Federal CTO will issue incomplete suggestions for open government

Transparency advocates worry that Chopra's plans and lack of public involvement could create an impression Obama's neglecting the initiative.

The newly appointed federal chief technology officer has not yet been confirmed by the Senate, but Aneesh Chopra plans to issue recommendations on an open government directive by May 21, a White House official said.

The administration, via a blog and possibly through other new media conduits, plans to invite the public to comment on the memo as early as next week.

A presidential memo issued on Jan. 21, the day after Barack Obama's inauguration, set a deadline of May 21 for suggestions from the CTO on how to create a more transparent, collaborative and participatory government. The Obama administration then plans to issue a directive to all agencies based on the recommendations, according to the memo.

Chopra will honor the president's request with some form of a proposal, but it will not be the final product many open government activists were expecting, said the White House official, who asked not to be identified because the person is not authorized to talk publicly about the issue.

One hang-up has been Chopra's murky official status. On April 18 he was named an assistant to President Obama and appointed associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and his Senate confirmation is still pending. The administration also has yet to seek public comment on the memo, an omission that some transparency advocates argue weakens the open government initiative.

"People are going to be pretty upset if it's coming out in dribs and drabs, understanding that they're understaffed, but that's also an indication of the commitment of the White House," said Patrice McDermott, director of Openthegovernment.org, a coalition of journalists, advocacy groups and unions focused on strengthening public trust in government.

"Until there is a directive, the agencies won't be bound by anything," she added. "My concern, from a public interest perspective, is what does that mean in terms of the White House receptiveness to those [ideas] that come in after the deadline. This puts a lot of burden on the public to keep paying attention."

The White House has not announced a deadline for the directive.

The administration got off to a good start with the initiative by meeting with numerous advocacy groups, particularly during Sunshine Week, an annual national initiative held in March to promote freedom of information, McDermott said. At the time, Office of Science and Technology officials told Openthegovernment.org that citizens would be able to comment on the memo through a public Web site.

That was six weeks ago, she said. "Some sort of public site a week before the recommendations are due just doesn't cut it," McDermott added.

The lack of communication runs counter to the administration's recent approaches in soliciting feedback. In an April 23 issue of the Federal Register, the White House requested comments on a scientific integrity memo, and in the Feb. 26 issue, it requested comments on a regulatory review executive order.

Chopra does not have to issue a formal request for comments in the Federal Register, the White House official said. Citizens will have frequent opportunities to comment through several platforms as proposals are released, the official added.

McDermott said the White House should seek feedback through traditional, formal and informal processes, such as online interactions.

"I give them plaudits for moving toward social media, but the comfort level of the [Washington] policy wonks would be raised with a formal review and comment period" announced in the Federal Register, she said.

Composing such a notice would force Chopra and other officials to firm up their ideas before moving ahead, according to McDermott. "My worry is . . . they are going to ask us to submit comments on something that is amorphous," she said.

Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit government accountability group, also was concerned about how Chopra's late appointment could affect the outcome of the open government directive. "The reality is this guy is just getting on board," he said. "It sounds like he might get on board the same day the recommendations are due."

Bass said the administration should extend the May 21 deadline to accommodate for Chopra's late arrival and the lack of public input.