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Critics pan release of government information

By Ed O'Keefe

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recent release of hundreds of sets of government data, arguing that many federal agencies chose to release obscure or outdated facts and figures at the expense of long-standing requests for more relevant, sensitive information.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 ongoing efforts to make the federal government more transparent, President Obama last month ordered federal agencies to select at least three of their “high value” sets of statistics or other information to publish online in a downloadable format at the government’s Data.gov Web site.

The new wave of information first surfaced on the site last Friday at the height of the evening rush hour. 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 only published copies of their annual reports on Freedom of Information Act requests, a series of documents the Justice Department already posts online. Other agencies opted to publish only partial information on government contracts. Still others seemed to select obscure information 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 Weisman, 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’s already out there and not terribly controversial." The Transportation Department’s statistics on tire and child seats are already available from private sources, he said.

An Interior Department spokeswoman said Obama’s orders instructed agencies 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 previously available, but is now also available in a web-friendly format, per Obama's order. A Justice Department spokeswoman said the department has posted several different data sets it believes 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 in his original order.

"We’re interested in the information that will hold the agencies accountable," Brian said. "We look forward to looking with them.”

Administration officials urged patience and said that no coordinated transparency and open government plan existed before President Obama took office. Data.gov has grown from just 47 sets of data last June to more than 167,000 this week, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

“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 Office of Management and Budget spokesman Thomas Gavin. “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.

"By focusing so much on data sets as opposed to records, we’re missing the entire, enormous amount of government documents that don’t come in nice little data sets," said Sarah Cohen, a former Washington Post reporter and editor who maintains a professional relationship with the paper and teaches journalism and public policy at Duke University.

"If the definition of open government is data sets and not records, then there’s a whole part of government that we’ll never know about," she said.

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By Ed O'Keefe  | January 27, 2010; 2:13 PM ET
Categories:  Administration  
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