Why an Open Government Matters

Each year millions of visitors stream through the rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, DC, to view the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence.  These foundational documents of our democracy are on public display because of the importance of openness in government.

Openness promotes accountability by enabling journalists, researchers, government officials, and the public to scrutinize, question, and ultimately improve how government works.  But, as with many aspects of Democracy, openness must evolve. The Progress Report on Open Government to the American People describes how the Administration is doing just that.

Recently, for example, the Obama Administration began to publish online the names of everyone who visits the White House offices; provide online access to White House staff financial reports and salaries; disclose and limit lobbyist contacts; publish the membership of Federal advisory committees in downloadable form; and create unprecedented ways to track how the government spends taxpayer dollars. Advancing that trend, yesterday the White House released an historic Directive requiring all agencies to adopt aggressive open government policies that will further promote the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration. (For those who can’t wait till the end, click here to see what others have said about the Administration’s Open Government policy and why it matters.)

This new degree of openness is enabled in part by 21st century technology, which makes it possible for government to open its doors and databases more than ever before.  From online listening tours and chats to web-based brainstorming by government officials with the American public, the White House and federal agencies are opening up the way they work to improve accountability in government and deepen our democracy.

But creating an open government – one that is committed to transparency and civic engagement – does more than promote accountability. Working in the open fosters collaboration between government, private industry, and the public to improve the lives of Americans in their communities.

To mark the publication of the Directive and the Report, every Cabinet Department is launching a new open government project.

For example, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is unveiling “Virtual USA,” a collaboration among DHS, eight states, and the emergency response community that uses new technology to share emergency response information seamlessly among Federal, state, local, and tribal first responders. The Virtual USA system links these partners’ disparate tools and technologies to share the location and status of power and water lines, flood detectors, helicopter-capable landing sites, emergency vehicle and ambulance locations, weather and traffic conditions, evacuation routes, and school and government building floor plans, and does so without requiring any participating entity to change either the system it now uses or the way it does business.

During a recent Virginia Nuclear Power Plant exercise, the ability of decision-makers to gather, analyze, and disseminate information via the Virtual USA information-sharing system reduced by 70 percent the time it took to make a decision about evacuation.  In addition, Virtual USA provides mechanisms for Americans in their own communities to contribute information to complement that of police, fire, and other government workers, essentially crowdsourcing a more detailed picture of disaster and recovery capabilities.

The Department of Agriculture is using open government innovations to address the obesity epidemic, one the Administration's top priorities. This week the Department made available for download on nutrition data for standard portion sizes of more than 1,000 most common food items. In addition,  it is launching a national competition that challenges entrepreneurs, software developers, and students to leverage the newly released data to create educational games to help children make healthy eating decisions.  By making reliable government data available to the American people and inviting their collaboration in developing new products and tools for the public good, the Department of Agriculture is taking the values of openness and translating them into practical ways to address a national priority.

Open government initiatives are also helping fledgling businesses convert government information into entrepreneurial opportunities that can create jobs and strengthen economic growth. Government agencies are home to treasure troves of data and information, but much of it is buried in websites or exists in formats too cumbersome to be of practical use. Now a group of six departments and agencies has worked together to offer easy access to information on publicly-funded technologies that are available for license, opportunities for Federal funding and partnerships, and potential private-sector partnerships.  By making information from multiple agencies available in RSS and XML feeds on, the government empowers innovators to find the information they need and receive real-time updates instead of having to probe government websites repeatedly.

At the same time, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has committed to make all published patents available for download so they can be easily searched by entrepreneurs and innovators.

These are just a few of the innovative approaches being announced this week to continue the process of lifting the veil from the workings and resources of the Federal Government. By turning its philosophical commitment to openness into real policies and practices, the Obama Administration is empowering all Americans to address the many pressing challenges of our time.

P.S. We’re not the only ones who think this is big.  An array of experts on government transparency and accountability are praising the Obama Administration’s unprecedented Open Government Directive.  The following is just a sample of their reactions:

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee: “I commend President Obama for issuing an historic directive on government transparency, participation and collaboration that will make our government more accessible and accountable to the American people.  I am particularly pleased that, for the first time, the public will have immediate access to government data that for too long had been shielded from view by excessive secrecy and outdated technologies.” [Press Release, 12/8/09]

U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, Chairman, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee: “The President’s Open Government Directive is heartily welcomed by those of us who have worked to make government more transparent and accountable to the American people. Back in 2002, I authored and Congress passed the E-Government Act, which helped spur Federal agencies to make documents and services more accessible to the general public. The Federal government has come a long way since 2002 and today, it takes a giant step closer to taking full advantage of available information technologies to maximize not just the transparency, participation, and collaboration of people with their government but also to maximize management efficiency.” [Press Release, 12/8/09]

In alphabetical order by last name:

Steven Aftergood, Federation of American Scientists: "It's an ambitious attempt to open up the government and to change the way that agencies do business.” [USA Today, 12/8/09]

Gary D. Bass, Executive Director, OMB Watch: "The results appear to be well worth the wait. The president demanded the directive be built around three main principles -- transparency, participation, and collaboration. The new directive, issued today, delivers on all three principles with specific requirements and deadlines for all agencies." [Washington Post, 12/8/09]

Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, President and Founder, AmericaSpeaks: “I applaud the Obama Administration for taking bold steps today to open the government and make it more transparent and accountable. Clearly the President and his team have listened to and taken seriously Americans all across the country who want a stronger voice and a seat at the table in American democracy.”

Patrice McDermott, Director, “The Open Government Directive, when fully implemented, will take the Federal government many steps toward real openness. Far from representing the end of the process, today’s announcement is the beginning of an on-going effort to build transparency and accountability into the way government operates.” [Press Release, 12/8/09]

Ellen Miller, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Sunlight Foundation:
“The Open Government Directive issued today demonstrates the seriousness of administration's commitment to data transparency and citizen engagement. It is evidence that the administration recognizes that transparency is government's responsibility. At the same time, it shows the administration is matching aspirational goals with concrete policies and accountability measures." [Washington Post, 12/8/09]

Peter M. Shane, Author of Madison’s Nightmare:What is arguably most impressive about the Directive, as highlighted in a public briefing by CIO Vivek Kundra and [sic] CTO Aneesh Chopra, is its specificity and focus on execution.” [Huffington Post, 12/8/09]

Jim Tozzi, Advisory Board, Center for Regulatory Effectiveness: “The Open Government initiative is a real piece of work – an excellent document.”  [Communication to, 12/9/2009]

Anne Weismann, Chief Counsel, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW): “This directive represents the kind of bold and far reaching initiative President Obama promised on his first full day in office.  By establishing a new paradigm of public access to government information, the administration has paved the way for a truly transparent and accountable government.” [CREW Press Release, 12/8/09]

John Wonderlich, Policy Director, Sunlight Foundation: "[W]e are very excited. They're really taking on a lot of initiatives and doing so in an aggressive fashion. We couldn't have written it better ourselves. It's very ambitious." [, 12/8/09]

Norm Eisen is Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform
Beth Noveck is United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and Director of the White House Open Government Initiative