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Two agencies embrace Obama's call for open government

Top federal information technology executives view President Barack Obama's call for using technologies to encourage public participation in government as a mandate to harness a range of social networking tools, including blogs and Twitter messages.

In a Jan. 21 memo on transparency and open government, Obama wrote, "Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public."

Stephen Warren, the acting chief information officer at the Veterans Affairs Department, said Obama's memo, coupled with a new generation of tech savvy veterans, demands that VA explore new ways to communicate information about benefits that go beyond using snail mail to communicate with older veterans.

New methods of communication could include cell phone text messages, Twitter messages, social networking sites and ordinary e-mail, he said. Warren added such forms of communications should be built into new systems the department plans to field, such as a benefits claims processing system VA has asked the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command to build by August, as required under the 2008 GI Bill.

Securing the information should be a key consideration in the use of any technology, he added. Warren said VA will have to figure out how to harness new tools and systems to communicate with veterans.

Agencies can use blogs to improve public participation in the federal regulatory process, which dovetails with language in the Obama memo, said Lisa Schlosser, director of the Office of Information Collection at EPA. She cited the language in the memo that directed agencies to "offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information."

The Office of Information Collection manages environmental information and also runs the governmentwide e-regulation Web site, regulations.gov. A regulatory blog could meet the spirit of Obama's push for participatory policymaking, resulting "in more public interaction in the rule making process," Schlosser said.

The office also manages EPA's Freedom Of Information Act requests, and the memo, as well as Obama's directive on FOIA, which emphasizes the use of technology to respond to information requests from the public, will require agencies to take a proactive approach to the public release of information, she said.

Schlosser is identifying FOIA requests that have a common theme and plans to use a Web site to provide that information to anyone who wants to view it, rather than providing a single response to every FOIA request.

EPA and VA appear to have embraced Obama's transparency and FOIA memos, particularly in using new technologies, said Tom Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive at The George Washington University, a leading FOIA advocate and user. The agencies "understand their mission is to inform the public," and that includes blogs, Twitter and text messaging, he said.

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