The Progress Report: Obama's Open Government Directive

The Progress Report: Obama’s Open Government Directive

Monday, December 14th, 2009

Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Zaid Jilani, Ian Milhiser, and Alex Seitz-Wald, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS, 12/14/09. WASHINGTON DC — On his second day in office, President Obama announced three principles that would guide his administration: 1) government must be transparent, to ensure public accountability; 2) government must be participatory, so that lawmakers, regulators, and other officials benefit from public input; and 3) government must be collaborative, seeking partnerships across agencies and with the private sector whenever such partnerships will improve Americans’ lives. Last Tuesday, the White House took an important step towards realizing this vision, releasing what may be the most ambitious open government policy in American history. Although much work remains before the policy becomes reality, the new Open Government Directive could potentially revolutionize the way Americans interact with government.

A NEW DIRECTION: Although Obama has made a some serious missteps on transparency, especially the adoption of Bush administration positions on national security secrecy, the Open Government Directive is the latest example of his effort to part ways with his obsessively secretive predecessor. In its earliest days, the Obama administration reversed many of the Bush era’s most infamous examples of secrecy — the Vice-President’s residence, for example, is no longer obscured on Google Maps. More importantly, Obama acted swiftly to ensure that government secrecy would be the exception, and never the rule. During the Bush administration, government officials were ordered to look for any excuse to deny Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Almost immediately after taking office, Obama ordered the Attorney General to reconsider this policy, and the Justice Department swiftly restored “the presumption of disclosure that is at the heart of the Freedom of Information Act.” In a similar vein, the administration released over a hundred thousand government datasets on websites like, earning the ire of torture defenders by disclosing John Yoo and Jay Bybee’s shoddy legal reasoning to the entire country.

TRANSPARENCY 2.0: Much of the Open Government Directive is similarly focused on increasing government transparency. Rather than waiting for FOIA requests seeking government information, the Directive orders agencies to “proactively use modern technology to disseminate useful information.” The Directive calls for a presumption that all government information should be published online, and that such publication should occur in a timely manner. Because disclosure of government data is virtually useless unless it can be easily found, the Directive also requires that data be formatted so that it is retrievable by search engines such as Google and readable by any computer in any number of database applications. Admittedly, the administration has preferred quantity to accessibility in releasing data to the public — many of the data sets available at are available only in raw formats that are nearly incomprehensible to the human eye. Nevertheless, third-party designers are already creating innovative web applications that utilize this data to inform the public, including applications that track state-by-state unemployment rates over time, advise travelers on how likely their flight is to be delayed, and allow users to mash up multiple government data sets to find previously undiscovered trends.

CONNECTING EVERYONE WITH GOVERNMENT: The Directive’s most intriguing provisions go well beyond just transparency — potentially offering an entirely new vision of democracy which uses contests, social media, and other innovative methods to allow every American to have a voice in government. As an example of how this works, consider Obama’s SAVE Award, which allowed any federal employee to submit an idea to the White House on how the government can save money. The White House received over 38,000 submissions this year, many of which are common-sense proposals that will be incorporated into the budget. The contest winner, who proposed eliminating the Veterans Administration’s wasteful practice of tossing half-used containers of medication in the trash, will present her idea to the President later this month. Most importantly, however, White House officials would never have learned about the thousands of money-saving proposals submitted through the SAVE Award before they devised a way to elicit them from people on the ground. The White House Open Government Initiative also features a number of websites which will allow unprecedented interaction between ordinary Americans and government decision makers’ websites such as Peer-to-Patent, which allow thousands of technology experts to advise patent examiners on which patent applications should be accepted; and the Wikified Army Field Guide, which allows soldiers in the field to collaborate on revising Army field manuals. Though much work remains before similar websites are created to advise other segments of the government, in time, the Obama administration’s vision of collaborative and participatory government could enable every American to share their expertise directly with key government officials.