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Project on Government Oversight

The Magna Carta for Transparency? POGO explores the White House Open Government Directive memo

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December 8, 2009

The White House today released its long-awaited Open Government Directive (OGD), a memo that requires agencies in the executive branch to take new initiatives towards a more transparent and collaborative government.  Accompanying the directives are a set of guiding principles and specific deadlines.

POGO has long advocated these core democratic principles which empower all citizens to greater participation, and in a letter to the Obama transition team, POGO made specific recommendations to shift away from a policy of secrecy in all areas of the federal governance process.  The OGD incorporates many of the recommendations made in Moving Toward a 21st Century Right to Know Agenda, a collaborative report issued a year ago that POGO signed onto.

Here's what we can now expect from the agencies, along with a description of each new requirement from the memo:

  1. New high-value datasets: "Within 45 days, each agency shall identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value data sets ... and register those data sets via Data.gov. These must be data sets not previously available online or in a downloadable format."
  2. Senior official accountable for federal spending information: "Within 45 days, each agency, in consultation with OMB, shall designate a high-level senior official to be accountable for the quality and objectivity of, and internal controls over, the Federal spending information publicly disseminated through such public venues as USAspending.gov or other similar websites."
  3. Open Government Webpage: "Within 60 days, each agency shall create an Open Government Webpage located at http://www.[agency].gov/open to serve as the gateway for agency activities related to the Open Government Directive and shall maintain and update that webpage in a timely fashion."
  4. Open Government Dashboard: "Within 60 days, the Federal Chief Information Officer and the Federal Chief Technology Officer shall create an Open Government Dashboard on www.whitehouse.gov/open. The Open Government Dashboard will make available each agency’s Open Government Plan, together with aggregate statistics and visualizations designed to provide an assessment of the state of open government in the Executive Branch and progress over time toward meeting the deadlines for action outlined in this Directive."
  5. Open Government Plan: "Within 120 days, each agency shall develop and publish on its Open Government Webpage an Open Government Plan that will describe how it will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities."
  6. FOIA Backlog Reduction: "Each agency with a significant pending backlog of outstanding Freedom of Information requests shall take steps to reduce any such backlog by ten percent each year."

The OGD also tasks the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) with developing strategy and innovations in openness.  Specifically, OMB must do the following:


  1. Establish a working group to foster innovation and idea exchange: "This group, with senior level representation from program and management offices throughout the Government, will serve several critical functions, including: Providing a forum to share best practices on innovative ideas to promote transparency...; Coordinating efforts to implement existing mandates for Federal spending transparency...; and Providing a forum to share best practices on innovative ideas to promote participation and collaboration..."
  2. Issue a framework for quality of federal spending info: "Within 60 days, the Deputy Director for Management at OMB will issue, through separate guidance or as part of any planned comprehensive management guidance, a framework for the quality of Federal spending information publicly disseminated through such public venues as USAspending.gov or other similar websites."
  3. Provide a framework for how agencies can use prizes, challenges to find new solutions: "Within 90 days, the Deputy Director for Management at OMB will issue, through separate guidance or as part of any planned comprehensive management guidance, a framework for how agencies can use challenges, prizes, and other incentive-backed strategies to find innovative or cost-effective solutions to improving open government."
  4. Issue long term strategy for federal spending transparency: "Within 120 days, the Deputy Director for Management at OMB will issue, through separate guidance or as part of any planned comprehensive management guidance, a longer-term comprehensive strategy for Federal spending transparency, including the Federal Funding Accountability Transparency Act and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act."

    All told, today is a good day for the good government movement.  With the Justice Department's (DOJ) recent policies and procedures for asserting state secrets privilege and other measures DOJ has taken towards openness, the executive branch is now well on its way to establishing a culture of openness.

    But the real challenge is still ahead: our task now is to implement, enforce, and ensure the long-term viability of a policy of openness. While DOJ's memo on state secrets was encouraging, subsequent implementation has proven to be discouraging — going to show that it will be up to our community to ensure all open government initiatives live up to their potential.

    Only time will tell if the document will go down as the Magna Carta of government transparency, or just another memo for the archive. For now, it's worth commending the White House for taking this first step.

    Read Open Government Directive.

    Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.