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December 8, 2009

the Open Government Directive

The White House has released its Open Government directive (PDF), an order from the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to all federal agencies concerning "openness." It is a step toward implementing the President's Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, which he signed on his first day in office. I hope it is only a first step because the President's Memorandum was broad and inspiring, and this Directive seems narrow.

The focus of today's order is transparency: publishing government information online and improving the quality of that information. It's hard to argue against those goals since we citizens have a right to know what our government does. It's also plausible that transparency reduces corruption and enhances the quality and efficient of government. ("Sunlight is the best disinfectant," said Louis Brandeis.)

But this strategy has severe limitations. After all, we citizens already have access to enormous reams of data about the government (but much less about corporations and other powerful private actors). When the volume of data is overwhelming, interest groups and the professionals whom they employ can use the data selectively to advance their agendas. At the same time, the press can comb through the information looking for embarrassing stuff--which is helpful to the extent that their scrutiny reduces corruption, but bad if they just paint a misleading overall picture.

Consider, for example, the way that Politico chose to report the newly accessible data on Congressional office expenses. Their headline was: "Nancy Pelosi spends $2,993 on flowers." But $300 million of spending had just been disclosed, and Politico didn't choose to tell us how the other 99.999002% of our money was spent. Did most of it go for staff? If so, what jobs do they do? Evidently, Politico thought that itemizing Nancy Pelosi's flower bill was the way to get readers.

Again, it's hard to argue that we shouldn't have access to information about Congressional office expenses. We have a right to know about Congress and about executive agencies (which are the addressees of today's Directive). But I am unconvinced that much good will come of this disclosure.

Meanwhile, the "collaboration" and "participation" aspects of the president's original memorandum were extremely promising. Real participation by citizens and real collaboration with nonprofits and communities would change government and enhance civic skills. But those sections of today's Directive are very short and vague, and the concrete passages disappoint me. For instance:

I predict that organized stakeholders will dominate open online forums and will win most of the prizes and competitions, leaving most Americans with no new ways to participate. But I could certainly be wrong, and I hope I am. I also look forward to future initiatives, because I assume that the original Memorandum remains a promise that can inspire further action.

December 8, 2009 11:59 AM | category: none



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