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Open government site hasn't sprouted teeth yet, observers say

A White House Web site for tracking compliance with a 2009 open government directive is not an adequate enforcement tool yet, some open government advocates said after its launch last weekend.

The directive, issued to agencies by the Office of Management and Budget, established several tight deadlines for initiatives intended to make government more transparent, collaborative with industry and user-friendly for the public. The site Open Government Dashboard, was one such assignment due on Feb. 6.

"As it stands right now, it's not much of an enforcement tool," said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a government accountability group. "All they've put together is this initial dashboard, which evaluates agencies on the basis of very basic criteria."

Almost every federal entity -- except for the White House Council on Environmental Quality -- is meeting that criteria. The benchmarks include releasing "high-value" downloadable statistics as defined by the directive, assigning a senior-level official to oversee the quality and objectivity of online federal spending data, and unveiling an agency home page dedicated to the directive. Some open government advocates who support the mandate said the biggest challenge in enforcing the policy is the principles of open government are hard to quantify.

"The act of starting a Web site is not something that you can meaningfully judge," Wonderlich said. "You can make a chart for the temperature in any room, [but requirements for] transparency are a bit tougher to get into a system that's measurable and calculable."

The administration plans to upgrade the dashboard.

"The first version of the dashboard tracks agency progress on the deliverables set out in the directive," according to the Web site. Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications director, wrote on the White House blog on Monday that the dashboard will evolve in response to feedback from citizens.

The next major task for agencies, due April 7, is to complete a plan that will serve as a roadmap for instilling the principles of open government -- transparency, collaboration and public participation -- into agency operations. President Obama first outlined the principles in an executive memorandum the day after taking office.

One agency told OMB officials that it initially viewed the directive as a regulatory chore, said OMB spokesman Tom Gavin. "Now, they see the opportunities involved and have built on the ideas in the directive with their own unique flair," he noted.

Wonderlich said the goal of keeping score on compliance is worthwhile but tricky.

For example, it will be complicated to judge the requirement that agencies with a significant backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests explain how they will reduce that backlog by at least 10 percent each year. The dashboard should assign meaningful ratings to backlogs and ensure such ratings are fair, Wonderlich said.

"If there was a backlog of unfilled requests that is 15 percent, that should be some sort of failing grade," he said.

In addition, the quality of the information available for downloading and the relationship between an agency and the public are difficult to evaluate, Wonderlich said.

Stephen Buckley, who has helped manage compliance at several federal agencies and now blogs at www.UStransparency.com, said perhaps the White House would have an easier time assessing implementation if it defined transparency at the onset.

There are two mechanisms the government uses to mobilize employees: prescriptive requirements, which demand certain steps; and performance requirements, which demand certain outcomes, he said. Issuing data sets and opening Web sites are prescriptive requirements.

The dashboard is "prescribing steps to be taken rather describing the performance goals," Buckley explained. "They haven't defined what transparency is or participation or collaboration."

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