Open Government's Challenges, Pitfalls, And Skeptics - InformationWeek

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12/9/2009
02:34 PM
John Foley
John Foley
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Open Government's Challenges, Pitfalls, And Skeptics

When federal CTO Aneesh Chopra and federal CIO Vivek Kundra unveiled the Obama Administration's Open Government Directive on Dec. 8, it marked the end of one long, drawn out process and the beginning of what's sure to be another. Good luck making it work.

When federal CTO Aneesh Chopra and federal CIO Vivek Kundra unveiled the Obama Administration's Open Government Directive on Dec. 8, it marked the end of one long, drawn out process and the beginning of what's sure to be another. Good luck making it work.I'm sincere in that sentiment, as I believe that a more open government -- one where information is more accessible and agency leaders and employees are more accountable -- is a good idea, as are President Obama's goals of creating more participatory, collaborative government. It's just that making it happen, and getting it right, are fraught with challenges that federal agencies will be hard-pressed to overcome.

Look at how long it took to get the directive out the door. Obama asked for it back in January, which means it took 11 months to produce the 11-page document. That's an unimpressive turnaround for such a high priority. That it took so long to produce the marching orders doesn't bode well for the march.

The White House says there are already signs of progress -- the growing number of data sets (118,000) available on Data.gov, revised Freedom of Information Act guidelines, and public disclosure of previously off-limits White House records. In releasing the Open Government Directive, the administration also published a progress report, with more than a dozen examples of how open government is being manifest in agencies and departments.

Even so, the administration has come under criticism for withholding documents about companies and individuals who lobbied for immunity for warrantless wiretaps, as well as details of the FBI's criminal database and other information sought by the media and public interest groups.

Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio, in a blog post, calls the Open Government Directive disappointing. The problem, DiMaio says, is that it encourages agencies to engage in public collaboration and participation "on their turf and on their terms." Without a broader approach, DiMaio warns, "this directive risks turning into yet another exercise in compliance."

Other issues that came up during the White House's Webcast introducing the directive include the risks around data with security, privacy, or confidentiality implications. Once that hurdle is cleared, there's the question of technologies, specs, and data formats required to get data from point A (government databases) to point B (the public). The feds will also be tasked with ensuring the quality of any data that is released, requiring best practices in data management that are an ongoing challenge to the best of IT departments.

Much of this involves gray areas where individual judgment will be required. The directive includes footnotes on the government's definitions of "information," of "information quality," and of "quality and objectivity." You can expect there to be variance in how government managers and front-line employees interpret those guidelines -- and that mistakes will be made. Note that the recent TSA data breach was attributed to human error.

I'm not saying that the Open Government Directive is doomed, only that open government enthusiasm must be tempered with recognition that bureaucracy, security, privacy concerns, data quality, technical issues, and poor judgment can all get in the way. What's your take? Will the administration's open government mandate work?



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