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Agencies to unveil open government plans under president's directive

The release next week of new agency rules and plans for using technology to create a more honest, accountable government could be the pinnacle of President Obama's commitment to transparency, say government watchdogs.

On April 7, agencies will issue plans to integrate technology into the work of collaborating with other organizations, engaging the public and publishing government information. The Office of Management and Budget will announce clarifications and changes to rules critics say have impeded such efforts. They include online rule-making guidelines, a ban on tracking Web site user behavior and time-intensive procedures for obtaining permission to collect citizen information. In addition, OMB will order agencies to report spending details on subcontracts, after receiving flak from Congress and federal auditors for not tracking all federal awards on a mandated Web site called USAspending.gov.

All these transformations are part of the administration's effort to enshrine President Obama's avowed principles of open government -- transparency, civic participation in government and collaboration with the public and private sectors. Obama committed himself to this agenda the day after taking office and required agencies to abide by it in a December open government directive. April 7 is one of many due dates for action under the directive.

"It's creating a culture change whereby at meetings that have nothing to do with the open government directive, they are talking about transparency. That's a success," said Gary Bass, executive director of accountability group OMB Watch. "They have seen the light."

Some agencies, including the Interior Department, are setting up practices that go beyond what the directive requires. For example, Interior has dedicated a section of its open government plan to leadership and culture change. The move is significant, given concern among public interest groups that agencies will not sustain Obama's initiatives after all deadlines are met.

"Although the concept of open government is not new to DOI, full adoption of the open government plan requires a culture change within the Department of the Interior," spokeswoman Joan Moody said. "To facilitate this culture change, the DOI open government plan incorporates two primary tools, a dedicated leadership and governance structure and a communications plan with actionable and measureable results."

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of transparency activists, has condemned some open government initiatives as "transparency theater," but called Interior's plan "heartening."

On April 7, the White House plans to alter a ban on Web-tracking applications called cookies, Vivek Kundra, federal chief information officer, said in March. The policy was instituted in 2000 to protect privacy, but cookies -- small files deposited on a visitor's computer to save preferences -- are commonplace among commercial sites. Organizations use them to personalize a user's online experience and analyze statistics on site traffic. The cookie reform will be one of many in a comprehensive package aimed at overcoming regulatory barriers to open government, Kundra said.

In addition, this framework is expected to clarify how the 1995 Paperwork Reduction Act, enacted prior to the rise of the Web, should be interpreted in the Internet Age, according to open government groups that have advised the administration on such issues. Current regulations require agencies to wait months for government approval before collecting information from citizens online. The law was created to avoid burdening citizens with forms, but federal Web managers say it stymies civic engagement. Transparency advocates said they expect the regulatory tweaks will allow agencies to collect voluntary input from citizens faster through means such as Internet-based surveys and online dialogues.

New guidance on e-rule-making also is anticipated. Citizens often cannot find regulations online when they search on the rule-tracking site Regulations.gov or elsewhere, because proposals and rules are not labeled uniformly, Bass noted.

Separately, the directive requires the White House to develop guidance on a long-term strategy for fiscal transparency that covers USAspending.gov and money distributed under the 2009 economic recovery act. Kundra has said OMB will dictate specific rules for agencies on reporting spending on subcontract awards. Outside advisers also predict White House officials will state their goal is to make all spending data available online throughout the appropriations life cycle, from agency budget justification to disbursement to agency performance results.

OMB and some agencies are keeping mum on the details of next week's roadmaps, partly because they are still being finalized. "It's really amazing they've met all these deadlines under the open government directive. It's really aggressive," Bass said. Within 45 days of receiving the directive, agencies had to release three downloadable sets of government information that had never been published and assign a high-level senior official to supervise the integrity of information on USAspending.gov. Fifteen days later, they had to create homepages for citizens to monitor their open government activities.

"In the federal agencies' open government plans, you will see exciting new steps to expand the public's access to information throughout the government," OMB spokesman Tom Gavin said. He noted this is not the final step in the administration's effort to promote transparency. "The plans will be open for comment on how they can be improved and on what other priorities should be included. The Obama administration is engaged in an ongoing dialogue to create a permanent culture of openness in the federal government."

Interior Department officials described their blueprint as a living document that will be regularly updated.

The White House has been keeping score on which agencies are participating in the transparency initiative through a color-coded online chart that indicates whether they have completed the directive's assignments. Critics have faulted the so-called dashboard for checking off simple criteria rather than measuring substance.

John Wonderlich, policy director at government transparency group the Sunlight Foundation, said he hopes the administration will upgrade the dashboard to evaluate compliance and highlight which agencies have gone beyond the directive's standards. For instance, the directive says agency plans should illustrate how the department will expedite its process for responding to requests under the Freedom of Information Act. An exceptional strategy would revamp disclosure practices to render FOIA requests unnecessary, Wonderlich noted.

"While it would be premature to comment on the specifics in the plans, we will continue to track progress on the open government dashboard," Gavin said.

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