The Promise and Problems of Open Government

February 2, 2009

Published by Richard Mondello

One of then-Senator Barack Obama’s promises on the campaign trail was to increase government transparency across the board. His transition team and the inaugural committee acknowledged that promise by publishing information and soliciting feedback on and, respectively.

On January 20, an open government geek’s greatest dream came true – the launch of the new, complete with an executive Memorandum with the subject “Transparency and Open Government“. More technically-minded users jumped for joy at the mostly symbolic gesture of a greatly simplified robots.txt file for the new site compared to that of the Bush administration. For those that don’t know, robots.txt is a de-facto standard for opting directories and pages out of a search engine; all major search engines obey robots.txt at this time. By excluding fewer files from search engines, the site is theoretically more open.

Already, these accomplishments are fading into prolog. It’s time to look into the promise and challenges of continuing towards this goal of transparency.

Ars Technia, a premiere technology news blog, has recently been testing the waters of blogging about technology, transparency, and policy in the new administration. In a very revealing piece published today, Julian Sanchez moves past the idealism and excitement of Open Government and explores the expectations of open government advocates. Although I couldn’t possibly cover this topic more comprehensively than Julian did, I’m compelled to comment on what I considered the most compelling portion of the article.

Julian wrote:

While he joined the general chorus of praise for Obama’s new Freedom of Information Act directive, Sohn also hoped the government would continue its progress toward “affirmative disclosure”—putting information online automatically, without waiting for a FOIA request. That, he noted, is a bigger task than it might appear, since it means every government employee who creates any sort of document would need to write with an eye toward future disclosure, which would entail (for instance) marking private or personal information that might be included in a strictly internal document, but should be redacted before public release.

When getting caught up in the promise of transparency and its eventual societal benefits, it’s easy to think that President Obama can flip some switch and the executive branch will suddenly be open. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Although a United States Senator at the time, Mr. Obama campaigned as a “Washington outsider” who would bring “change” to the government. It seems that, at least for achieving the goal of transparency, change is an institutional and cultural paradigm shift. It’s going to take a lot of work, and maybe time, before we see any real progress.

The piece ends:

So take heed, watchdogs: A spiffy new website and a presidential smartphone are good signs, but they’re posted at the side of a very long road.

On the flip side of technology and its influence on the new administration, talk from the President about Open Government encourages the public to hold him to his other promises. The most prominent example of this in the last week is Politifact’s Obameter, a website tracking whether the President is following up on the 500+ promises he made during the course of his campaign. A milestone this week was President Obama outright breaking his first promise.

Hopefully the flow of information will be two-way in the White House. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, sites like this can keep Obama to task if the right people are reading.


One Response to “The Promise and Problems of Open Government”

  1. Laura Fong Says:

    Again, I’d be interested in seeing how the digital divide affects (or would affect) the readership of these “transparency” sites and the ability for these people to be part of the constituency monitoring the President’s promises.

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