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White House approach to transparency gains favor -- for now

An open government initiative that President Obama launched the day after taking office has begun to win over critics, but transparency activists are reserving judgment until the White House issues a final directive to agencies.

Administration officials "seem to be adjusting based upon input and experience," which is "commendable," but "there still does not appear to be much transparency into the White House's overall strategy for implementation of what results from this process," said Bill Leonard, who retired in January 2008 as director of the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives and Records Administration. He was responsible for the oversight of the governmentwide security information classification system, including policies for declassifying information.

The open government initiative is intended to help White House officials craft a directive that will instruct agencies to create a more transparent, collaborative and participatory government. Obama issued an executive memo on Jan. 21 ordering the federal chief technology officer to develop recommendations for the directive by May 21. But officials extended the review period to seek public input.

In the latest development, officials on Friday postponed Sunday's deadline for citizens to draft suggested recommendations on a Web site where anyone can add content. The writing period will close on July 3. Voting on the recommendations will continue until July 6. The CTO eventually will release final recommendations for the directive, which the Office of Management and Budget will issue.

Public interest groups say they are hopeful but circumspect about what will happen next.

"I think our view is that we're encouraged by the administration's efforts to engage in an open and collaborative process," said Adam Rappaport, senior counsel at the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government accountability organization. "In terms of participation, it's certainly been a success."

Between June 22, when drafting began, and Monday, 191 contributors and 874 raters had participated.

White House officials have told contributors, "We want to be fully transparent in our work, participatory in soliciting your ideas and expertise, and collaborative in how we experiment together to use new tools and techniques for developing open government policy."

Rappaport said his group is withholding judgment on the transparency part of the effort, but "I think it's been a learning process for both the government and the public and that's a good thing."

Observers also note that daily activity on the drafting site has increased significantly. "It's good that they realized that" and extended the deadline, said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency group in Washington. "If they cut it off early they might miss some of the best stuff."

For example, the page for recommendations to improve Data.gov, a federal site aimed at supplying third parties with free government data for repackaging, had no content on Thursday. After Wonderlich blogged on several Web sites about the overlooked topic, the page attracted seven contributions and seven ratings.

Some academics say the undertaking demonstrates the president and his staff clearly grasp the transparency potential unlocked by new technologies. "What everyone gets to learn now -- both those working within the administration and those of us looking in from the outside -- is how these ideas work out when they are tried at the highest levels," said David Robinson, associate director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. The center studies the interaction between society and digital technologies.

White House officials on Monday said it would be premature to discuss the methodology or timeline for releasing final recommendations and the directive. "The open government initiative has been a testament to the power of public collaboration," said OMB spokesman Tom Gavin. "The timing will be driven by the initiative's final results."

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