U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel on the risks and potential of open data and digital government

Last year, I conducted an in-depth interview with United States chief information officer Steven VanRoekel in his office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, overlooking the White House. I was there to talk about the historic open data executive order that President Obama had signed in May 2013. vanroekel On this visit, I couldn’t help but notice that VanRoekel has a Star Wars clock in his office.  The Force is strong here. The US CIO also had a lot of other consumer technology around his workspace: a MacBook and Windows laptop and dock, dual monitors, iPad, a teleconferencing system integrated with a desktop PC, and an iPhone, which recently became securely permissible on in the White House IT system in a “bring your own device” pilot. The interview that follows is slightly dated, in certain respects, but still offers significant insight into how the nation’s top IT executive is thinking about digital government, open data and more. It has also been lightly edited, primarily removing the long-winded questions of the interviewer.

We’re at the one year mark of the Digital Government Strategy. Where do we stand with hitting the metrics in the strategy? Why did it take until now to get this out?

VanRoekel: The strategy calls for the launch of the policy itself. Throughout the year, the policy was a framework for a 12 month set of deliverables of different aspects, from the work we’re doing in mobile, from ‘bring your own device,’ to security baselines and mobile device management platforms. Not only streamlining procurement, streamlining app development in government. Managing those devices securely to thinking about the way we do customer service and the way we think about the power of data and how it plays into all of this. It’s been part of that process for about the year we’ve been working on it. Of course, we thought through these principles and have been working on data-related aspects for longer. The digital strategy policy was the framework for us to catalyze and accelerate that, and over the course of the year, the stuff that’s been going on behind the scenes has largely been working with agencies on building some of this capability around open data. You’re going to see some things happening very soon on the release of some of this capability. Second, standing up the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and then putting specific ‘PIFs’ into certain targeted agencies to fast track their opening of data — that’s going to extend into Wave Two. You’re going to see that continuing to happen, where we just take these principles and just kind of ‘rinse and repeat’ in government. Third, we’re working with a small set of the community to build tools to make it easy for agencies to implement these guidelines. So if there’s an agency that doesn’t know how to create a JSON file, that tool is on Github. You can see that on Project Open Data .

How involved has the president been in this executive order? It’s his name, his words are in there — how much have you and U.S. chief technology officer Todd Park talked with the president about this?

VanRoekel: Ever since about last summer, we’ve been talking to the president about open data, specifically. I think there’s lots of examples where we’ve had conversations on the periphery, and he’s met with a lot of tech leaders and others around the country that in many, many cases have either built their business or are relying upon some government service or data stream. We’re seeing that culminating into the mindset of what we do as a factor of economic growth. His thoughts are ‘how do we unlock this national resource?’ We’re sitting on this treasure trove – how do we unleash it into the developer community, so that these app developers can build these different solutions?’ He’s definitely inspired – he wrote that cover memo to the digital strategy last May – and then we’ve had all of these different meetings, across the course of the year, and now it culminates into this executive order, where we’re working to catalyze these agencies and get them to pay attention and follow up.

We’ve been down this road before, in some respects, with the Open Government Directive in 2009, with former US CIO Vivek Kundra putting forward claims of positive outcomes from releasing data. Yet, what have we learned over the past four years? What makes this different? Where’s the “how,” in terms of implementing this?

VanRoekel: The original launch of data.gov was, I think, a way of really shocking the system, and getting people to pay attention to and notice that there was an important resource we’re sitting on called data. Prior to data.gov, and prior to the work of this administration, the daily approach to data was very ad hoc. It wasn’t taken as data, it was just an output or a piece of a broader mix. That’s why you get so much disparity in the approach to the way we manage data. You get the paper-driven processes that are still very prevalent, where someone will send a paper document, and someone will sign it, and scan it, feed it into a system, and then eventually print it and mail it. It’s crazy what you end up seeing and experiencing inside of government in terms of how these things work. Data.gov was an important first step. The difference now is really around taking this approach to everything that we do. The work that we did with the Open Government Directive back in 2009 was really about taking some high value data sets and putting them up on Data.gov. What you ended up seeing was kind of a ‘bulk upload, bulk download,’ kind of access to the data. Machine-readability and programmability wasn’t taken into account, or the searchability and findability.

Did entrepreneurs or advocates validate these data sets as “high value?” Entrepreneurs have kept buying data from government over the past four years or making Freedom of Information Act requests for data from government or scraping data. They’re not getting that from Data.gov.

