3 Thoughts on the White House's Last-Minute Call for Transparency Input

Updated National Action Plan for Open Government is due in a month.

White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Nick Sinai posted a call for comments this week, seeking input for an updated version of the Obama administration's National Action Plan for Open Government.

The first action plan included 26 commitments the administration made as a founding member of the 60-nation Open Government Partnership, which the U.S. helped launch on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in 2011.

The White House announced it had made good on 24 of those 26 commitments in March, including expanding whistleblower protections to soldiers and intelligence workers and opening up large amounts of government data to outside developers. Now it wants the public’s help as it builds an updated list of commitments.

Sinai’s post was built around eight specific questions for commenters, such as “How would you like to be able to interact with federal agencies making decisions which impact where you live?” and “What information or data could the government make more accessible to help you start or improve your business?”

Here are a few observations:

  • Striking a good balance

Based on Sinai’s questions alone, the White House’s open government goals continue to do a decent job of balancing the accountability side of transparency (whistleblower protections, Freedom of Information Act compliance, declassification of benign national security documents) with engagement (the White House’s We the People petition site), service delivery (online benefits forms and social media outreach) and economic development (developer resources on Data.gov that can be used to build data-driven startup businesses).

Government transparency is a complex proposition these days and old-fashioned accountability can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Two of Sinai’s eight questions have an accountability component, which is a positive sign: “How can the Federal government better ensure broad feedback and public participation when considering a new policy?” and “What suggestions do you have to improve transparency in government spending?”

The Obama administration has a mixed record when it comes to actually delivering on accountability through government transparency, however. It will be interesting to see how ambitious the second-round accountability goals actually turn out to be.

  • Being transparent about transparency

The White House still has trouble mixing transparent practice with transparent rhetoric even in the most basic ways. Sinai’s call for comments, for instance, is actually a call for emails, which the administration will later publish in summary. When seeking advice on open government, it seems natural to make that advice itself open and transparent. This could be done using a plain old comments section. Even better, the White House could have engaged the public with a crowdsourcing platform such as IdeaScale, which allows users to vote ideas up and down. That way the public could participate not just in offering ideas but in choosing which ones merit further consideration.

It’s also worth noting that this call for public input comes five months after the White House announced it was working on a 2.0 version of its open government commitments and less than one month before that document is officially due to the Open Government Partnership. The White House may be planning on handing the updated plan in late, but the timing makes public input seem like a bit of an afterthought.

Finally, unlike the United Kingdom, Canada and dozens of other nations, the U.S. still hasn’t posted its open government commitments directly to the OGP website. That means anyone interested in learning about the commitments has to pore through long, narrative PDF documents, which can obscure information just as much as they reveal it. For example, try figuring out in under five minutes which two commitments the U.S. has failed to deliver so far from this March update.

  • Stay tuned

As a final note, stay tuned later this month when the OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism is scheduled to provide an outsider’s view on the U.S.’s transparency progress to date. This should give better perspective on how far the Obama administration has come on transparency -- and how far it has yet to go.