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White House launches open government initiative

The administration launched a long-awaited open government initiative on Thursday, which included facelifts to federal Web sites, and garnered encouraging reviews from government transparency activists.

Details of the plan, which was first announced the day after President Obama took office, included three phases of public participation via cyberspace, e-mail and traditional mail.

The White House site called on citizens to brainstorm ideas for creating a more transparent, collaborative and participatory government using technology, and then vote on the concepts.

Online discussions are scheduled to start on June 3 based on what the White House identifies as the most compelling ideas. On June 15, the public will be able to collaborate on more formal recommendations through a wiki, a Web page that allows users to add and edit content.

Afterward, the White House will undertake a more traditional review of what the public engagement process yielded, said Beth Noveck, White House deputy chief technology officer for open government.

Government transparency groups had expected to see on Thursday a list of agency recommendations for establishing an open government. President Obama's announcement on Jan. 21 ordered the federal chief technology officer, along with the Office of Management and Budget director and the administrator of the General Services Administration, "to coordinate the development by appropriate executive departments and agencies, within 120 days, of recommendations for an open government directive."

Noveck said the launch is a reflection of what agency officials recommended. "It is not a finished draft on which people are being required to submit comments, as is the normal regulatory process," she said. "We did not request a formal agency statement of position."

Until this week, open government advocates had been criticizing the White House for dropping the ball on the initiative, because Noveck said in March that a public participation Web site was under construction.

She said the White House delayed the kick-off because of the late appointment of a key team member. Former Virginia Technology Secretary Aneesh Chopra, the federal CTO-designate, was not named until April 18.

"We are very much appreciative of the activists in the transparency community who push us and who keep us honest and make these demands," Noveck said. "It has long been in the works to make this an open process."

Officials with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, GSA and OMB wanted Chopra to be in Washington for the unveiling, she added. But Chopra, who has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, was not part of Thursday's announcement. Instead, Noveck, Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and the president's senior adviser Valerie Jarrett are listed on the site as leading the initiative.

Also on Thursday, Kundra debuted the Web site Data.gov, which is intended to provide the public with access to raw federal data in formats they can download and manipulate. Such information, including data sets on economic, health care and environmental topics, were previously available only in incompatible formats, scattered across multiple agency sites.

While the offerings on the site are limited, some Web standards specialists expect the government to provide extensive live data feeds.

In addition, Regulations.gov, the official site for submitting comments electronically, proposed a redesign, with a new homepage and an enhanced search capability. The public can voice their opinions on the model until June 21.

Noveck said she does not expect a large amount of feedback on the scale of Obama's March online town hall, where the public submitted 104,000 questions about the economy and cast 3.6 million votes for the most popular questions.

"This is a process that is focused on a specific set of themes and topics," she said. "We'll see what kind of volume we'll get. Whereas, I hope we'll get a lot of participation, it might not be as much as we've had [in the past]."

Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy at OMB Watch, an open government group, said, "This is certainly a good step forward."

The White House spells out the process and offers a direction where it is headed, he added. "The roadmap seems pretty fast, which makes me think they have moved pretty far down the road in developing the ideas themselves," Moulton noted. "I appreciate them giving the public the chance to bring up some things they may have missed."

He said he wants to see what the agencies had to say in their suggestions.

A May 18 letter to Noveck signed by more than 60 government transparency groups, including OMB Watch, states, "Given President Obama's determination to create 'an unprecedented level of openness in government,' we ask you make publicly available comments received from agencies, agency employees, or the public related to the development of an open government directive."

Kevin Novak, co-chairman of the e-government interest group at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an organization that encourages standardized and improved Web programming language, said the open government strategy provides "a great opportunity" for W3C and others in the technical community to offer help.

Technical specialists can assist agencies in modifying their information technology systems to comply with existing international standards, "so that they do not have to recreate the wheel," he said.

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