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POGO and Partners Shine Light on Best Practices for Openness

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Event Hightlights

Monday
Fourth Annual DOJ Sunshine Week Celebration; 10 a.m. at the U.S. Department of Justice

Tuesday
Anti-Terrorism Laws and Press Freedom; 6:30 p.m. at the National Press Club

Wednesday
The Lessons of Watergate
POGO's Danielle Brian will be speaking at this Common Cause event; all day at the National Press Club

POGO's Angela Canterbury will testify in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Thursday
The Future of Classification Reform; Noon at The Brennan Center for Justice

Friday
Freedom of Information Day; 8:15 a.m. at the Newseum
POGO's Danielle Brian will be on a panel at 9:15 a.m.

Click for Full Schedule

With Sunshine Week approaching, the Project On Government Oversight and partner organizations have released Highlighted Best Practices for Openness and Accountability, a report providing examples of federal agencies’ innovative practices for enhancing government openness. We share noteworthy models, many of which could be improved upon and replicated government-wide, and we outline key criteria for successful practices in each of eight topical areas to serve as a guide. We hope this report will prove a valuable resource for agencies seeking to maximize their levels of openness and accountability. Read on for the rundown on several stand-out best practices.

In the report’s first category, “Proactive Release of Agency Operations,” posting and maintaining staff directories and calendars online is an example of a practice every agency should be able to follow with little time and effort. This best practice allows the public and public interest advocacy organizations to gain a clearer picture of who the key actors are in each department, how agencies are organized, and ultimately, how the government does the people’s business. Some key criteria for success are that online directories and calendars should be kept up to date and accurate; content should be complete, searchable, and machine-readable; and the public should be able to search by multiple criteria. As the Best Practices report points out, the following agencies are off to a good start:

The Department of State, Department of Commerce, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), General Services Administration, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have made their staff directories easily accessible online. None of these sites would be considered ideal as each has at least one element missing from our “Key Criteria” list. For example, the State Department has no email addresses and is only available in PDF. EPA only provides information for upper-level directors of each branch and office. HHS data has multiple paths to information about employees; some paths produced information that is out of date while other paths produce accurate information.

The next topical area is “Proactive Release of Consumer Information.” One of our highlighted best practices in this category is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) excellent online credit card complaint database. In providing consumers with credit card customers’ complaints and criticisms, the CFPB’s database illustrates how a government agency can share aggregated information online (information they are already collecting) to provide a useful tool and new knowledge base for the public. The Best Practices report states:

This complaint database allows for credit card users to gain insight into the experiences of other credit card users, which in turn allows them to make better informed and responsible financial decisions. This website is still a beta version and needs some improvements, but there are useful built-in data visualization tools so the public can map the data by geography, issues, volume, or other criteria. The website also lets developers extract data through an API, empowering others to use the CFPB data to build more robust websites.

The next category, “Engaging the Public in Policymaking,” outlines several practices for promoting public participation in government, such as seeking public comment on proposed regulations and launching new platforms like Regulations.gov. Including citizens and outside experts in policymaking decisions and rulemaking enhances openness and accountability. One of the practices we highlight centers on the updated Open Government Plans. A number of agencies invited public feedback on their plans, and several set up meetings with open government advocates and their stakeholders to discuss the plans’ content. Engaging the public on this transparency initiative was a great way to ensure the strongest possible plans. In a similar example, several agencies sought public comment on their scientific integrity plans. According to Best Practices:

Without being required to do so, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Departments of Education, Interior, Labor, Justice, and Veterans Affairs all requested public comment to help create their scientific integrity plans. The executive branch agencies’ scientific integrity plans outline standards for government-funded science, including conflict-of-interest, procedural, and transparency rules, responsive to President Obama’s 2009 Memorandum on Scientific Integrity.

The category “Shining a Light on How Tax Dollars Are Spent” focuses on practices that increase federal spending transparency. New technologies enable the government to inform the public in real time about where federal funds are flowing and how contracts are being awarded down to the local level for meaningful accountability. The unprecedented level of federal spending tracking, and the level of public access to that information, on Recovery.gov is a model that we hope will be replicated government-wide. As the Best Practices report states:

The Recovery, Accountability, and Transparency Board is the current overseer of tracking stimulus spending and allows the public to do so as well on Recovery.gov. But the board and its website are set to expire in 2013, as the stimulus spending ends. However, the successor, the Government Accountability and Transparency Board should continue to update the site as a resource and expand its uniform standards for reporting and increase accountability for all federal spending. The best practices from Recovery.gov should be applied to USAspending.gov, or a next-generation site for all federal spending.

In the topical area “Prioritizing Openness and Accountability,” we focus on best practices of making agency performance reports easily accessible on agency websites and providing information about high-risk projects. (The High Risk Series is GAO’s program that highlights “major problems that are at high risk for waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, or in need for reform.”) In the Best Practices report, we give the following agencies high marks for posting their performance and accountability reports online:

The Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of State, Department of Transportation, Department of Treasury, and Department of Veterans Affairs have made their Performance and Accountability Reports easily available under their “About” pages. These reports measure actual progress against agencies’ target goals. Other agencies have Performance and Accountability Reports on their websites, but they are not as easily located.

The category “Promoting Responsibility in the Classification of National Security Information” highlights the Department of Energy’s (DOE) policy of providing extensive training on properly classifying information. If all agencies made this a priority, the public would have broader access to information that need not be classified, and the government would be able to spend fewer resources on declassification efforts in the future. The Best Practices report suggests that DOE’s policy is a model that should be emulated:

The Department of Energy does not permit everyone with a security clearance to engage in the derivative classification of information. Instead, individuals must attend a multi-week course and pass a performance-based test in order to be certified as a derivative classifier, and must be re-certified at regular intervals. Employees with security clearances who are not certified must obtain the assistance of certified classifiers to classify information.

The report was prepared by POGO with contributions by the American Association of Law Libraries, Bauman Foundation, Brennan Center for Justice, Center for Effective Government, OpenTheGovernment.org, Sunlight Foundation, and Union of Concerned Scientists.

The examples outlined above are just a few of the many best practices for openness and accountability we have highlighted in the report. POGO and our partners hope this resource will spur agencies and departments to replicate or improve upon these practices and initiate a larger conversation across the federal government about innovative ways to shape a new culture of openness. Stay tuned for more Sunshine Week coverage!

By: Suzanne Dershowitz
Public Policy Fellow, POGO

suzanne dershowitz At the time of publication Suzie Dershowitz was a public policy fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Government Accountability

Related Content: Government Secrecy, Open Government

Authors: Suzanne Dershowitz

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