VanRoekel: I have no official way of measuring the ‘value’ of the data, other than anecdotal conversations. I do think that the motion of getting people to wake up and think about how they are treating data internally within in an organization – well, there was a convenience factor to that, which basically was that ‘I got to pick what data I release,’ which probably dates from ‘what data I have that’s releasable?’ The different tiers to this executive order and this policy are a huge part of why it’s different. It sets the new default. It basically says, if you are modernizing a system or creating a new system, you can do that in a way that adopts these principles. If you [undertake] the collection, use and dissemination of data, you’ll make those machine-readable and interoperable by default. That doesn’t always mean public, because there are applications that privacy and national security mean we should make public, but those principles still hold, in terms of the way I believe we the ways we build things should evolve on this foundation. For the community that’s getting value outside of the government, this really sets a predictable, consistent course for the government to open up data. Any business decisions are risk-based decisions. You have to assume some level of risk with anything you do.

If there’s too much risk, entrepreneurs won’t do it.

VanRoekel: True. To that end, the work we’ve done in this policy that’s different than before is the way we’re collecting information about the data is being standardized. We’re creating a meta data infrastructure. Data itself doesn’t have to be all described in the same way. We’re not coming up with “one schema to rule them all” across government. The complexity of that would be insurmountable. I don’t think that’s a 21st century approach. That’s probably a last century thinking around to say that if we get one schema, we’re going to get it all done. The meta data approach is to say let’s collect a standard template way of describing – but flexible for future extension – the data that is contained in government. In that description, and in that meta data, tags like “who owns this data” and “how often is the data updated,” information about how to get a hold of people to find out more about descriptions within the data. They will be a part of that description in a way that gives you some level of assurance on how the data is managed. Much of the data we have out there, there’s existing laws on the books to collect the data. Most of it, there’s existing laws, not just a business process. One of the great conversations we’re having with the agencies is that they find greater efficiency in the way they collect data and build solutions based upon these open data principles.

I received a question from David Robinson, regarding open licensing in this policy. Isn’t U.S. government data exempt from copyright?

VanRoekel: Not all government data is exempt from copyright, but those are generally edge cases. The Smithsonian takes pictures of things that are still under copyright, for instance. That’s government data. I sent a note about this announcement to the Secretary of the Smithsonian this morning. I’ve been talking to him about opening up data for some time. The nuance there, about open licenses, is really around the types of systems that create the data, and putting a preference for a non-proprietary format. You can imagine a world in which I give you an XML file, and I give you a Microsoft Excel file. Those are both piece of data. To some extent, the Excel format is machine-readable. You can open it up and look at it internally just the way it is, but do you have to go buy a special piece of software to read the file or not? That kind of denotes the open[ness] and accessibility of the data. In the case of policy, we declare a strong preference towards these non-proprietary formats, so that not only do you get machine-readability but you get the broadest access to the data. It’s less about the content in there – is that’s copyrighted or not — I think most data in government, outside of the realm of confidential or private data, is not copyrighted, so to speak from the standpoint of the license. It’s more about the format, and if there’s a proprietary standard wrapped in the stuff. We have an obligation as a government to pick formats, pick solutions, et cetera that not only have the broadest applicability and accessibility for the public but also create the most opportunity in the broadest sense.

Open data doesn’t come without costs. Is this open data policy an unfunded mandate on all of the agencies, instructing them to put all of the data online they can, to digitize content?

VanRoekel: In the broadest sense, the phrase ‘the new default’ is an important one. It basically says, for enhancements to existing systems or new systems, follow this guideline. If people are making changes, this is in the list of requirements. From a costing perspective, it’s pre-baked into the cost of any enhancement or release. That’s the broad statement. The narrow statement is that there are many agencies out there, increasing every day, that are embracing these retroactive open data approaches, saying that there is value to the outside world, there is lower cost, greater interoperability, there are solutions that can be derived from taking these open data approaches inside of my own organization. That’s what we saw in PIF [Presidential Innovation Fellows] round one, where these agencies adopted the innovations fellows to unlock their data. That’s increasing and expanding in round two, and continuing in the agencies which we thought were high administration priorities, along with others. I think we’re going to continue to see this as a catalyzing element of that phenomenon, where people are going to back and spend the resources on doing this. Just invite any of these leaders to the last twenty minutes of a hackathon, where folks are standing up and showing their solutions that they developed in one day, based on the principles of open data and APIs. They just are overwhelmed about the potential within their own organizations, and they run back and want to do this as fast as they can.

Are you using anything that has ever been developed at a hackathon, personally or professionally?

VanRoekel: We are incorporating code from the “We The People” hackathon, the most recent one. I know Macon Phillips and team are looking at incorporating feature sets they got out of that. An important part of the hackathon, like most conferences you go to, is the time between the sessions. They’re the most important – the relationship building aspect, figuring out how we shape the next set of capabilities or APIs or other things you want to build.

