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White House releases open government plans

By Ed O'Keefe

Federal agencies have four months to become more open, transparent and cooperative with the public's requests for information, according to new orders issued Tuesday by the White House. The changes deliver a big victory to open government groups that have long sought to transform how the government presents and shares information with the general public.

Outlined in a memo by Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, the Open Government Plan states that agencies must publish information online in a timely manner and present their data in a Web-friendly format. Agencies are also encouraged to begin posting certain sorts of information not normally revealed, instead of waiting for freedom of information requests.

Within 45 days, agencies will have to identify three high-value data sets not previously available online or in a downloadable format and register them with the government's Web site. Depending on the data selected, the general public could soon have access to details on the sorts of rare insects collected by the Interior Department or highway statistics compiled by the Transportation Department.

Government offices with significant backlogs of FOIA request will be required to reduce them by ten percent each year.

President Obama ordered a top-to-bottom review of the government's transparency and openness efforts during his first hours as president. The orders required agencies to "adopt a presumption in favor" of Freedom of Information Act requests and set in motion a months-long process that led to Tuesday's release.

"The results appear to be well worth the wait," said Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch. "The president demanded the directive be built around three main principles -- transparency, participation, and collaboration. The new directive, issued today, delivers on all three principles with specific requirements and deadlines for all agencies."

"The Open Government Directive issued today demonstrates the seriousness of administration's commitment to data transparency and citizen engagement," Ellen Miller, executive director and co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation, said in a statement. "It is evidence that the administration recognizes that transparency is government's responsibility. At the same time, it shows the administration is matching aspirational goals with concrete policies and accountability measures."

But there are a few things left to consider: How will OMB enforce these new rules? The directive also has plenty of loopholes that would seem to welcome noncompliance.

For example: agencies will have to post information online and in an open format "To the extent practicable and subject to valid restrictions." National security seems like a valid restriction, but what else is? Which groups will step in to try to block the release of certain information? Will agencies post it anyway? And who will determine what's "practicable?"

Read the full report then leave your thoughts in the comments section below

By Ed O'Keefe  | December 8, 2009; 12:51 PM ET
Categories:  Administration  
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