White House Rolls Out Web Site, Initiatives to Boost Transparency

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 2009 4:52 PM

On his first full day in office, President Obama issued his first executive order directing federal officials to come up with ideas for making government information more visible and accessible to the public within 120 days.

Today -- the 120th day since the edict -- the White House is rolling out a host of online initiatives intended to foster more dialogue and collaboration between citizens and bureaucrats.

The launch includes the debut of a site called Data.gov, where agencies will post data that can be culled by Web developers to make new Web and cellphone applications. Also starting today, the WhiteHouse.gov homepage will become a repository for citizen suggestions and discussion regarding new open-government policies.

Obama's call for using technology to create a more cooperative relationship between citizens and their government was a cornerstone of his campaign, and he followed through on promises to appoint a chief technology officer and chief information officer to lead those efforts.

But with CTO appointee Aneesh Chopra not yet confirmed by Congress, action has so far been slow moving and some open-government advocates have voiced frustration that little progress has been made toward Obama's ambitious transparency goals.

Beth Noveck, deputy CTO in the Office of Science and Technology, and Vivek Kundra, chief federal information officer housed in the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the General Services Administration, have used the past four months to develop new online tools designed to allow citizens to participate in crafting new policies and have access to traditionally hard-to-find government data.

"This whole process is premised on the notion that people are smart and they have things to share," said Noveck, a law professor who was a technology advisor to Obama's transition team before joining the White House staff. "It's an important step in creating opportunities for citizens to engage with the government and co-create policy."

Public participation in the government process has historically been limited to submitting comments on drafts of regulations and sending letters or emails to federal officials. As a result, citizens are often not able to give meaningful input about new laws and the law-making process.

"Ways of doing things within the government have been institutionalized since way before the Web existed at all," Noveck said. "Changing the culture is just as important as changing the policies."

The initiatives launched today include a request by the administration that all agencies adopt more open-government tools over the next year, whether it be a wiki-style feedback page on their Web sites or making data sets available online. On WhiteHouse.gov will be an "Innovation Gallery," where agencies can showcase their efforts to be more transparent, and a timeline to display open-government milestones as they are reached.

Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, an advocate of government transparency, said the launch of Data.gov is the most significant part of the package of initiatives being unveiled today. Although the site currently has fewer than 100 data feeds, Miller said it "demonstrates the acceptance of the notion that providing raw data is inherent to establishing trust in agencies."

The data will be available in its raw form, meaning that it is easy for Web developers to download and combine with other information to create new ways of visualizing, analyzing and using the data. The Sunlight Foundation is also announcing today a contest for developers -- called the Data.gov Challenge -- to create applications using the information from Data.gov. The competition is modeled after the Apps for Democracy contest started by Kundra when he was the District of Columbia's CTO.

"What the administration is doing is redefining public information," Miller said. "To be truly public, it needs to be available online. That's a dramatic shift."

Kundra said it will take some time for data feeds to accumulate on Data.gov, especially since some agencies' technology systems are not capable of making information available in digital form.

"As we invest in new systems across the government, they will all have these capabilities," he said.

Other transparency advocates say the data is only a piece of achieving more openness within the government. Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, has expressed frustration with the sluggish process. She said emphasis should also be placed on making available internal records, such as policy papers and emails.

"Data is important for accountability, but so is how policy was formed," with other types of records, she said. "But no agency has a system for managing electronic records."

The White House, she said, will have to "hold agencies' feet to the fire" to get them to make information available to the public and allow citizens to collaborate in the process. Currently, providing data feeds to Data.gov is done on a voluntary basis.

"For most agencies, openness is not part of their mission statement," she said. "It's not what Congress has told them to do in the past, and it's not their culture. There's going to have to be some real pressure on agencies to do this."

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