Info released under Obama transparency order is of little value, critics say

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010

Transparency advocates and good-government groups rendered a mixed verdict this week on the Obama administration's recent release of hundreds of sets of government data, arguing that many federal agencies chose to release obscure or outdated facts and figures at the expense of long-standing requests for more relevant, sensitive information.

As part of the administration's efforts to make the government more transparent, President Obama ordered federal agencies last month to select at least three of their "high value" sets of statistics or other information to publish in a downloadable format at the government's Web site. Transparency advocates cheered the president's decision and eagerly anticipated last Friday's release.

Federal agencies met Friday's deadline, and information first surfaced on the Web site at the height of the evening rush period. The Department of Health and Human Services posted its annual summary of Medicare Part B spending, information it previously sold on CD-ROMs for $100. The Transportation Department provided information on child seat safety and tire quality, the State Department formatted its history of U.S. foreign relations and the Executive Office of the President published the history of economic forecasts.

But some agencies published only partial information on government contracts, and others selected obscure data of interest to only a few academic researchers.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, panned the Interior Department's decision to release an inventory of government-owned recreation sites and population counts for wild horses and burros.

"I'm sure there are curators who want that list, but I want to see information on oil and gas leases," Brian said.

Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, singled out the Justice Department's decision to provide 22 years worth of statistics on the nation's jail populations.

"There might be people doing historical research for which this will be useful information, but the concept of high value data, to me, means it's of significant value to the general public," she said.

Bill Allison, an analyst with the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, said agencies "went for the low-hanging fruit for things that are already out there and not terribly controversial." The Transportation Department's statistics on child seats and tires were publicly available, he said.

An Interior spokesman said that agencies were instructed to publish data central to their mission and that the information the department selected met those requirements. A DOT spokeswoman agreed that the child seat and tire information was available but said it is now posted in a Web-friendly format per Obama's order. A Justice spokesman said the department has posted several data sets it thinks are considered valuable to the general public.

But critics want more and said part of their concerns stem from Obama's failure to define the value of "high value" information.

"We're interested in the information that will hold the agencies accountable," Brian said.

Administration officials urged patience and said no coordinated transparency and open government plan existed before Obama took office.

"This is an effort not just to put information online and create Web sites with cool functions, but it's an effort to change the culture of government to one that's dedicated to openness and accountability," said Thomas Gavin, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. "It's an ongoing effort that will be a priority not just for this week but for the rest of this administration."

Going forward, advocates hope agencies also plan to release sensitive e-mails, travel logs and spending reports.

"These are the types we want to see federal agencies acknowledge as important records and records that should be automatically and very easily accessible to the public," said Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy at OMB Watch, a nonpartisan think tank focused on government transparency.

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