CRS Questions the Open Government Initiative

The Congressional Research Service took a decidedly skeptical view of the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative in a recently updated report (pdf).  The report called into question not only the implementation of the Administration’s transparency policy but also its underlying rationale.

“Arguably, releasing previously unavailable datasets to the public increases transparency,” the report granted.  “The new datasets offer the public more information than was previously available, making the particular issue area more transparent.  But this type of transparency does not give Congress or the public much insight into how the federal government itself operates or executes policies,” the CRS report said.

Thus, “the dataset on child safety seats released by the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (NTHSA), for example, increases public knowledge of child safety seats and may inform a consumer’s future purchases, but it does not affect the general transparency of NHTSA’s operations.”

But even bona fide transparency may not be altogether positive, the CRS report suggested.  “Increased transparency and mandatory public participation requirements can slow down government operations by elongating the deliberative process.  Increased participation may increase trust in the federal government while concurrently reducing the speed of government action.  Additionally, increased government transparency may prompt security and privacy concerns.”

In lieu of any conclusion, the CRS report equivocated that “Congress can decide whether to codify any of the new Obama Administration transparency policies.  On the other hand, Congress can decide whether to enact a law prohibiting the implementation of any of the open government policies.  Congress could also leave these policy decisions up to the executive branch.”

The bulk of the CRS report was written last year, but it was updated last month.  See “The Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative: Issues for Congress,” January 28, 2011.

Last week, the Obama Administration withdrew a pending proposal to enhance federal contract transparency. “Incredibly, today’s decision would seem to place the Obama Administration in opposition [to] subsequent transparency legislation co-sponsored by then-Senator Obama,” wrote Scott Amey of the Project on Government Oversight.

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