Rhetoric or Reality: White House Touts Posting of "High-Value" Government Data as Advancing Transparency

The Obama administration is touting its success in its first effort at making government more accessible and accountable, pointing to the nearly 300 data sets posted by agencies last Friday in response to the administration's December 8, 2009 Open Government Directive (OGD). This directive required all agencies within 45 days to identify and publish online at least three "high-value data sets." But rhetoric aside, simply calling information high-value doesn't make it so.

The Department of Defense, for example considers the marital status of active duty forces to be "high-value," along with post-election surveys of voting trends in the military. The Department of the Interior apparently believes there is burning public interest in data about non-summarized population counts of horses and burros located in Herd Management Areas the agency controls. As for the Department of Justice, the holder of vast high-value data, it selected for posting information over 12 yeas old, such as the annual survey of jails data for 1987. Similarly, the General Services Administration posted Federal Advisory Committee Act Committee Member Lists dating back to 1997.

Then there are agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the Social Security Administration, that just posted their annual Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reports, despite the fact that the Department of Justice has been posting all agencies FOIA reports for years. As for the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency that should appreciate the concept of high-value data above all others, well, its postings include the 2007, 2008, and 2009 Code of Federal Regulations.

In short, many of the allegedly "high-value" data sets are obscure, old, or already publicly available.

There are some agencies that took their responsibility to post high-value data seriously. The State Department, for example, posted reports regarding damaged and destroyed villages in the Darfur region of Sudan, while the Department of Transportation offered up safety ratings showing the crash worthiness and rollover safety of new cars. And the Executive Office of the President posted a host of valuable economic and regulatory data, including the history of economic forecasts and U.S. Global Change Research Program budgets.

So what accounts for the widely varying importance of the posted data sets? Undoubtedly it stems from the failure of the OGD to provide any definition or standards for what constitutes a high-value data set. As with other aspects of the administration's transparency initiatives, the OGD is long on aspirations and short on specific benchmarks to measure success. If the administration wants to move beyond rhetoric, however, it must do more than espouse agency transparency. It is time for the White House to get specific and tell agencies precisely what they need to do to become transparent and accountable.

This post was written by Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, and Anne Weismann, CREW's chief counsel.