This week the White House announced its Open Government Directive - a set of rules and recommendations governing how federal agencies should make data public and easy to access. John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, says releasing this data could have meaningful effects on government accountability and even spur new services in the private sector.
Artist: by Amon Tobin
BOB GARFIELD: On his first day in office, President Barack Obama promised to bring transparency and openness to the White House and to the whole federal government. But he reneged on his promise to release photos of U.S. soldiers abusing prisoners overseas. The administration invoked the States Secrets Privilege to dismiss lawsuits, a practice Obama had criticized during the campaign. And while the President called for the negotiations over health care reform to be televised, those negotiations remained behind closed doors. But on Tuesday, the Obama administration announced its Open Government Directive, in hopes of proving that it really is committed to that transparency stuff. It asks government agencies to make all sorts of data public and to build websites devoted to sharing the information. And it calls for a central place on the White House website to rate the openness of each agency. John Wonderlich is policy director at the Sunlight Foundation and he says this initiative is a big, big deal.
JOHN WONDERLICH: This Open Government Directive is the administration making a real commitment to systemic change within the government. They're saying, what should the American public be able to know about the government and what’s the best way to share that information with them.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, we in the press often think of transparency as we have a request for a certain document, we make a FOIA request and eventually get it, and we go, oh okay, well, we got that. But we're talking about data in just vast, vast quantities. What are these data sets that will be made available to the public?
JOHN WONDERLICH: Well, each top level agency, within 45 days, has to make public three high-value data sets. Now, it’s a great question as to what constitutes a high-value data set, but what agencies have released so far, even in the few days since the directive was announced, includes a bunch of data sets that we can already say are going to make a difference in how we perceive the government and in how it operates. One example of that is the government puts together each year a report on how well they're responding to Freedom of Information requests. How long does it take them to respond to the requests? How often do they use the excuses that they have for not releasing information? And this information is really valuable to shame agencies that are performing poorly into doing better, and also to give positive reinforcement to agencies that are using the Freedom of Information Act well. And, for the first time, this week, the Department of Justice released that information in spreadsheets. That’s just one example.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, that happens to be an example of how government transparency will document government transparency, but there are other vast data sets from every agency of the government that are interesting, even profitable, to people not necessarily in the news business. I'm sure the Department of Transportation has lots of data out there that many parties are salivating to get their hands on.
JOHN WONDERLICH: Yeah. Some information that was released earlier this week from the Treasury, they're releasing what they call migration data, the number of people filing tax returns, the number of exemptions, and all sorts of information that doesn't sound sexy at first, but if you’re a marketer or if you’re someone who’s thinking about where to set up a business or what kind of business to set up, this is the kind of information that allows you to make decisions that will make your business succeed or fail. Over the course of the next year or two, we're going to see a real renaissance of government information, and suddenly, possibly without knowing it, we're going to become empowered by what our government has known but hasn't been sharing very well with everyone else.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so I want to ask you a slightly technical question.
JOHN WONDERLICH: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: And that has to do with the format for the data. Now, it’s one thing to dump a bunch of data on the public and another to make it actually useful.
JOHN WONDERLICH: That's right. Probably the best most obvious example of that is when the government releases data as a document, rather than as a database. So it’s not uncommon for reporters to make a Freedom of Information Act request, and then the government will respond to that request by taking what is an enormous spreadsheet, printing it out on individual pieces of paper, scanning that paper and then taking those scans and sending them on a DVD. So we are like five levels removed from what is useful information. And releasing data as data rather than as a document empowers other people to visualize that information and make charts and comparisons, and all sorts of things. And what we're seeing right now is the government committing to a more useful disclosure of that information.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I know everybody there at the Sunlight Foundation, it, you know, it’s like high-fives all around. The United States Government is finally opening itself up to more public scrutiny, and that’s all great. But are there any teeth built into this?
JOHN WONDERLICH: There aren't really specific other provisions like, for example, if you don't meet this deadline, your budget will suffer accordingly, which would probably be the best way to get agencies’ attention. There’s going to be a lot of negotiation and a lot of hand-wringing and a lot of haggling between the administration officials and officials at each agency, who generally tend to be resistant to this kind of change. But I think the level of enforcement that they build into this directive is appropriate. When they're announcing a new broad, comprehensive initiative like this, they're always free to later back it up with specific enforcement mechanisms.
BOB GARFIELD: But it seems to me that the next president could reverse it all, no?
JOHN WONDERLICH: Yeah, that’s absolutely a risk. In 2001, the Ashcroft Memorandum reversed longstanding FOIA policy that made the presumption one toward openness. So, there’s no guarantee of success here. And we are very interested in taking the things that they're doing proactively and codifying them and making it permanent. And I think there are a lot of members of Congress and staffers in Congress that are interested in doing the same. One of the effects, I think, over the next year of all this new information being released, is that we're going to see there is a lot of information policy that’s going to need to be relooked at, reexamined and possibly updated.
BOB GARFIELD: As journalists, you know, maybe we think of FOIA as the yardstick for how transparent the government is, but what we're discussing here today is exponentially larger than the Freedom of Information Act. I mean, we're talking about huge reservoirs of data.
JOHN WONDERLICH: Yeah, it makes me think of the difference between a surgeon opening up a small section of the body and saying, ah, there is a tumor here, the difference between that and doing an MRI of the entire body and being able to scan it. We're talking about universal, comprehensive policies that dictate when information should be released. Now, FOIA’s not going away anytime soon. We'd love for it to be unnecessary, because the government does such a good job of affirmatively disseminating information. But that’s a long-term goal. We'd consider it a success if these new policies make even some FOIA requests unnecessary.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, John, thank you very much.
JOHN WONDERLICH: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: John Wonderlich is policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in D.C. advocating government transparency.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, Iran uses Facebook to track critics across the globe, and the evolution of the Non-Resident Indian on the big screen.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.