How does this relate to the way that the federal government uses open data internally?

VanRoekel: There are so many examples of government agencies, when faced with a technical problem, will go hire a single monolithic vendor to do a single, monolithic solution – and spend most of the budget on the planning cycle – and you end up with these multi-million dollar, 3-ring binders that ultimately fail because technology has moved on or people have left or laws have moved on five or ten years later, after they started these projects. One of the key components of this is laying foundational stones down to say how are we going to build upon that, to create the apps and solutions of the future. You know, I can swoop in and say “here’s how to do modular contracting in the context of government acquisition” – but unless you say, you’ve got to adopt open data and these principles of API-first, of doing things a different way — smaller, reusable, interoperable pieces – you can really build the phenomenon. These are all elements of that – and the cost savings aspect of it are extraordinary. The risk profile is going to be a lot smaller. Inside government I’m as excited about as outside.

Do you think the federal government will ever be able to move from big data centers and complicated enterprise software to a lightweight, distributed model for mobile services built on APIs?

VanRoekel: I think there is massive potential for things like that across the whole of government. I mean, we’re a big organization. We’re the largest buyer of technology in the world. We have unending opportunities to do things in a more efficient way. I’ve been running this process that I launched last year called Portfolio Stat. It’s all about taking a left to right look, sitting down with agencies. What I’ve always been missing from those is some of these groundbreaking policies that start to paint the picture for what the ideal is, and how to get your job done in a way that’s different than the way you’ve don’t it before, like the notion of continuous improvement. We’ve needed things like the EO to give us those conversation starters to say, here’s the way to do it, see what they are doing over at HHS. “How are you going to bring that kind of discipline into your organization?” I’m sitting down with every deputy secretary and all the C-level executives to have those tough conversations. Fruitful, but good conversations about how we are going to change the way we deliver solutions inside of government. The ideal state that they’ll all hear about is the service-oriented model with centralized, commodity computing that’s mostly cloud-based. Then, how do you provide services out to the periphery of your organization.

You told me in our last interview that you had statutory authority to make things happen. What happens if a federal CIO drags his or her feet and, a year from now, you’re still here and they’re not moving on these policies, from cloud to open data?

VanRoekel: The answer I gave to you last time still holds: it’s about inspire and push. Inspire comes in many factors. One is me coming in and showing them the art of the possible, saying there’s a better way of doing this, getting their customers to show up at the door to say that we want better capabilities and get them inspired to do things, getting their leadership to show up and say we want better things. Push is about budget – how do you manage their budget. There’s aspects of both inspire and push in the way we’ve managed the budget this year. I have the authority to do that.

What’s your best case for adopting an open data strategy and enterprise data inventory, if you’re trying to inspire?

VanRoekel: The bottom line is meet your mission faster and at a much lower cost. Our job is not about technology as an end state – it’s about our mission. We’ve got to get the mission of government done. You’re fostering immigration, you’re protecting public safety, you’re providing better energy guidance, you’re shaping an industry for the country. Open data is a fundamental building block of providing flexibility and reusability into the workplace. It’s what you do to get you to the end state of your mission. I hearken back a lot to the examples we used at the FCC, which was moving from like fourteen websites to one and how we managed that. How do we take workload of a place so that the effort pays for itself in six months and start yielding benefits beyond that? The benefits are long-term. When you build that next enhancement, or that new thing on top of it, you can realize the benefits at lower cost. It’s amazing. I do these TechStat processes, where I sit down with the agencies. They have some project that’s going off the rails. They need help, focus, and some executive oversight. I sit down, usually in a big room of people, and it’s almost gotten to the point where you don’t need to look at the briefing documents ahead of time. You sit down and say, I bet you’re doing it this way – and it’s monolithic, proprietary, probably taking a lot of packaged software and writing a lot of glue code to hold it all together – and you then propose to them the principles of open data and open approaches to doing the solution, and tell them I want to see in the next sixty days some customer-facing, benefit value that’s built on this model. They go off and do that, and they get right back on the tracks and they succeed. Time after time when we do TechStat, that’s the formula and it’s yielded these incredible results. That culture is starting to permeate into how we get stuff done, because they see how it might accomplish their mission if they just turn 45 degrees and try a different approach. If that makes them successful, they will go there every time.

Critiques of open data raise concerns about “discretionary disclosure,” where a government entity releases what it wants, claim credit for embracing open government, and obfuscates the rest of the data. Does this policy change any of the decisions that are being made to delay, redact or not release requested data?

