So the Obama Administration has released a directive asking Government Agencies to create a plan to be more transparent in the next 120 days and to designate a single point person for this effort within 45 days.
I don’t like being the cynic on this stuff. I honestly don’t. But this isn’t going to work and someone has to correct the almost irresponsible hype that’s coming out of sites like techPresident. Take this quote from them…
This morning's announcement of the 11-page OGD is hugely important in many ways. But none more so than that federal agencies are the places in the United States government where the financial budget and staffing resources to finally put some real meat on the bones of open government.
Read the directive. Do you see anywhere in that directive where additional funding is being promised to anyone? In fact, as anyone working for these agencies will tell you their being asked to cut costs in the coming year. All this directive provides is “ideas for contests, prizes, and other tools proven to spur innovations outside government.” One last quote from techPresident…
The spaces between the Open Government Directive's firm benchmarks and concrete performance metrics are filled with articulations of the broad principles of open government widely agreed upon by advocates. But they take on new import when it's the White House doing the talking. "With respect to information, the presumption shall be in favor of openness (to the extent permitted by law and subject to valid privacy, confidentiality, security, or other restrictions)." Beyond that, the OGD plants flags on more controversial principles of open government. "Timely publication of information is an essential component of transparency," reads the plan, an implicit critique of after-the-fact disclosure that sometimes passes for openness in government circles.
Well, if the White House says the presumption should be towards openness I suppose that solves everything. Right?
(That was sarcasm in case you didn’t realize)
Now I know this is a long post but I ask you to follow my logic here because this really is important. This plan isn’t going to work because this is not how problems are solved and the first step to getting actual transparency is realizing how flawed this effort is. So with that said let me start out with the most obvious point…
No new data is being made available.
That's not a criticism I’m just stating the fact. There’s no dispute here. Nothing that wasn’t already available to the public is being made available by this. The best you’ll get is the info in a more machine readable format. That leads me to my next point.
If it’s already available why isn’t this data online already?
All these agencies have websites, all those websites have people writing them and all this information was already available to the public. So why isn’t it already up there? The way I see it there are two options:
Option #1: People in Government are lazy
So maybe the data isn’t put online because the people in these agencies are just too lazy to do it. It’s certainly a possibility. But if that’s the case than this directive doesn’t solve anything. All the directive does is to tell these same people to put a few datasets up. If laziness is really the problem than they’re going to put up whatever data set is handy and do so in the sloppiest way possible. At which point they’re going to go back to not putting stuff online (the directive instructs agencies to be proactive but doesn’t specify what that means). So if these people are just lazy than today’s directive doesn’t solve the actual problem.
Option #2: There’s a real reason why this data isn’t made available.
If there’s an actual reason for data not being put up than the key to solving that problem is to (a) find out that reason and (b) find a way to address it. This directive doesn't do that. It arbitrarily says “put up data” without any input from the agencies. So again the problem isn’t solved. But this is actually worse. Because you alienate the people with the information to fix the problem by not asking their input. So instead they end up grudgingly doing the bare minimum and not really participating at all.
So what should the government do?
They should make this a collaborative process. Rather than edicts from on-high they should send a directive to each agency saying “detail what data you haven’t shared and the reasons why it hasn’t been shared?” Then they should examine each report and engage the people in each agency so that a solution can be found that puts the data out there while addressing the concerns of each agency.
The problem is with the approach.
When you say “Put up 3 datasets” or “reduce requests by 10%” you’re saying “I’m going to set arbitrary goals and not bother caring what your individual needs are.” This is the problem with Government and specifically with politicians. They want to be the hero. They want to ride in like the white knight, declare “information should be free” and then bask in adulation. But that’s not how problems get solved.
Problems get solved by teams. By engaging the people who know what they’re talking about and empowering them to fix the problems they see. Mark my words: I will follow up on this and I’ll bet all the money in my pocket that the data this directive makes available is next to useless based on the reasons outlined above.
I leave you with this. Everyone reading this has or has had a job in the past. How would it make you feel if your boss told you to do something without asking your opinion on whether it should be done? Wouldn't you feel much better if said boss asked your opinion and addressed your concerns before ordering you to start work on the project?