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Group gives most open government plans mediocre marks

NASA's plan was given bonus points for including actions that went beyond the open government directive.NASA

This article was updated at 3:55 pm on Monday, May 3.

An independent audit of agencies' plans to instill transparency into their missions ranked the Office of Management and Budget, which spearheaded the Obama administration's open government initiative, near the bottom and placed NASA at the top, according to a coalition of good government groups that released the results on Monday.

An open government directive that OMB issued in December 2009 required agencies to produce a plan by April outlining how they would use technology to establish a culture of transparency, encourage public participation, and collaborate with public and private organizations.

The assessment measured the extent that each plan met criteria stipulated in the directive. It was coordinated by the Openthegovernment.org coalition and conducted by representatives from nonprofit organizations and academia.

Scores were based on a scale of 1 to 58 or 60, depending on whether an agency has special classification powers. OMB was given 35 of a possible 58 points, while NASA earned a 77 of 60 by scoring bonus points for performing additional actions not required by the directive such as posting documents online that are frequently requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

NASA officials said they followed a collaborative process to create the agency's plan, asking employees, citizens, advocacy groups and other agencies to contribute. "We are creating a learning community, as we transition how we do business in government," the department said in a statement.

Rounding out the top three agencies were the Housing and Urban Development Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, which scored 59 of 58 and 61 of 60, respectively. In addition to OMB, the three weakest plans were those developed by the Energy and Justice departments, scoring 31 and 29 of 60, respectively.

"I think they all did serious work, but some came from a frame of being already public-facing and did a better job," said Openthegovernment.org Director Patrice McDermott. "The others have made starts and will be urged to improve on them."

OMB officials said their plan is just a first step in a process, and they will listen to ideas from the public and open government advocates to revise their approaches. "The OMB open government plan is an effort to bring increased transparency to federal data and operations," said OMB spokesman Tom Gavin. "OMB is championing efforts to break down barriers between the American people and the federal government, authoring the open government directive and advancing tools like the central repository of high-value information at Data.gov and the new window on the regulatory process at Reginfo.gov."

Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the department "appreciates all feedback and will continue to look for effective ways to improve our efforts, but as the facts clearly show, in terms of openness, collaboration and participation, this Department of Justice has set a new standard."

Energy officials said they would continue to add to their plan. "The Department of Energy is strongly committed to open government, and has provided unprecedented access to a treasure trove of information and scientific studies," the agency said in a statement. "This is only the beginning, however, and the Department's open government plan was developed to be a living document. We will use the audit findings to continue to improve our plan moving forward."

The White House viewed the findings as an indication that most of the plans had largely complied with the directive. "The evaluators gave almost half of the agencies scores of 80 percent or higher, and the vast majority were above 70 percent," said a statement from the Obama administration. "We also agree that much remains to be done on this unprecedented effort to make government more transparent, and we look forward to continuing to work together with open government advocates and the public on the evolution and implementation of these plans."

Last week, agencies published self-evaluations of their plans that in some instances, as was the case with Energy and Justice, differed significantly from Monday's external audit.

The directive instructed agencies to seek public input in crafting their plans and to include a flagship initiative, a major activity representing one of the three openness principles. One NASA flagship program will establish a participatory exploration office to infuse more public engagement into the space agency's work.

NASA also is pursuing two other flagship initiatives. They include an effort to collaborate more with the public on open source software -- programs that allow free access to their underlying code so anyone can improve it -- and the expansion of a cloud computing platform, Nebula. Cloud computing, an arrangement where computer users share hardware and software through the Internet, has become an easier way for NASA scientists to exchange data sets with research partners and the public, according to the space agency's plan.

According to Monday's evaluation, OMB failed to provide schedules for specific actions and to include information about the kind of outreach conducted to develop the plan. OMB acknowledged in its self-evaluation that its plan has room to improve.

Audit organizers noted that OMB easily could have led by example with its plan by offering public access to its contractor accountability database -- the Federal Award Performance and Integrity Information System. Openthegovernment.org also said it was disappointed by Justice's performance given that Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memorandum last year underscoring his commitment to open government.

"On FOIA, this Justice Department achieved significant increases in full and partial releases from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2009 and worked with agencies across government to implement new principles," Schmaler responded. Justice is charged with implementing FOIA governmentwide.

"The department's flagship initiative of a FOIA Dashboard," which tracks progress in processing requests, "was the result of consultation with many open government groups and it has met with strong support from advocates and others," she added.

Openthegovernment.org has given agencies until the end of May to modify their plans in response to the audit's recommendations and then reassess the plans in June.

The organizations that evaluated the plans include the American Association of Law Libraries, American Library Association, Center for Democracy and Technology, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, OMB Watch, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Project on Government Oversight, Sunlight Foundation, Union of Concerned Scientists, and faculty and students at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies.

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