VanRoekel: I think today marks an inflection point that will set a course for the future. It’s not that tomorrow or next month or next year that all government data will just be transformed into open, machine-readable form. It will happen over time. The key here is that we’ve created mechanisms to protect privacy and security of data but built in culture where that which is intended to be public should be made public. Part of what is described in the executive order is the formation of this cross-agency executive group that will define a cross-agency priority goal, that we need to get inventories in from agencies regarding that which they hold that could be made public. We want to know stuff that’s not public today, what could be out there. We’re going to take that in and look at how we can set goals for this year, the next year and the year after that to continue to open up data at a faster pace than we’ve been doing in the past. The modernization act and some of the work around setting goals in government is much more compatible and looks a lot like the private sector. We’re embracing these notions that I’ve really grown to love and respect over the course of my private sector career in government around methodologies. Stay tuned on the capital and what that looks like.

Are you all going to work with the House and Senate on the DATA Act or are statutory issues on oversight still a stumbling block?

VanRoekel: The spirit of the DATA Act, of transparency and openness, are the things we’re doing, and I think are embraced. Some of the tactical aspects of the act were a little off the mark, in terms of getting to the end state that we want to get to. If you look at the FY-14 budget and the work we’ve done on transferring USASpending.gov to Treasury to get it closer to the source of the data, plus a view into how those systems get modernized, how we bring these principles into that mix, that will all be a part of the end state, which is how we track the spending.

Do you ever anticipate the data going into FOIA.gov also going into Data.gov?

VanRoekel: I don’t know. I can’t speculate on that. I’m not close enough to it.

Well, FOIA requests show demand. Do you have any sense of what people are paying for now, in terms of government data?

VanRoekel: I don’t.

Has anybody ever asked, to try to figure that out?

VanRoekel: I think that would be a great thing for you to do.

I appreciate that, but this strikes me as an interesting assessment that you could be doing, in terms of measuring outflows for business intelligence. If someone buys data, it shows that there is value in it. What would it mean if releases reflected that signal?

VanRoekel: You mean preference data that is being purchased?

Right.

VanRoekel: Well, part of this will be building and looking at Data.gov. Some of the stuff coming there is really building community around the data. The number one question Todd Park and I had coming out of the PIF program, at the end of May [2013] was, what if I think there’s data, but I don’t know, who do I contact? An important part of the delivery of this wave and the product coming out as part of this policy is going to be this enhanced Data.gov, that’s our intention to build a much richer community around government data. We want to hear from people. If there are data sources that do hold promise and value, let’s hear about those and see if there are things we can do to get a PIF on structuring it, and get agencies to modernize systems to get it released and open. I know some of the costs are like administrative feeds for printing or finding the data, something that’s related to third parties collecting it and then reselling it. We want to make sure that we’re thoughtful in how we approach that.

How has the experience that you’ve seen everyone have with the first iteration of Data.gov informed the nation’s open data strategy today? What specifically had not been done before that you will be doing now?

VanRoekel: The first Data.gov set us on a cultural path.What it didn’t do was connect you to data the source. What is this data? How often is it updated? Findability and searchability of broad government data wasn’t there. Programmability of the data wasn’t necessarily there. Data.gov, in the future, instead of being a repository for data, a place to upload the data, my intention is that it will become a meta data catalog. It will be the place you go, the one-stop-shop, to find government data, across multiple aspects. The way we’re doing this is through the policy itself, which says that agencies have to go and set up this new page, similar to what is now standard in open government, /open, /developer. In that page, the most important part of that page is a JSON file. That’s what data.gov can go out and crawl, or any developer outside can go out and crawl, to find out when data has been updated, what data is available, in what format. All of the standard meta data that I’ve described earlier will be represented through that JSON file. Data.gov will then become a meta data catalog of all the open data out in government at its source. As a developer, you’d come in, and it you wanted to do a map, for instance, to see what broadband capabilities exist near low-income Americans and then overlay locations of educational institutions, if you wanted to look for a correlation between income and broadband deployment and education, you’d hypothetically be looking for 3 different data sources, from 3 different agencies. You’d be able to find the open data streams, the APIs, to go get that data in one place, and then you’d have a connection back to the mothership to be able to grab it, find out who owns it. We want to still have a center of gravity for data, but make the data itself follow these principles, in terms of discoverability and use. The thing that probably got me most pointed in this direction is the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which did a report on health IT. Buried on page 60 or something, it had this description of meta data as the linchpin of discoverability of diverse data sources. That’s the approach we’ve taken, much like Google.

5 years from now, what will have changed because of this effort?

VanRoekel: The way we build solutions inside of government is going to change, and the amount of apps and solutions outside of government are going to fundamentally change. You and I now, sitting in our cars, take for granted the GPS signal going to the device on the dash. I think about government. Government is right there with me, every single day, as I’m driving my car, or when I do a Foursquare check-in on my phone. We’ll be bringing government data to citizens where they are, versus making people come to government. It’s been a long time since the mid-80s, when we opened up GPS, but look at where we are today. I think we’ll look back in 10 or 15 years and think about all of the potential we unlocked today.

