Agencies should post officials' schedules, other info under new transparency partnership, group says

Federal agencies should post visitor logs, officials' daily calendars and other information on their websites as part of a new multination open government partnership, a watchdog recommended this week.

Citizens also should be able to file and track Freedom of Information Act requests directly from agency sites, the group OMB Watch said in a memo to government staff who are crafting the nation's transparency commitments under the new Open Government Partnership, set to launch on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

OGP now consists of an eight-member steering committee of nations that have committed to establishing more detailed open government plans and to consulting with each other on best practices.

The goal is for other nations to join OGP after its September launch. The steering committee has published a list of about 80 countries that it's inviting to join the partnership based on eligibility criteria.

Steering committee nations, co-led by the United States and Brazil, all have agreed to engage civil society and transparency organizations in developing their national plans.

OMB Watch also recommended fleshing out into a "one-stop shop" for citizen information on regulations and federal rule-making. The group suggested making information posted to the federal open data site more uniform, accessible and easily searchable.

Other transparency organizations also have responded to a call the White House put out in August for ideas on shaping U.S. commitments under the partnership.

The Sunlight Foundation suggested Wednesday that the U.S. plan include a pledge from the White House and the Office of Management and Budget that federal agencies and government officials be allowed to publicly suggest new transparency initiatives without fear of retribution.

The open government debate as it exists now is handicapped, the group said, because officials with the greatest expertise in how government could be opened up are often limited to expressing those ideas through internal channels. As a result, those ideas might not reach the ears of nongovernmental transparency organizations or White House decision-makers.

OGP's aim, as it's currently envisioned, is to establish best practices among nations that are already committed to transparency, not to promote transparency in repressive regimes, according to Nathaniel Heller, managing director of the international transparency group Global Integrity, which is working with OGP on its website maintenance and some of its international networking.

"There's a strong desire and aim that this not be about democracy promotion," Heller told Nextgov. "This is not a guise or a secret way from the outside in to try to reform the Chinas or Irans of the world, and that's really explicitly at the top of the minds of the steering committee."

Heller stressed that his organization essentially is doing contract work for OGP and that he doesn't speak for the OGP steering committee or any of its members. Global Integrity's work for OGP is being funded by grant money from George Soros' Open Society Foundation and the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic organization created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Heller said.

It made sense to create OGP as a one-off international partnership rather than an international commitment engineered through the U.N. or some other body, Heller argued, because that will allow member states to focus on developing initiatives rather than on lobbying opponents and naysayers.

"The multilateral approach is just slow and tedious and it's [focused on the] lowest common denominator," he said. "It's really hard to get ambitious, stretch sorts of commitments and reforms out of that because you've got the whole world chiming in . . . This allows you to self-select out [nations that] aren't serious and just work with those that are."

Heller published a lengthy blog post in July that, among other things, criticized the nascent OGP for not being sufficiently transparent itself.

He attributed that failing not to a "cabal of governments and NGOs trying to cook the OGP up in secret" but to inadequate planning and an ad hoc way of choosing the original steering committee based largely on who showed up to an early meeting. Most important, he said, the partnership had been hobbled by a lack of communications staff.

Indeed, Nextgov this week called half a dozen international organizations and partnership experts, none of whom had heard of OGP.

Heller is hopeful the partnership will gain steam after its official launch and that its internal governing mechanisms will receive transparency bona fides after new co-chairs are selected in 2012.

While various forms of Internet-based transparency are likely to make up the lion's share of U.S. commitments, Heller said, he expects open government plans in less developed nations to be focused more on basic forms of transparency, such as financial disclosures by government officials.

Regarding the U.S. plan, Heller said he's in favor of many of the data transparency initiatives that the White House and transparency organizations have touted, but is concerned the plan may become merely a collection of leftover initiatives that the Obama administration campaigned on but wasn't able to implement during its first two years in office.

Pushing new reforms could be difficult due to the tight budget climate and entrenched hostility in Congress, Heller said.

The Obama administration has instituted a slew of mostly Internet-enabled transparency reforms, including an online system for petitioning the government just announced Thursday. Some of the changes have been hobbled, however, by a lack of funding.

A last-minute deal between the Obama administration and House Republicans to avert a government shutdown in April cut fiscal 2011 funding for online open government initiatives by more than three quarters, to only $8 million.

"The United States is a co-chair of this initiative and I'd hope to see something ambitious [in its plan], say around political financing," Heller said. "The political reality, though, is that's just not going to happen."