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Previewing Agencies’ Open Government Plans (by Lucas Cioffi)

In accordance with the White House’s Open Government Directive, top-level agencies will post their open government plans on April 7th.  Several agencies gave a public preview of their plans on Monday at the White House Conference Center, and I had the opportunity to represent NCDD at this meeting.

The bottom line is that I was highly impressed with how much effort has been put into these plans behind the scenes; there is a tremendous amount of buy-in from senior officials at these agencies.  The biggest challenge– and a significant concern of mine– is that agencies will have to find ways to implement their plans without additional funding or resources.  It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

Other organizations in attendance included the Sunlight Foundation, OMB Watch, the Project on Government Oversight, AmericaSpeaks, TechAmerica, and the MIT Media Lab.

I’ll focus this blog post on process more than content, because that may be most useful to fellow NCDD members.  The day was set up with 30 minutes per agency in the following order: Office of Management and Budget, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Council on Environmental Quality, Corporation for National and Community Service, National Archives and Records Administration, Department of Labor, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

One critique of the process was that 30 minutes was too short a window for agencies to present their entire plans.  Posting the draft plans online prior to the meeting would have saved much more time for discussion.

It was also fascinating to see some agencies take a more broadcast approach to blasting out as much information as possible while HUD took a much more participatory approach and used almost their entire 30 minutes for discussion.

Commonalities among Agencies

Everyone emphasized that their open government plan is version 1.0, that they “won’t get it absolutely right the first time,” and that they will continually be improving their plans.  Some agencies will be briefing the heads of their agencies on a quarterly basis with updates.

It’s truly wonderful that they are taking an iterative approach to developing these plans.  Perhaps it’s because the Open Government Directive places a heavy emphasis on technology, that they are borrowing this concept from the software development world.  I don’t know, but it seems to me that this iterative mentality is the exception rather than the rule in government.

Office of Management and Budget (OMB)

OMB describes themselves as one of the main engines behind open government implementation.  They convene 40+ senior officials from many agencies for the bi-weekly Administration Open Government Working Group Meeting.

OMB has the equivalent of less than 400 full-time employees.  They are focused on inter-agency collaboration, especially from September-February when they draft the President’s budget.  They emphasized that they use deliberation to draft the budget and that the details of their deliberative methods will be disclosed in their plan.  This will be of particular interest to NCDD.

There was a great deal of information in OMB’s 30-minute brief.  They are looking for better feedback mechanisms.  “Absorbing the nation’s views on the budget” is too difficult.  One member of the audience mentioned that they could convene in-person meetings with representative samples of the public and OMB seemed receptive.

All agencies are completing an inventory of their high-value databases so they know what information they have on hand and then can consider making it public.  OMB’s flagship initiative will be it’s dashboard for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs which displays the status of regulatory actions under review from other agencies.  There will be an increased focus on e-rulemaking (receiving comments from the public on proposed rules) and “following the arc of a regulation’s progress” through as it progresses from a draft to a final version.

I am particularly excited to see the outline of their internal process for budget deliberations.  Process determines product, so NCDD might be able to advise improvements to the deliberative process and thereby creating a better product.  Yes, but budgets are often more important than policies, because budgets reveal priorities and directly influence what work gets done in government.

Department of the Treasury

Treasury gave a solid presentation.  The key take-away for me is that they are reframing discussion about “culture change” within their organization to a discussion about just “culture”.  Because many people resist change, they might find much more success focusing on their objective of a collaborative culture than their method of culture change.  I look forward to seeing how it goes.

Department of Transportation (DOT)

The DOT had the best models for explaining open government implementation.  Their slides were impressive, very concise, and extremely clear.  These visualizations of how to align open gov implementation with strategic plans should be seen by all agencies; aligning with the strategic plan will ensure success and DOT definitely drove that point home.

In particular, they had a model for how “foundational activity, low numbers of dependencies, DOT employee demand, public demand, and capability and readiness” are the filters which reveal what is possible within their agency with respect to open government.  I’m hoping that their models will also be released to the public– many other agencies need to see what they’ve built.

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

HUD will be taking the smart approach that any documents the public requests more than once should be made public immediately.  This can dramatically reduce the backlog of requests for information in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

The HHS team finished the day, and saying that I was significantly impressed is an understatement.  Their team was so enthusiastic that they didn’t even realize they took 60 minutes when only 30 was allocated.  Their brief was already starting 45 minutes late because all the other presentations ran late.  Even though they started their presentation after 5pm, they were motivated and inspired, and listening to them was like listening to an open government highlight reel of best practices.  I kept thinking to myself that there’s no way that anyone could have predicted how dramatic a change open government could be when the Directive was first issued in January 2009.  HHS took the ball and ran it all the way down the field.

Not only did they incorporate a great deal of suggestions that the audience gave the other agencies (note: they weren’t even present when the other agencies received feedback), they surpassed those suggestions.  Most importantly, they understand that they must balance privacy with openness, especially given the current political climate surrounding health care.  They acknowledge that if they make a mistake and do not successfully anonymize health data when they release it in the name of transparency, it would set the open government movement back “10-20 years”.  They are right to be extremely cautious and their plan to err on the side of caution is sound.  They demonstrated how opening up anonymous health data has the potential to significantly increase competition and transform the health care industry.  This will take months and years, but it will be remarkable and certainly needs to happen.

I’m confident that if anyone can move the needle of an agency’s culture toward smart openness, it’s the HHS and DOT open government teams.  Leadership from OMB and OSTP is very solid.  Five stars out of five.  I’m excited to see their final plans on April 7th.

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Lucas Cioffi
Lucas Cioffi graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Having served one year in Baghdad as an infantry officer, he realizes the need for effective dialogue and deliberation in preventing conflict. He is passionate about advanced online deliberative platforms and is co-founder of AthenaBridge.com.

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  1. Thanks for the write-up!

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