What data could be like GPS, in terms of their impact on our lives?

VanRoekel: I think health and energy are probably two big ones.

POSTSCRIPT

Since we talked, the Obama administration has followed through on some of the commitments the U.S. CIO described, including relaunching Data.gov and releasing more data. Other goals, like every agency releasing an enterprise data inventory or publishing a /data and /developer page online, have seen mixed compliance, as an audit by the Sunlight Foundation showed in December. The federal government shutdown last fall also scuttled open data access, where certain data types were deemed essential to maintain and others were not. The shutdown also suggested that an “API-first” strategy for open data might be problematic. OMB, where VanRoekel works, has also quietly called for major changes in the DATA Act, which passed the House of Representatives with overwhelming support at the end of last year. A marked up version of the DATA Act obtained by Federal News Radio removes funding for the legislation and language that would require standardized data elements for reporting federal government spending. The news was not received well on Capitol Hill. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the lead sponsor of the DATA Act in the Senate, reaffirmed his commitment to the current version of the bill in statement: “The Obama administration talks a lot about transparency, but these comments reflect a clear attempt to gut the DATA Act. DATA reflects years of bipartisan, bicameral work, and to propose substantial, unproductive changes this late in the game is unacceptable. We look forward to passing the DATA Act, which had near universal support in its House passage and passed unanimously out of its Senate committee. I will not back down from a bill that holds the government accountable and provides taxpayers the transparency they deserve.” The leaked markup has led to observers wondering whether the White House wants to scuttle the DATA Act and others to potentially withdraw support. “OMB’s version of the DATA Act is not a bill that the Sunlight Foundation can support,” wrote Matt Rumsey, a policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation. “If OMB’s suggestions are ultimately added to the legislation, we will join our friends at the Data Transparency Coalition and withdraw our support of the DATA Act.” In response to repeated questions about the leaked draft, the OMB press office has sent the same statement to multiple media outlets: “The Administration believes data transparency is a critical element to good government, and we share the goal of advancing transparency and accountability of Federal spending. We will continue to work with Congress and other stakeholders to identify the most effective & efficient use of taxpayer dollars to accomplish this goal.” I have asked the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) about all of these issues and will publish any reply I receive separately, with a link from this post.

Kundra: Closing the IT gap is the key to making government work better for the American people

Today, the first chief information officer of the United States, Vivek Kundra, shared his reflections on public service.

Kundra, whose last day of work at the White House Office of Management and Budget was last Friday, is now at the Harvard Kennedy School and Berkman Center.

I arrived at a White House that was, as the Washington Post put it, “stuck” in the “Dark Ages of technology.” In their words, “If the Obama campaign represented a sleek, new iPhone kind of future, the first day of the Obama administration looked more like the rotary-dial past.”

As my team congratulated me on the new job, they handed me a stack of documents with $27 billion worth of technology projects that were years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. At the time, those documents were what passed for real-time updates on the performance of IT projects. My neighbor’s ten year old could look up the latest stats of his favorite baseball player on his phone on the school bus, but I couldn’t get an update on how we were spending billions of taxpayer dollars while at my desk in the White House. And at the same time, the President of the United States had to fight tooth and nail to simply get a blackberry.

These were symptoms of a much larger problem.

The information technology gap between the public and private sectors makes the Federal Government less productive and less effective at providing basic services to its citizens. Closing this gap is the key to making government work better for the American people – the ultimate goal.

His complete thoughts are embedded below. If you’re interested in frank insight into why changing government through information technology isn’t easy, read on.

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Notes from the third White House Open Government Partnership consultation

In July 2011, the State Department hosted an historic gathering in Washington to announce an Open Government Partnership with Brazil and six other nations. For background on the initiative, read this digest on Open Government Partnership analysis for context.

This new new open government partnership could drive U.S. commitments, according to OMB Watch.

What those commitments will be is still unclear. Given that they’re due by September’s Open Government Summit at the United Nations in New York City, the timeline for drafting them is quite limited.

Last week, when the White House asked for ideas on the National Plan for open government, the community learned a bit more about what’s on the table: improving public services and increasing public integrity.

Clay Johnson has since offered the White House a deep set of recommendations for open government in response to the three questions it posed, including better ways to use open data, social media, improving regulations, public comment, and the developer community better. If you’re interested in open government, it’s a must-read.

