White House defends transparency initiatives

The White House used a status report on its open government initiative released Friday as an opportunity to showcase the Obama administration's progress on transparency goals and to counter criticism that agency efforts to better inform the public haven't lived up to the president's campaign rhetoric.

The report hits back, for example, at critics of Data.gov, the governmentwide repository for agency statistics, who have said data on the site is too raw to be of much use to average citizens.

While acknowledging the data sets typically "require aggregation and synthesis," the White House argued the unprocessed nature of the data makes it easier for policy groups, businesses and others to tailor the information to meet their needs.

Transparency groups have praised Data.gov, which has grown to nearly 400,000 data sets since its 2009 launch, but have urged improvements to make information posted there more standardized, easily readable and searchable. Some also have complained that data posted to the site is often inaccurate -- because of collection errors at the agency level unrelated to the site itself -- and skews toward mundane studies on public library circulation and broccoli consumption in the United States rather than critical information about national security and similar issues. Friday's report did not address those criticisms.

Data.gov has logged more than 200 million visits during the past two years, and more than 2 million data sets have been downloaded from the site, according to the report.

Agencies responded to 56 percent of Freedom of Information Act requests with full disclosure between October 2009 and September 2010, the last full year for which data is available, the study said. That represents a 6 percent increase over the previous year, the report said.

The percentage of full disclosures jumped significantly more at some agencies, the report said, including a 21 percent hike at the Justice Department, a 90 percent hike at the Agriculture Department and 200 percent at the State Department.

Agencies also answered more FOIA requests with partial information rather than denying them entirely, the report said, and reduced its backlog of requests by about 10 percent. That push to partially grant FOIA requests rather than rejecting them has led to longer wait times in some cases, the report acknowledged.

The study highlighted efforts to release spending information, especially the economic stimulus site Recovery.gov, which White House officials and some members of Congress are considering using as a model to track all federal funds.

The status report also touted several smaller transparency initiatives in the White House, such as publishing the president's and vice president's daily schedules online and publishing visitor logs on a rolling basis.