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OMB directs agencies to post more data online

Dec. 13, 2009 - 06:00AM   |  
By GREGG CARLSTROM   |   Comments
Federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra announced that today 26 "mission critical" IT projects that were previously halted for review will receive funding and move forward.
Federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra announced that today 26 "mission critical" IT projects that were previously halted for review will receive funding and move forward. (Sheila Vemmer / Staff)

The Veterans Affairs Department last week started publishing "report cards" assessing the quality of medical care provided to veterans at its hospitals.

The Education Department is releasing statistics showing how effective its various student aid programs are.

The State Department will post detailed historical data about the devastation caused by the genocide in Darfur.

All are examples of the government's new "openness." And more is coming. Last week, the Office of Management and Budget issued a new directive ordering agencies to publish online three "high-value" data sets on their Web sites by the end of January. By mid-February, they must create "open government" pages on their Web sites. And by mid-April, they must publish detailed plans for how they will offer more information and data to the public.

"The deadlines are tight, but reasonable. … How well it's received depends on how well agencies prepared for this. Everyone knew this was coming," said Greg Parston, director of the Accenture Institute for Health and Public Service Value. "I would hope most agencies already have a head start."


The much anticipated directive concludes nearly a year of work by the White House and OMB. President Barack Obama issued a memo Jan. 21, his first full day in office, directing OMB to publish an open government directive. OMB spent the summer soliciting ideas from the public; it received more than 1,100 suggestions, some of which were incorporated in the memo.

"This is about changing the default setting of the public sector, from that of being secretive, opaque and closed, to one that is open [and] transparent," said Vivek Kundra, the federal chief information officer.

Transparency advocates, such as OMB Watch and the Sunlight Foundation, applauded.

Publicly, many agencies offered praise. Behind the scenes, though, experts say there's bound to be some concern about what data to release, how to publish it and how much it will cost.

"There's going to be some anxiety. Some agencies will need to get up to speed," said John Wonderlich, the policy director at the Sunlight Foundation. "Pushback is likely. Some of [the directive] will cost more money."

OMB officials basically confirmed that.

"The agencies bear responsibility. ... There may not be incremental new money for any particular project," said Aneesh Chopra, the federal chief technology officer. "But you will get the time and attention you need. This is about priorities, about making sure these are heard."

Chopra said the directive may help agencies save money in the long term: Public involvement could yield useful ideas for streamlining operations. VA, for example, recently solicited ideas on improving the administration of veterans' benefits; more than 12,000 VA employees offered their thoughts, and a handful of the suggestions will be funded and implemented in the coming months.

Experts say publishing the data sets could also help agencies reduce their Freedom of Information Act processing requests: If data is publicly available, citizens won't have to submit requests for it.

Still, there's some concern that agencies will use the lack of additional funding as an excuse to delay implementing their open government plans.

"How can we be sure agencies are going to take this seriously?" asked Brian Rahija, a staffer at the Project on Government Oversight. "It's important to get this cornerstone in place ... but the funding might be an issue."

OMB officials said they expect public pressure will cajole reluctant agencies into compliance. Under a directive from OMB Director Peter Orszag, OMB has 60 days to launch an open government dashboard, which will keep track of agencies' progress at implementing their plans.

The dashboard will be modeled on the federal IT dashboard, unveiled in July, which monitors major federal information technology initiatives.

Agencies have much discretion about what data to publish, and how to draft their open government plans. OMB's directive sets out a few criteria: "High-value" data sets, for example, are those which increase accountability, improve public knowledge, create economic opportunity or further the agency's mission.

But OMB allowed agencies much latitude in deciding what to release.

"We could use a command-and-control model, or we could simply allow the agencies to pursue whatever they are doing at the grass-roots level," Chopra said. "We're doing the latter. We're not telling agencies exactly what data to publish."

Help from GSA

Individual agencies weren't willing to comment on their open government plans; several agencies contacted by Federal Times said they were still reviewing the OMB directive. But many agencies announced at least one of their "high-value" data sets last week.

The Housing and Urban Development Department, for example, announced that it will publish historical data on the physical condition of public housing across the country. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will post detailed data about on-the-job fatalities.

OMB's directive requires all of these data sets to be published using open standards, like XML, which makes it easy for third-party developers to parse the data and create their own applications.

Chopra and Kundra said last week that they expect many of these data sets to be published using tools provided by the General Services Administration. GSA officials say they're working on acquisition vehicles that would allow agencies to buy the necessary software and server support through

"We're looking at tools and software products, either those that are freely available or commercially available software products," said Dave McClure, the associate administrator in GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications. "And the second piece is to create a cloud [computing] space where we can host some of these services."

McClure couldn't say when GSA would offer those software products. But he acknowledged that the directive sets tight timelines for agencies, and said GSA plans to work quickly.

He also said GSA is studying "crowd-sourcing" software, which would allow agencies to easily solicit ideas from the public. OMB's directive requires agencies to increase public participation in policymaking.

"The key is to find ways to open up public engagement," McClure said, "to get these ideas ranked, prioritized based on merit. ... We're beginning to look at tools to allow that to happen."

One such tool is IdeaScale, which OMB used to solicit ideas for the open government directive. Some agencies have already used similar tools to involve the public in policymaking.

"I think some agencies have already figured it out," said John Kamensky, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. "Look at the [Transportation Security Administration], and its Idea Factory. They figured out how to engage citizens and employees, how to rank ideas."

Idea Factory, TSA's citizen engagement program, has generated more than 7,000 suggestions on improving airport security. OMB hopes similar programs will spring up at other agencies across the government.

"The more agencies are accessible, the more the public trusts them," Parston said. "The agencies should see this as a way to relate to their public."

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