Those are not the limit of potential commitments on the table, at least as evidenced by what we know about the series of three consultations with open government stakeholders in Washington that the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs held this July, on the 22nd, 25th and 29th. These consultations were not livestreamed or otherwise recorded, however, nor have OIRA’s notes been released to the public yet. That said, we have at least two accounts of what happened in July, from:

I attended the July 29th consultation and, while I did not record video or audio, can share the following written notes.

Attendees

As with the previous meetings, OIRA administrator Cass Sunstein led the discussion. White House OSTP deputy CTO for public sector innovation Chris Vein was also there, along with half a dozen OIRA staff and a representative of the National Security Archive.

Seated around the table were representatives from America Speaks, OMB Watch, the Center for Technology in Government at the University of Albany, Sunshine in Government. University of Pennsylvania professor Cary Coglionese and a board member from the International Association for Public Participation, Leanne Nurse, dialed into a conference speaker phone line.

Past meetings included representatives from the Revenue Watch Institute, Code for America, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Open Plans, Civic Commons, the Sunlight Foundation, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the Project for Government Oversight, in addition to Open the Government and NCDD.

Open Government Consultation

Sunstein started the meeting by offering high level context for the OGP and thanks to the organizations around the table.

When the OGP was devised, he said, it was done with background experience from the Open Government Directive that came President Barack Obama and the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Many of your organizations were “indispensable” during that process, Sunstein said, and even though what happened with the open government directive “wasn’t perfect,” there has been “tremendous progress.” He thought from the beginning, with regard to the OMB open government project, that it would be a work in progress, with plans scrutinized and improved over time.

Sunstein laid out the reason for the consultation: the White House has national action plan due in September, with an event at the UN as the president promised. The White House wants the national action plan to be as good as possible, “improving on what we’ve got so far as we can.” Reflecting his comments at the previous two consultations, Sunstein said that one way to think of the meeting is generating ideas through three stages, given the temporal and feasibility constraints posed by the short deadline for UN recommendations. He observed that where would be opportunities moving forward in the medium term, over a 3-5 month time period to do more.

Katherine McFate, the executive director of OMB Watch, asked a question about the parameters for the consultation, noting that if you go back and look at the open government partnership, there are five different challenges for countries. If you only have to pick one or two, she suggested, improving public services is one, and may be improving public integrity is another. Increasing accountability, likely to be three. (Given the recent White House blog post, OIRA may have taken that suggestion.)

In response, Sunstein replied that there are surely things that have budgetary repercussions, which you then have to answer for, although in open government, sometimes it’s possible to improve public services without stretching the budget.

Theresa Pardo, director of the CTG at Albany, after thanking OIRA for the opportunity to speak and to listen, focused on the some of the issues that have arisen during implementation of the open government directive, including the role of citizen engagement. One tension is how to think about citizen participation, versus accountability imperatives.

One of the things that we hear quite regularly when we talk to practitioners at federal, local, and state level, along with academics, is a lot of confusion about concepts underlying open government directive. There’s pressure towards clarity, and still a lot of ambiguity. One of the ways to push through in creating that clarity, she suggested, would be to focus a bit more on the conversation, on figuring out what the problems that citizens are seeking open government to solve. Pardo said that in their experience, in various jurisdictions in US and outside of the US, it’s a challenge to connect what’s happening in government agencies with what citizens are talking about in public. Over the long term, the opportunity for open government, she explained, is to move towards deeper engagement with citizens themselves about what problems are they experiencing.

Professor Coglianese, speaking over the phone, agreed with Pardo and McFate. He also suggested that the White House clearly take stock of where open government is currently. We’re seeing great things, in taking stock of regulations, he said. It would make sense to something similar with taking stock of public participation now, defining a better baseline of where to assess what kinds of reform are making changes.

The point, about defining a baseline for public participation, was taken up and emphasized by many of those invited to the July 29 consultation. One of our major tools is the public participation spectrum, said Douglas Sarno of IAP2 USA. No systematic approach to what we’re trying to do or what’s been achieved has been defined by the White House, he said, and no way of qualifying bonafide public participation versus hackneyed participation defined. There are good challenges in finding metrics.

Sunstein agreed that the regulatory process requires significant public participation. This week, the Regulations.gov team acknowledged the need to do more in that regard.

In response, Pardo cited a number of studies in which communications scholars and computer scientists are using machine language processing to analyze online rulemaking to see if it results in changing in deliberation or positive social interaction. Such studies can be expensive but useful. Part of the issue in integrated such work, however, is getting real movement in processes in partnership with academics, she said.

Pardo focused further upon the role of citizen engagement, both around rulemaking and the large context of open government. Nowhere, until just recently, she said, do we teach our public managers about how to look, engage, and use citizen participation tools. “There’s a capability gap at all levels of government. How do public managers in local governments and cities, think about their jobs in different ways?”

