. By Feb. 6, for example, each agency was to have launched its own open government Web page. The administration also was going to set up a Open Government Dashboard (www.whitehouse.gov/open), where citizens could peruse each agency’s open government plan, as well as other information.

A recent visitor to the dashboard would have found the vast majority of the 29 departments listed to have met expectations in the four key areas: posted three high-value data sets; assigned a high-level senior official to data integrity; launched an open government Web page with all the required elements, and incorporated mechanisms for public feedback on that page.

Some departments already are far ahead of schedule, both in terms of deadlines and content.

The U.S. Department of Transportation site (www.dot.gov/open), for example, already has posted a draft of its “open government plan,” which isn’t due until April 7, and is seeking feedback from the public through its “citizen engagement tool.” It has also made available three data sets from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration rating 4,200 lines of tires, child safety seats, and the performance of new cars in crash and rollover tests.

The Web site also features detailed information on how to file a Freedom of Information Act request, as well as a blog by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, flickr and YouTube.

While still a work in progress, for sure, we find it refreshing that the Obama administration is following through on its commitment to instill a culture of openness and collaboration between the federal government and the American people.

The fact that we are even having this discussion today is a testament to what Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, refers to as a “sea change in culture” in Washington.

A sea change that certainly is long overdue.