GSA official: Government transparency still faces hurdles

Agencies must improve the quality of federal data and present it clearly to the public, according to associate administrator.

Government transparency is a work in progress for federal agencies, a top official told a group of public and private sector executives in Washington last week.

"This is about a series of steps we have to go through in order to do it well," said David McClure, associate administrator of the Office of Citizen Services and Communications at the General Services Administration, outlining challenges to open government during an Association for Federal Information Resources Management event in Washington last Thursday, a day before the Obama administration's first deadline requiring agencies to post government data online. "It's going to be an evolutionary process."

In December 2009, the Office of Management and Budget directed agencies to publish by Jan. 22 at least three new downloadable sets of statistics that hold the government accountable, illuminate its work, share financial opportunities with the public or meet some other need citizens convey.

McClure, who has worked at the Government Accountability Office and Gartner, an IT research and advisory firm, elicited a few chuckles when he said, "I believe panic has set in, in how deadlines are announced."

In the months ahead, agencies must find ways to improve the quality of federal data and present it clearly and concisely to the public. The government also must work to foster a "two-way dialogue" with the public, McClure said.

Part of establishing that dialogue could involve upgrading the technology used to communicate with the public. On Jan. 19, GSA introduced an online tool that agencies can use at no cost to create forums for the public to share ideas, provide feedback and engage in discussions. McClure said such forums will require moderators and other controls to ensure that agencies can handle the flood of input, but he added that there would be no censorship.

The greatest mistake federal agencies can make with broad citizen engagement, McClure said, is to invite mass participation, but not act on the feedback. The key to successfully implementing open government lies in how agencies sort, rank, filter and discuss feedback while keeping the public in the information loop, he said, emphasizing that managers, executives and agencies have to be plugged in to this process.

"This is not something you turn over to an IT person or policy analyst and you say, 'Good luck, have fun for the next three weeks sorting through this stuff, let me know what you find out.' This is actively trying things in collaboration," said McClure.

Agencies also must balance the tension between open government and existing policies that seek to restrict information from each other and the public, according to McClure.

The government also should think about how it casts its net when it comes to greater transparency, said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, president and founder of AmericaSpeaks, a nonpartisan group advocating for public participation in civic life. "As a federal government, most of our agencies are today watched by stakeholders -- not by the general interest public -- so if we wanted to bring these information technologies options for...real input, we have got to think about the outreach process that gets us beyond sophisticated Beltway and around the country of stakeholders."