Progress and “Next Steps” on Open Government? Thoughts on the Administration’s NAP Self-Evaluation

Both civil society and the government have released reports on what was accomplished through the National Action Plan issued in September 2011. Both reports share one critically important finding: for nearly all the commitments, there remains work to be done and further lessons to be learned. Open government, you could say, is not built in a single year.

Much of the government’s self-evaluation reads like a progress report: it describes the actions the government took over the last 18 months to meet the letter of its commitments. Commendably, on several commitments, the report goes beyond a simple narrative of actions to include some discussion of challenges, and next steps. For example, on its commitment to declassify historical records, the self-assessment addresses the problem the page-by-page review process imposed by the Kyl-Lott amendment poses for successfully eliminating the massive backlog of records awaiting action at the National Declassification Center. The report continues to say that the Administration will engage civil society on how to address these issues, and is reviewing the recommendations to “Transform Classification” made the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) in a December 2012 report. Similarly, the self-assessment describes further guidance that agencies will soon be given by the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) on improving FOIA administration.

The civil society evaluation referred to the commitments in the 1st National Action Plan as “small steps.” The next steps described in the self-assessment, are like-wise best described as “small.” What is missing from the Administration’s reports and plans, thus far, is a connection between the “small steps,” and the grand goals of the openness partnership. Yearly action plans are helpful and necessary, but it’s time to consider how the government accomplishes its openness goals in this second term: How will the Administration move through the current declassification backlog, and make sure the massive volume of material the government currently classifies does not overwhelm the system again? How will FOIA work better for requesters?

It is encouraging to read of the government’s recognition that there is still more work to be done. We look forward to continuing to work with the Administration to create a vision of open and accountable government, and a plan–with timelines and benchmarks–to continue the progress down that path. In our first evaluation we set a high bar for openness. As this next plan is created, we hope to raise the bar together–with a wide range of input–during the creation of the second National Action Plan.

 

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