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12/11/2013
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Obama's Open Data Plan: Much Work Ahead

Open government advocates found plenty to praise in Obama administration's latest National Action Plan (NAP). But agencies must now make good on those plans.

Proponents of open government data policies found plenty to praise in the Obama administration's second Open Government National Action Plan (NAP), but at least one advocate says agencies still have a lot of work ahead to make good on those plans.

The second NAP, released Dec. 5, builds on a plan unveiled in September 2011 by introducing 23 new or expanded commitments designed to further advance open government efforts. It also outlines a variety of actions, which the administration will carry out over the next two years, to build on past successes and initiate new ones.

Those initiatives include improving the functionality of various government websites such as Performance.gov and Data.gov, expanding the use of challenges and crowdsourcing through the Challenge.gov program, and improving how agencies respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

"The commitments are going in the right direction," Joel Gurin, senior advisor at New York University's GovLab, told us. "But to make open data effective as a business driver and economic resource, it's going to require a lot of work on the side of the federal agencies, such as updating their systems and making the data usable." Gurin, who served as chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission in the Obama administration, is author of the upcoming book Open Data Now.

[Technology and transparency are turning enterprises inside out. Read more: The Hybrid Enterprise Demands An IT Shift.]

The administration's previously issued Open Data Policy now has stronger commitments. The latest commitments show real progress toward a government that's more open and accountable, he said. The Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy released the Open Data Policy in May to ensure that federal agencies manage government information as an asset. The policy is designed to make previously unavailable government data accessible to entrepreneurs, researchers, and the public.

"In addition to the NAP commitments, I'm eager to see the administration on the path to implement the Open Data Policy," he said. "All these initiatives will make a difference as a whole."

The NAP stresses the importance of the government working together with the public to solve problems. "There's an opportunity for the government to share responsibilities for governance and enable citizens to participate," Gurin said. "The public can offer expertise to the government through petition websites or government-sponsored challenges. It's a new way of communicating and partnering with citizens."

The latest NAP puts more focus on financial transparency and on the integrity of government data. It also lays out commitments to improve public participation in government, modernize the management of government records, make privacy compliance information more accessible, and increase transparency in federal spending -- including making spending data more easily available in open and machine-readable formats.

Making the FOIA process more open, for instance, will actually benefit government, Gurin wrote in a September post on his blog, Opendatanow.com. "The federal government gets about 650 thousand FOIA requests a year, and they're handled by different bureaus in about a hundred agencies." A unified "FOIA system could provide a huge amount of useful information efficiently and democratically if it coordinated responses to FOIA requests and provided them in searchable, downloadable electronic form."

FOIA Online, an electronic system launched a year ago, can organize requests and documents across agencies. Only a few federal agencies are using it, but the government is working to change that. According to the action plan, such improvements are a must for an "open, transparent, and participatory" government.

You can use distributed databases without putting your company's crown jewels at risk. Here's how. Also in the Data Scatter issue of InformationWeek: A wild-card team member with a different skill set can help provide an outside perspective that might turn big data into business innovation (free registration required).

Elena Malykhina has written for The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, Newsday, and AdWeek. She covers the federal government, including NASA's space missions, for InformationWeek.

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Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
12/11/2013 | 4:28:53 PM
What transparency?
I'll believe the government is committed to transparency and openness when I see it. 

See InformationWeek's The Freedom From Information Act
meganesque
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meganesque,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/14/2013 | 1:45:25 PM
It's clean up time
I think this is a great 2nd NAP for OpenGov for the US, but without buy-in from Senior Management in the federal agencies, it is destined to fall flat.  You have hit the nail on the head that there is much work to do inside the gates, and I think the first order of business is to institutionalize OpenGov.  As it currently stands, there are no formal models, nothing describing the skills needed to lead or support an agency effort, no accountability systems, nothing to ensure that the agencies comply with the commitments, which include increased protection for whistleblowers.  Most of the agencies do not want OpenGov to succeed, and are "checking the boxes" in some minor way via apps contests and other promotional gimmicks designed to deflect attention away from the fact that they are not really making much progress in terms of real transparency and anti-corruption efforts.  More here: http://www.whohub.com/meganesque/log
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
12/15/2013 | 10:10:51 PM
Re: It's clean up time
I think the real OpenGov is quite difficult to achieve. For whatever reason (the protection of political secrets or national security, etc.), the government will always have some kind of gate or "dam" to prevent the prevailing of sensitive information. The scope of "sensitive information" is rather difficult to define - in most of the cases, the scope will simple creep...
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