Public Input on Open Government Solicited

02.16.10 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Obama Administration’s open government initiative might possibly inspire a transformation in the character of government operations along with an expansion of citizen engagement in policy development.  But in order to succeed, it needs some thoughtful, creative input from members of the public.

All Cabinet level agencies (and a few others) have now prepared Open Government Webpages to document their progress in improving transparency and to solicit public suggestions for how to proceed, including recommendations for development of the Open Government Plans that will define each agency’s transparency program.

What this means is that “openness” is becoming incorporated into the bureaucratic machinery of government.  While executive branch agencies remain constrained by security restrictions, resource limits and other considerations, these rule-driven organizations are being given some new rules to follow.

But the actual contours of the new thrust towards openness — its scope, its content, its urgency — depend significantly on the quality of feedback and support that the initiative receives from the interested public.

Agencies need specific, achievable, actionable suggestions for how to meet their new openness obligations.  Each agency’s openness webpage (linked here) invites readers to “share your ideas” on how to proceed.  There has never been a better time for concerned citizens to help shape the government transparency agenda.  (Actually, there has never been a “government transparency agenda” before.)

And there is a premium on good ideas.  Proposals that are unintelligible, impractical, irrelevant, or inane are effectively endorsements of the status quo because they cannot be implemented.

What kind of ideas would be useful and appropriate?  Those who already interact with each particular agency will be in the best position to say what that agency could and should provide to help advance the Administration’s declared goals of transparency, participation and collaboration.

But one general approach to the issue is to consider the diverse categories of government information that have been removed from public access over the past decade, and to use those as a metaphorical trail of bread crumbs leading back to a more transparent posture.  Restoring access to that missing information could help agencies to reorient their policies and to chart a new direction forward.  And it is clearly within the realm of possibility, since it has already been done.

So, for example, these are some suggestions that we have submitted for agency consideration:

Restore public access to the Los Alamos Technical Report Library.  Until 2002, thousands of unclassified technical reports from Los Alamos National Laboratory dating back half a century and longer were publicly available on the Lab web site.  And then they weren’t.  They constitute an invaluable archive of technological development, historical information, and current scientific research.  A sizable fraction of the sequestered reports have been republished on the Federation of American Scientists website.  But the entire collection, with updated content since 2002, should be restored to the public domain.

Restore public access to orbital element data.  For many years, NASA provided direct public access to so-called Two-Line Element sets that characterize the orbits of the many objects in Earth orbit that are tracked by Air Force surveillance, including active and defunct U.S. and foreign spacecraft, as well as significant debris.  In 2004, open public access was terminated.  That step should be reversed.

Publish the Defense Department telephone directory.  For decades, the Pentagon telephone directory served as a public guide to the complex structure of the Department of Defense, and provided a way to establish direct contact with individual offices and officials.  It was always for sale at the Government Printing Office Bookstore to anyone who cared to buy it.  But in 2001, the DoD telephone directory was designated “for official use only.”  In the interests of “openness, participation, and collaboration,” public access to the DoD directory should be restored.  (Other agencies with national security and foreign policy missions including the Department of Energy and the Department of State already make their personnel directories available online.)

There must be countless other possibilities for moving towards a more open, responsive and accountable government.  Some will be of broad interest, while others may serve a specialized constituency.  Some will be easily achievable, others may require new investments or new modes of operation.  But all of a sudden, “openness” is on the government-wide agenda in a way that it has never been before.  The opportunities are there to be seized.