The National Association of State CIOs and others are looking at building capability to understand how to use data and engagement tools better, said Pardo, but across the board there’s lack of ability in these core competencies. Maybe building ability as with cybersecurity skills would make sense, she suggested, including professional standards for citizen participation.

Coglianese similary focused more on baseline assessments for public participation. There are some political scientists who have tried to assess the actual impact of public comment and proposed rulemaking, he said. In terms of what to look to as baseline, what is it you want to accomplish with this national action plan? Is the goal to increase public participation? What is the level right now? We don’t have a way of saying what the volume of interaction is across the federal government, he asserted.

We do know, however, that rulemaking tends to be more something that organizations participated in more than individual citizens, Coglionese said, citing a recent article on public participation that he’d authored law journal. “We need a baseline of who’s participating and at what level,” he said. “Is the goal of participation to increase the quality of public decision making? That’s hard to assess. To enhance public virtue? That’s much harder to assess. Until it’s clear exactly what it is you would want to do, you can’t answer these questions.”

David Stern, director on online engagement at America Speaks, validated Coglionese’s words, observing that his organization had recently looked at all open government plans by agencies and came to the same conclusion. There’s a lack of consistency in metrics used to evaluate projects, said Stern, and no standards about what defines good participation. Number of people, diversity, number of instances policy influenced? Standards and best practices, in this area, would be helpful coming from White House and OMB. Every open government project contains response to the most popular proposals, he said, which means that every public engagement initiative has a public engagement component.

Rick Blum of Sunshine in Government raised another issue: FOIA exemptions, including agencies proposing them independently. The Department of Defense is overclassifying, said Blum, and it’s very hard to track what’s happening. The Department of Justice has put up a FOIA dashboard but it’s “plagued with tech glitches and bad data,” he said. This has become a public debate about secrecy or disclosure, with some half a billion dollars being spent annually fulfilling FOIA requests, said Blum. There’s also concern about the impact of the recent Supreme Court decision in Milner vs the Navy.

On my part, I offered feedback that I’d collected from the broader open government community ahead of time and over the previous year.

First, the White House has not explicitly separated open government innovation, in terms of open data about the business of government, from “good government” initiatives that transparency advocates expect and demand, in terms of accountability to the people. Misset expectations around the goals the White House has set out have created widespread dissatisfaction and harsh criticisms of an administration that promised to be “most transparent ever.” The open government initiative in the province of British Columbia offers a potential model for the White House to consider, in terms of this separation.

Second, as the federal government moves forward with its ongoing review of .gov websites, there are opportunities to work with civil society and civic developers to co-create better e-services.

Third, opportunities exist for the White House to partner with entrepreneurs, media or nonprofits that are making government data open, useful and searchable. For instance, BrightScope has made financial advisor data from the SEC and FINRA available to the public. The work of Code for America and others on farmers market open data is another example.

Finally, there continue to be serious issues raised by developers about the quality of open government data on Data.gov. In general, public servants continue to release PDFs, as opposed to machine-readable structured data, and cite the language in the Open Government Directive for support. If government wishes developers and businesses to use its data for accountability, civic utility or economic value, then releasing data in the open formats that these communities find most useful makes logical sense.

Pardo took up the issues raised with good government versus open innovation, noting that the two aren’t necessarily against each other. The idea of high value data wasn’t well defined, she said. For instance, the calendars of public officials are nothing more than a dataset.

Sunstein asked after the data issues and the one of his deputies specifically asked about the language in the OGD. He brought up the work that the federal government has done on regulations.gov – which was a persistent focus from the OIRA administrator – and asked whether it was good enough, and over what time limit? And for whom?

The general answer there was clear enough: “we the people.”

Coglianese offered more feedback on regulations.gov: it’s not enough. There are data fields are not filled in, missing information, and things remain incomprehensible, he said. “Imagine how it is for many others coming for first time?” Coglianese endorsed the recommendations of ADA blue ribbon commission for a dedicated overseer of data quality, although such a role would require congressional authorization.

There are some really important opportunities to leverage data in regulations.gov, he emphasized. Leverage that data to extract it automatically, display the data on websites. For instance, many members of congress have a button on their websites forlegislation they’re sponsoring, which then takes visitors to data automatically etxtracted from Thomas.gov. Imagine a similar system for agencies and regulators, he suggested, or consider the EPA, which is trying to display every rule that the agency is working on., which is being developed in addition to regulations.gov.

