Open government plans 2.0 a mixed bag: News analysis

Dozens of federal agencies are releasing updated open government plans this week.

Federal agencies refreshed their open government plans this week, with mixed results and with generally more complex goals compared to the initial plans two years ago.

In the forefront, NASA appeared to be breaking new ground in its 2.0 open government strategy update released on April 9, highlighted by colorful graphic images rather than by section headlines. Both the strategy and an accompanying progress report  infographic use bold images presumably to appeal to a youthful global audience. The flagship new initiative is development of an open source Web architecture to more efficiently communicate and share data.

At the other end of the spectrum, several agencies, including the Veterans Affairs Department and the National Archives and Records Administration, have not yet updated their plans. The VA has not refreshed its open government website since October. White House officials said the Version 2.0 plans were to be released by April 9.

For the agencies that released plans, several described complex new initiatives. In some cases, the new programs did not appear to directly address the White House’s pillars of transparency, participation and collaboration outlined in the Open Government Directive of 2009.

For example, the Social Security Administration’s new flagship open government initiative in its 2.0 plan involves creating a Web portal to offer more streamlined and efficient services for people receiving benefits. The goal appears to be primarily about improving customer service, and the transparency and participation aspects are not spelled out.

Another open government goal for SSA is to promote adoption of health information technology in order to “reduce the time it takes to obtain the medical records needed to support disability determinations, and…help us manage that information more efficiently,” the plan states. The goal supports improved efficiency at the agency but the transparency aspect is less clear, however.

In its previous plan in 2010, the SSA's goals included basic measures such as improving its Freedom of Information Act website and creating an inventory of high-value data sets.

Similarly, the Health and Human Services Department describes more than a dozen complex initiatives in its open government Version2.0 plan. The HHS plan describes the “Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise Portfolio Tracking and Coordination Initiative” as an initiative involving an advisory committee that keeps track of vaccine-related developments. Its “Pediatrics Formulation Platform” is a program intended primarily for clinicians to review dosages and medicines for children.

In the General Services Administration’s updated open government plan, one of the new initiatives is for improving disposal of electronic waste, including recycling and refurbishing. While the goals are to improve the environment and efficiency, the transparency aspects are not explained in the plan.

With dozens of open government plan updates being released this week, White House officials recently wrote that open government, along with data accessibility, will advance accountability. “The first goal is to increase accountability,” wrote Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and Chris Vein, federal deputy chief technology officer, in the White House Blog on April 9.

At the same time, the federal agencies on the whole have been given a mixed report card on open government. In the White House’s Open Government Dashboard, the 29 agencies receive good and fair ratings overall, with no poor ratings.

Furthermore, few of the agencies have adopted the “Openness Floor” recommendations made by watchdog groups and endorsed by the White House in 2011, according to Those include publishing online the phone numbers for the agency offices, listing upcoming regulations and contracts, and maintaining visitor logs.

“Our latest check on agency compliance with (Openness Floor) shows that many agencies must have missed the memo,” states the blog on March 23. The group singles out the GSA for being the lone agency that appeared to have met the terms of the Openness Floor.