As a founding member of the Open Government Partnership the US Federal Government published its national action plan. The plan does complement and not replace the open government directive and the plans that all agencies have in place.
It focuses on three areas:
- Increasing Integrity and Transparency
- Managing Public Resources More Efficiently
- Improving Public Services
Integrity and Transparency. This is the most comprehensive part and covers the establishment of a petition platform (We the People) to improve citizen participation, the improvement of policies and practices in areas like records management, freedom of information and information declassification; monitoring of and support to agency open government plans; strengthening whistleblower protection for government staff; providing enforcement and compliance data online; as well as furthering legislation that supports disclosure of ownership information for corporations. The ethos is to provide more transparent and timely information about what government does and is responsible for.
Managing Public Resources More Efficiently. This includes greater transparency on the revenue collection from national natural resources, the application of lessons learned from recovery.gov to most spending data, the transparency of foreign aid, and the futher development of performance.gov to report about progress of agency on their performance goals. The ethos here is to improve transparency for what concerns the effectiveness of public spending.
Improving Public Services. This covers the improvement of public participation interface on Regulations.gov, the deployment of Data.gov in other countries (namely India) and the development of more focused communities around Data.gov, the launch of ExpertNet (a platform to facilitate the communication between officials and citizens on specific topics), the reform of government web sites by engaging citizens and updating policies, the publication of data that is relevant to consumers and to the scientific community, and the launch of data-driven international competitions in areas like weather impact and resource depletion.The ethos here is to strengthen use and impact of public data.
At first, this plan looks almost disappointing with respect to what we have seen in the earlier open government initiative. There is no specific reference to how to build on each agency’s open government plans, no recognition of the mixed results that those plans have given so far, no mention of how open government could be used to face budgetary constraints and remain sustainable. So the initial impression is that the plan is quite detached from the key priorities that the US federal government and the American citizens are facing in the coming years.
On the other hand, the context is the Open Government Partnership, where quite a few of the current members are developing countries or countries with a less developed attitude toward transparency and participation. This plan shows that the US is willing to lead by example.
So we probably have to accept that open government is mostly about politics and policy-making. There is now even less emphasis than before on using open government as a tool to address concrete agency problems. The balance has titled even more toward providing data rather than using data and, while some smart agencies are likely to leverage that, a compliance attitude.
On the upside, the plan suggests improvements to important policies in the area of freedom of information, records management, performance management and web site development, and expands approaches piloted for exceptional situations – such as recovery.gov – into the normal course of business.
As long as these innovations can blend into everyday’s processes and procedures that agencies and their staff use to run the business, they will have a lasting impact. The best thing about this plan is that there is less emphasis on deadlines and on triggering an immediate reaction than there was in the original open government directive, and this may make openness a more sustainable proposition.