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Open government audit: agencies straddle the Mendoza line in meeting OGD goals

On January 21, 2009, as one of his first acts as President, President Obama released his Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. The memorandum instructed that government should be transparent, government should be participatory, government should be collaborative. On December 8, 2009, Peter Orzag, the head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued the Open Government Directive (PDF) establishing deadlines for application of those three principles of open government — readers will remember that Federal CIOs were only lukewarm about the administration’s transparency goals. The memorandum requires executive departments and agencies to take the following steps toward the goal of creating a more open government:

  1. Publish Government Information Online
  2. Improve the Quality of Government Information
  3. Create and Institutionalize a Culture of Open Government
  4. Create an Enabling Policy Framework for Open Government

A group of non-profit govt transparency organizations — including OpenTheGovernment, Sunlight Foundation, American Library Association, American Association of Law Libraries, Center for Democracy and Technology and several other groups — got together to measure how federal agencies were doing to meet the open government directive. They evaluated federal agencies based on a set of criteria (here’s their methodology for how the scores were derived) and found that NASA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency scored highest while Department of Treasury, Department of Defense, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Department of Energy, and the Department of Justice ranked last in terms of meeting the goals of the open government initiative. Those interested should check back at the site as the organizations will continue to evaluate agencies’ improvements over the next year. By the way, here’s more on the [w:Mendoza Line], the baseball measurement for threshold of incompetence.

We commend the President for his commitment to openness and for providing detailed elements in the OGD that can be used to hold federal agencies accountable. Many of the federal agencies have approached implementation of the OGD requirements with energy and enthusiasm and some have taken innovative steps in their plans. If implemented with spirit, vigor, and innovation, the Open Government Plans can serve as a vehicle for fundamentally changing the way the federal government interacts with the public. This, in turn, may prove to be a catalyst for shifting public trust in government.

At the same time, many of the agency plans as unveiled on April 7 have a long way to go to create this transformational potential. As this audit demonstrates, there is wide variation in the agency plans. Some are exceptional; others are quite weak. Most are somewhere in between. Many of the plans that currently do not meet the minimal requirements identified in the OGD can do so with only modest improvements, such as providing more specificity on deadlines or identifying where certain items mentioned in the plans can be found. An overview of what we found is below.

Final Rankings

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