Let the Sunshine In
This week is Sunshine Week, a joint project of the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Held in mid-March, Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote discussion about the importance of open government and freedom of information.
The theme of this year’s Sunshine Week is “Put Sunshine in Your Government,” and so now is an appropriate time to reflect on the Obama Administration’s strong commitment to open government over the past three years, and more particularly to provide an update on implementation of the U.S. National Action Plan on Open Government.
President Obama unveiled the National Plan in September 2011, as part of the United States’ commitment as a founding member of the Open Government Partnership – a global effort to promote more transparent, effective, and accountable governance in countries around the world.
A little over five months later, we have already made important progress on many initiatives and thus followed through on a number of commitments in the National Action Plan. To name a few:
- Regulations.gov. To expand public participation in the development of regulations, Regulations.gov recently launched a major redesign, including innovative new search tools, social media connections, and better access to regulatory data. The result is a significantly improved website that will help members of the public to engage with agencies and ultimately to improve the content of rules.
- Records Management. The backbone of a transparent and accountable government is strong records management. For this reason, the President signed and issued a presidential memorandum in November 2011 that directs agencies to improve their records management processes, especially with respect to digital records. OMB and NARA are currently working on a joint Records Management Directive to implement the President’s directions.
- Smart Disclosure. The Administration is giving consumers access to key information to help them to make wiser choices. In many cases, smart disclosure enables people to track the nature and effects of their own past decisions, thus enabling them to make better choices in the future. In other cases, smart disclosure gives people easy access to their own records. For example, the White House’s new Green Button ensures that consumers have timely access to their own energy data, in consumer-friendly and computer-friendly formats; the relevant information has the potential to help consumers save a great deal of money. In addition, the Department of Veterans Affairs recently gave a boost to job-seekers by giving them access to their military records online, while IRS is developing an application to enable taxpayers to send securely a verified digital copy of prior year tax information to authorized third parties.
- “We the People.” “We the People” is an online tool that allows Americans to petition the White House on a range of issues. Five months after its launch, we have seen strong participation from the public. More than 31,000 petitions have been created, 2.4 million petition signatures have been logged, 68 petitions have received an official response, and 28 more are in the works.
- Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Continuing the United States’ leadership in the global effort against corruption, and to ensure that American taxpayers are receiving every dollar due for the extraction of publicly owned resources, the Administration committed to joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (“EITI”). In October, the White House announced that Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would be the Senior Administration official responsible for oversight of implementation of EITI. The Department of Interior is currently working with civil society and industry on implementation, and is encouraging public involvement on next steps.
- Foreign Assistance. The Administration is working to institutionalize government-wide reporting requirements on foreign aid, directing agencies that administer such aid to provide more detailed information. Consistent with this push to increase USG transparency, and in support of the international aid transparency effort, Secretary Clinton recently announced that the United States would join the International Aid Transparency Initiative, publishing data in an open, up-to-date, and internationally compatible format.
- Innovation. Through a centralized government platform, the United States built Data.gov to support an unprecedented amount of government data and applications. Working with others, we have deposited the first of several sets of open source code as we build a new version of Data.gov called the Open Government Platform, which will be available to all countries around the world. In addition, the United States is expanding the number of Data.gov “communities” on our domestic site that connect data related to particular subject matters with users and producers of that data. For example, education.data.gov was recently launched – serving as a central guide for education data resources, including applications for the classroom.
- Freedom of Information Act. To continue to improve FOIA administration, modifications have been made to the GSA contract schedules, to afford agencies the ability to respond in a timely fashion. Moreover, the Office of Personnel Management just last week established a new job series, Government Information Management, 0306, encompassing work in the administration of FOIA and the Privacy Act, in order to elevate the importance of the work performed by those in the Federal Government who are responsible for realizing the President’s vision of an open and transparent government. To enhance the public’s ability to locate all the material that is being made available, DOJ recently added a search tool to FOIA.Gov that surveys information across government websites so that requesters can search and find information before making a FOIA request.
We have made significant progress on other initiatives as well, and as we implement these and other initiatives, the Administration will continue to work closely with the public and civil society organizations.
Our efforts are ongoing. Just last week, the White House launched ethics.gov, fulfilling a promise to create a centralized database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable format.
We are working hard to achieve our open government goals, every day, and we look forward to continuing to work together to make these goals a reality.
Cass Sunstein is the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs
Chris Vein is Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Government Innovation for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy