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OMB ‘Open Government’ Plan May Boost Disclosure Of Key Agency Data

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Date: December 15, 2009 -


Activists are applauding a new White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB) “open government” plan that they say may spur greater disclosure of “high-value” information from EPA and other agencies, while industry officials argue the plan may require greater agency application of data quality requirements to its information.


OMB Director Peter Orszag issued a memo Dec. 8 in which he directs federal agencies to publish more information online, improve the quality of government information, “create and institutionalize a culture of open government,” and develop an “enabling policy framework” for the initiatives. Orszag also establishes several deadlines for agencies to act in meeting provisions of the plan. The memo is available on InsideEPA.com.


The memo is in response to President Obama’s Jan. 21 open government memo that focused on increasing transparency, public participation and collaboration between the various federal agencies.


Among the various requirements Orszag lays out in his memo is a provision for “senior leaders” to make certain that their information conforms to OMB guidance on information quality, in line with the Data Quality Act (DQA) which allows challenges to agencies’ data. In the memo -- which refers to the DQA as the Information Quality Act -- Orszag says that adequate processes must be in place to ensure data conforms to the data law.


One industry source says OMB appears to be “linking the quality of data to the transparency argument very explicitly in this memo,” which could have implications for EPA if the agency is required to apply the information quality guidelines to its numerous databases and new data it may release under the memo. The new plan tells the agencies to “not assume data is accurate, [and the agency] has to do some data quality checking,” the source says.


In addition, Orszag in his memo requires that within 45 days agencies 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 Web sites.


The industry source says this “opens a lot of doors” towards applying DQA to agency budget and financial data. For example, EPA stimulus funding for cleaning up underground tanks could be quizzed for more specific data on how the money was spent, what was cleaned up and how many jobs were created, the source claims, which could open the information up to challenges by industry.


However, activists downplay as “wishful thinking” the suggestion that the plan outlined in the memo could boost requirements to apply DQA to agency data. A source with OMB Watch says the document could “open the door a crack” for broader use of the data quality law, but says the emphasis of the memo’s provisions seems to be on improving the quality of financial data, not requiring agencies to apply the act to all data.


The OMB Watch source points to the fact that the memo refers to the need for “adequate systems and processes” at the agencies to ensure data quality. “Most agencies have systems in place,” the source says, including peer review panels and quality checks of data. “You can’t get perfect data,” the source adds. “We want to perfect the quality of data within certain constraints,” including time and budget limitations.


Further, the source points out the additional guidance in the memo is geared towards financial and budgetary data, including the possibility of further guidance, which the OMB Watch source says is indicative of recent problems with the information, for example, data on the impacts of the economic stimulus.


In a statement, the executive director of OMB Watch, Gary Bass, said the “directive’s presumption of openness -- certainly a positive step -- reflects a thoughtful understanding that achieving the goal of transparency requires a cultural shift in the way government operates.” He continues, “The directive’s scope and specificity blends both rigorous timelines and agency flexibility that will likely achieve significant improvements in government openness across agencies.”


In addition to Orszag’s requirement that agencies follow DQA guidelines to ensure the quality of their information, the new plan also requires federal agencies to develop an “open government plan” to implement the principles, including at least one new “flagship initiative” on transparency, participation or collaboration.


Orszag also asks agencies to formulate a “strategic action plan” that “inventories agency high-value information currently available for download; fosters the public’s use of this information to increase public knowledge and promote public scrutiny of agency services; and identifies high value information not yet available and establishes a reasonable timeline for publication online in open formats with specific target dates.”


Agencies are asked to propose new “feedback mechanisms” to increase the opportunities for public participation. Agencies are also asked to revise current practices to increase collaboration with “other federal and non-federal governmental agencies, the public, and non-profit and private entities in fulfilling the agency’s core mission activities.” -- Aaron Lovell






Source: Risk Policy Report via InsideEPA.com

Date: December 15, 2009

Issue: Vol. 16, No. 50

© Inside Washington Publishers



RISK-16-50-11