Commitment Analysis: Recommitment to Making Agencies More Open. Will It Succeed?

The following analysis was written by OpenTheGovernment.org.

Within the open government community, the acronym OGP generally refers to the Open Government Partnership: the international platform the US helped launch in 2011 that requires governments to work with civil society organizations to develop plans with concrete commitments to make the government more open and accountable. Before 2011 and the international initiative, the letters were sometimes used to refer to the Open Government Plans the Obama Administration required each federal agency to develop and to update every two years. One of the commitments included in the latest plan the US released as part of its participation in the international OGP could help refocus agency attention on these open government plans and make government information more easily available to the public.

The draft plan by civil society organizations, which we helped coordinate, strongly noted the need to refocus agency attention on open government plans. The commitment does not reflect the suggestion that the Administration launch a dashboard to make it easier for the public to interact with the agencies' open government teams and learn what each agency is doing. It does, however, pick up on a thread that ran throughout several civil society-drafted commitments: the government needs to make more proactive disclosures of information (proactive disclosures is a term of art that means making more information available without anyone having to first request it). Civil society organizations particularly noted that agencies could enhance ethics by making more information available about outside actors that are attempting to influence agency decisions easily available.

Of course, as we have previously noted, commitments do not execute themselves, and whether the commitment leads to positive changes depends a lot on the steps the Administration takes to meet its promises. One need look no farther than our final evaluation of the Administration's efforts to carry out its commitment related to open government plans in the first plan for proof of this assertion: we marked the Administration's commitment to "Monitor Agency Implementation of [Open Government] Plans" as not met. We made this assessment because of the lack of public information about the White House’s efforts (the White House's "open government dashboard" has not been updated since shortly after the release of the first plans in 2010) and a lack of follow up on the agencies’ part to reach out to stakeholder groups, or even produce updated reports in a timely fashion (a few agencies missed the two year deadline for producing updated plans).

One of the central concepts behind the agency plans is that the agency is supposed to challenge itself to put practices in place that make openness simply a part of the way the agency does its business. While we did not have the resources to conduct the kind of thorough evaluation we coordinated in 2010 of the updated individual agency open government plan, we have noticed a wide split in the quality of updated plans and the extent to which agencies use their /open pages to inform the public. Many observers have remarked that, with some exceptions, agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that were already fairly open have continued to push ahead with new and innovative open government practices. On the other hand, agencies that were more secretive, like the Department of Justice, have struggled to keep pace. It will take much more oversight and assistance on the Administration's part to make sure that agencies do not begin treating development, updating and execution of the plans as just another box they have to check.

In a similar vein, the promise of creating guidelines that will help agencies make more information freely available is great, but it is going to take much more effort and pressure from Administration officials and people high up in the agencies to make sure agencies actually do the work. For our part, we will continue to work with the Administration and agencies on implementation of the commitments and monitor and evaluate the Administration's efforts over the coming years.

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