Health

Advocates worry White House changes could hurt transparency

This article was updated at 7:33 pm, Aug. 16, to include comments from the Office of Management and Budget.

As the Obama administration gently pushes agencies to follow their transparency plans, recent changes in key management positions at the White House have watchdog groups concerned the open government initiative could lose steam.

The administration on Thursday scored agencies according to an online dashboard that featured color-coded dots to depict how well they have complied with certain stipulations in a December 2009 directive on open government. The document called for institutionalizing data transparency, public participation in government, and collaboration with industry and other agencies.

The White House review found 18 of 30 agencies it tracked had met all criteria, including developing a plan for embedding open government principles into daily operations. Eight agencies were given awards for exceptional performance in categories such as culture change.

But a coalition of nonprofit researchers found in an analysis conducted in July that of 39 agencies studied, some of which are exempt from the directive, only 11 mostly met or exceeded requirements.

Both reports were released in the wake of a reorganization within the White House offices responsible for open government, causing some transparency activists to question who, if anyone, will continue the administration's commitment to transform government. Norm Eisen, presently President Obama's special counsel for ethics and government reform, is expected to become the next U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, and Peter R. Orszag, who issued the directive, has left his position as Office of Management and Budget director. White House counsel Bob Bauer reportedly is taking on the added responsibility of government reform oversight, when Eisen exits.

On Thursday, an entry on the White House blog announced federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, had signed off on the latest open government ratings.

"The newness of all this is wearing off, but we are at a critical juncture and we need to re-energize and reemphasize implementation at this point," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, which was part of the coalition that independently analyzed agencies' open government plans. "I hope that Aneesh's and Cass' next blog is about next steps. And I hope another signatory on it is Bob Bauer."

Parts of the plans might require tweaks if not rewrites of policies that fall under the jurisdiction of OIRA. For example, rules surrounding the Freedom of Information Act and records management might be barriers to open government, activists have said. But to date, OMB and the Office of Science and Technology Policy have lead most White House efforts to make government data more accessible.

OIRA Associate Administrator Michael Fitzpatrick said on Monday the initiative has always been larger than any one person, adding major architects of the movement are not leaving. He noted that Eisen is not left yet and Beth Noveck, deputy CTO for open government; Chopra; federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra; Sunstein; and himself still are committed to improving transparency.

Thursday's blog entry serves as a reminder of the White House's tendency to seek praise for the directive, and the inherent difficulty in ordering compliance publicly, said John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, another member of the coalition. "This post leaves me wondering whether there is a counterpart to this positive effort aimed at forcing agencies that aren't performing well to shape up," he said.

So far, Bass is disappointed with the White House's effort to convince agencies to follow the open government directive. The administration has provided no information to back color-coded ratings or the awards, members of the coalition said.

Links next to the award winners simply take users to the agencies' open government plans. "It is odd. They don't indicate why those agencies got the awards in the various categories, nor do they take you to the spot in their plans that earned the agency the award," said Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a transparency group that organized the outside audit.

"I have no idea how the awards were judged," Bass said. "That's kind of ironic for a transparency initiative. They've got to get more serious."

Some agency projects are incorporating the ideals of open government, including FDA-TRACK, which displays performance metrics for the Food and Drug Administration's programs, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's weekly reports on workplace fatalities and accidents.

"They should be proud of that," Bass added. "Let's cut the fluff."

Fitzpatrick said the White House is aware that during the next several months agencies and senior officials must perform and also knows "the open government community will watch us like hawks, and frankly it helps us to keep on our toes."

On the White House's report card, a yellow dot next to an agency's name indicated progress toward a directive goal. No agency had a red dot, which would indicate a failure to meet expectations. The 10 areas reviewed included posting data sets in downloadable formats, open government home pages, overall open government plans, one major project that encapsulates a tenet of open government, and several other assignments laid out the directive.

When the dashboard launched on April 27, White House officials interpreted the marks, which were based on agency self-evaluations, to mean that agencies were off to a good start yet had more work to do.

But an independent analysis conducted at the same time by the coalition found open government strategies to be average.

OpenTheGovernment.org encouraged agencies to enhance their blueprints and resubmit them for grading in July. This summer, 23 of 39 agencies updated their plans, including the Health and Human Services Department, which won a White House award on Thursday for exceptional transparency. The department's rewrite also ranked at the top of OpenTheGovernment.org's list and earned bonus points partly by making it easy for people to download hospital comparison information.

HHS manages some expensive and valuable data on Americans' health, the operations of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and grant-making bodies such as FDA and the National Institutes of Health. "The agency has been aggressive in liberating data sets that might be considered politically sensitive," such as Medicare expenditure data, said Ted Smith, an independent researcher who audited HHS for the coalition's assessment.

"The level of disclosure promised -- and in many cases already delivered -- is truly a model," added Smith, an executive vice president at HealthCentral.com, an online gateway to clinical resources and patient support.

The HHS team seriously considered Smith's criticism of its original plan and increased the department's online disclosures by 50 percent, adding detailed organizational charts, descriptions of how it interacts with Congress and sensitive material about the process of classifying information, he noted.

Thursday's review alludes to contributions by OpenTheGovernment.org analysts. "Members of the open government community -- within and outside the government -- have been working together to improve the open government plans," the White House blog entry noted. "Today, we update our open government dashboard to reflect this progress."

McDermott pointed out, however, that while the White House said it based the new scores in part on improvements prompted by her group, it did not say why it believed agencies had made strides in their transparency efforts.

"What strikes me as amazing is that the open government dashboard hasn't changed" four months later, Bass said. "It's still just green light, yellow light. I thought it was going to evolve to be more sophisticated."

Fitzpatrick acknowledged the dashboard could be more complex. White House officials are considering ways to assess the administration's output in more detail, but such activities consume substantial resources, he said. Fitzpatrick added people should not lose sight of the fact that interest groups and agency officials completed two internal and two external assessments within five months.

"Implementation is the crux of all this, I agree," he said. "We have done something that is unprecedented" in demanding extensive open government plans from almost 40 agencies. "But it isn't a real achievement until we follow through on our commitments."

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