Agencies right now are building websites around current uses, said Coglionese. That makes a lot of senses, and it’s what one would hope, but doesn’t go to the “separate question of who do they want their users to be.” He criticized the design of the new FCC.gov, although I pointed out that the process that preceded the FCC relaunch was focused on the most common purposes of the site’ visitors.

What was left unsaid in these open government partnership consultations? A great deal, due to the length of time allowed. The voices that were heard around this table were also those of advocates, policy, experts, academics, and technologists: not citizens, and by and large not those of the media, whose function in representative democracies been to hold government accountable on behalf of the public.

As the White House considers its commitments in advance of the September meeting at the United Nations, the people will have a window of opportunity to tell their elected officials what open government means to them and how they woud like their federal government to be more transparent, participatory or collaborative.

If you have feedback on any of those accounts, send it to opengov@omb.gov.

Open government scrutinized before the House Oversight Committee

This morning, the Oversight Committee in the United States House of Representatives held a hearing on the Obama administration’s open government efforts. The “Transparency Through Technology: Evaluating Federal Open-Government Initiatives hearing was streamed live online at oversight.house.gov.

House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) asked his Twitter followers before the hearing a simple question “Have you tried to get facts on how gov’t spends your $ on USASpending.gov?” He received no answers.

The oversight committee did, however, hear extensive testimony from government IT executives and open government watchdogs. As Representative Issa probes how agencies balance their books, such insight will be crucial, particularly with respect to improving accountability mechanism and data. Poor data has been a reoccurring theme in these assessments over the years. Whether the federal government can effectively and pervasively apply open data principles appears itself to be open question.

The first half of the hearing featured testimony from Dr. Danny Harris, chief information officer for the Department of Education, Chris Smith, chief information officer for the Department of Agriculture, Jerry Brito, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation.

Alice Lipowicz of Federal Computer Week tweeted out a few data points from the hearing.

  • A Sunlight Foundation audit found that the USDA spent $12.7B on school lunches but only reported $250,000 on USASpending.gov
  • According to Brito, “half of 3000 datasets on Data.gov are on EPA toxic releases, with only 200 to 300 datasets are on fed gov activity.” Lipowicz also tweeted that Brito testified that federal agencies need outside auditors and “ought to report ‘earnings’ similar to private sector.”
  • USDA CIO Chris Smith said that the agency did not report school lunch payments below $25,000 to USASpending.gov; will report in FY2012

In her testimony before the House committee on clearspending, Miller reiterated the position of the Sunlight Foundation that the efforts of the administration to make government spending data open, accurate and available have been insufficient, particularly when the data is wrong.

The Sunlight Foundation has been excited about the new promises of data transparency, but sometimes the results are nowhere near the accuracy and completeness necessary for the data to be useful for the public.

Sunlight’s Clearspending analysis found that nearly $1.3 trillion of federal spending as reported on USASpending.gov was inaccurate. While there have been some improvements, little to no progress has been made to address the fundamental flaws in the data quality. Correcting the very complicated system of federal reporting for government spending is an enormous task. It has to be done because without it there is no hope for accountability.

Miller made several recommendations to the committee to improve the situation, including:

  • unique identifiers for government contracts and grants
  • publicly available hierarchical identifiers for recipients to follow interconnected entities
  • timely bulk access to all data.

Her remarks ultimately reflect the assessment that she made at last year’s Gov 2.0 Summit, where she made it clear that open government remains in beta. Our interview is below:

Tracking the progress of the Open Government Directive requires better data, more auditors and improved performance metrics. That said, this looks like the year when many of the projects at agencies will move forward towards implementation.

Last month, the U.S. moved forward into the pilot phase of an open source model for health data systems as the fruits of the Direct Project came to Minnesota and Rhode Island. The Direct Project allows for the secure transmission of health care data over a network. Some observers have dubbed it the Health Internet, and the technology has the potential to save government hundreds of millions of dollars, along with supporting the growth of new electronic health records systems .Open source and open government have also come together to create OpenStack, an open cloud computing platform that’s a collaboration between NASA, Rackspace, Cisco and a growing group of partners.

It’s too early to judge the overall effort open government as ultimately a success or failure. That said, the administration clearly needs to do more. In 2011, the open question is whether “We the people” will use these new participatory platforms to help government work better.

Video of the hearing will be posted here when available. Testimony from today’s hearing is linked to PDFs below.

Dr. Danny Harris

Chris Smith

Jerry Brito

Ellen Miller

The Honorable Danny Werfel

Note: Video of the hearing was provided through the efforts of citizen archivist Carl Malamud at house.resource.org, the open government video website that he set up in collaboration with Speaker Boehner and Congressman Issa. While the open government efforts of the federal government have a long way to go, in this particular regard, a public-private collaboration is making the proceedings of the House Oversight committee available to the world online.