Trying to sell a polarized, mistrustful public on a plan to make the federal government more open, collaborative and participatory is a brutal challenge. But that's exactly what the Obama administration is trying to do with the release of the third National Open Government Action Plan.
Mary Beth Goodman, senior director for development and democracy at the National Security Council, and Megan Smith, the U.S. chief technology officer, introduced the plan in a blog post Tuesday on WhiteHouse.gov. They highlighted several new commitments, including releasing more workforce data, supporting the Open311 platform for reporting non-emergency issues and publishing online the tax returns of nonprofits in more open formats.
Many of the 45 commitments, including an online portal for making Freedom of Information Act requests, carry over from the previous National Action Plan. If some members of the public lack confidence in White House capacity or interest to carry through with the commitments in the final 14 months of the Obama administration, it's understandable.
There's an undeniable gap between today's reality and the lofty promises newly inaugurated President Barack Obama laid out his first day in office, including the commitment to run the "most transparent administration ever." To date, the Obama administration has not lived up to the open government commitments in its last plan.
The administration's record on press freedom and whistleblowers is not admirable. It took one of the biggest leaks in U.S. history, by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, to tilt the balance toward public disclosure of electronic surveillance on a massive scale. We're still learning how the U.S. uses drones to kill people. And the administration failed to support reform of the Freedom of Information Act in Congress, despite legislative language that mirrored memorandums issued by the president and his attorney general.
Despite an epic stumble on Healthcare.gov, however, this White House will leave a legacy of experimentation and achievement in digital government. Federal agencies have used technology in unprecedented ways to inform, collaborate with and engage the public, including crowdsourcing, challenges and social media.
With advice from Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, the Obama administration has led the world toward releasing more government data, enabling entrepreneurs and businesses to create value from it, patients and students to make more informed decisions, and journalists and nonprofits to hold those in power more accountable.
Many of the commitments in the new plan relate to technology and the release of data. Whether the White House and the federal agencies charged with implementation follow through remains to be seen.