Open Government and transparency

By Olivia Branco Internet Editor Federal News Radio

Open Government and transparency seems to the be the theme of the day today at Federal News Radio.

Just exactly how open and transparent has the government been? The annual Secrecy Report Card, compiled by OpenTheGovernment.org, was just released. Patrice McDermott, president of the website, joined Chris Dorobek on The Dorobek Insider and she says the Secrecy reports have come a long way since they were first issued during the Bush Administration.

“The number of newly classified documents dropped by 10% from (fiscal year) 2008 to 2009,” McDermott says, “which I think is pretty significant. It means that the government is creating fewer new secrets than it had been. The fewer secrets that they create now, the fewer things that need to be declassified later.”

So what has changed from the Bush to Obama Administration?

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“I do know the Obama Administration is really going to and has already begun, is getting the agencies to do more proactive disclosure and dissemination so people don’t necessarily do a request for every little thing. I think the cost (of that) may have gone up”

While there are some positive advancements, there is somewhat of a downside to the Secrecy Report Card.

“I think the most disappointing number is the amount that’s being spent. I (fiscal year) 2009 on declassification; that will have changed dramatically for FY 2010 because the new executive order on national security classification mandated the creation of a national declassification center which has been instituted and they’ve begun processing the backlogs.”

“But they have to declassify about 400 million documents before 2013. There’s going to be a lot of money going toward declassification in years to come and what effects that has on other parts of the budget remains to be seen.”

Also trying to track government spending data, the Sunlight Foundation launched a new website called ClearSpending.com, which keeps a scorecard on how agencies are reporting information for USAspending.gov.

Web developer for ClearSpending.com, Kaitlin Lee joined The Federal Drive with Tom Temin this morning and she said the group has found more than $1.3 trillion of bad data on the USASpending website.

It took over a year for the data to be collected and assessed, Lee said. The group then evaluated the data on three metrics: Consistency, Completeness and Timeliness.

The majority of the errors? Consistency.

While accuracy isn’t something that the program could catch or measure because of the way federal reporting is set up, Lee says the fact that the information being provided by agencies to both the CFDA and USASpending.gov isn’t the same is troubling.

“If we’re reporting these figures in two places, why can’t we at least be reporting the same number in both of them?” Lee said. “I feel like it’s an even more lenient metric than accuracy would be!”

Sunlight hopes that by catching agencies which are non-compliant, the program also finds the agencies that are reporting well, and have them translate what they do to other agencies.

The Sunlight Foundation has been one of the Obama Administration’s strongest supporters when it comes to open government. The Foundation’s co-founder and executive director, Ellen Miller, spoke this week at the Gov 2.0 Summit.

Federal News Radio reporter Max Cacas attended the event and saw the enthusiasm by Miller for the idea of open government.

No organization has been more enthusiastic, optimistic, or excited, about gov 2.0 in the area of data transparency than the Sunlight Foundation,” said Ellen Miller, the group’s co-founder and executive director. “In many respects, this administration has gone further and faster than any administration before it, when it comes to efforts at using technology to promote open government. But now, 20 months later, it appears that the drive for data transparency has stalled.”

Miller also spoke on the Open Government Directive, now in its second year of existance.

While the program had an optimistic start, she feared it was suffering somewhat of a sophomore slump.

“As you may recall, the central thrust of that directive was its insistence that all government agencies create and implement their own open data plans aimed at releasing high value data to the public,” she said. “The plans that resulted, however, were little more than inspirational. And in fact, 12 out of 30 agencies in those plans didn’t list any data for future publication, and all together only 75 new data sets were listed.”

Miller called the results “hugely, hugely disappointing.”

Miller also criticized one of the administration’s signature transparency initiatives, Recovery.gov, calling the website designed to track stimulus spending “a qualified success.”

“The idea of collecting job information at the most local level was extremely, overly optimistic, and ended with the Vice President making excuses for the data’s poor quality on ‘The Daily Show,'” she said.

While this specific open government directive is new, the concept is certainly not new.

Alex Howard, Gov 2.0 Washington correspondent for O’Reilly Media, joined Chris Dorobek on The Dorobek Insider to talk about how open government is changing and how it, along with e-government and social media, has changed our jobs.

“Now there’s something that is new in terms of the social tools that are evolving over the last five years. People forget how new the social web is. YouTube in 2005; Facebook, Twitter: these are all new things,” Howard says. “The social layer that has now exploded on the Internet; it provides an opportunity for people to share information with one another and ask questions of government and in turn to receive answers. The interactions on the social web can then be translated or converted to some of the e-services that government has been putting online now for decades.”

Howard offered the example of state government in California where both the unemployment office and DMV is on Twitter. Members of each offices are “monitoring what people are asking for and responding to them and guiding them to e-services.”

Howard knows that the Gov 2.0 and open government is a constantly changing term and idea.

“The challenge is that when you have the nebulus term like web 2.0 or gov 2.0, it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. It’s going to mean what people want it to mean in the context of their own frame.”

Keep checking back with Federal News Radio for more information on how the open government directive is being used, changed and studied.