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WH Releases Open Government Directive: Transparency (Plus) Engagement (Equals) More Democracy

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The White House this morning released a long-awaited Open Government Directive that follows up on the president's promise -- memorialized on his first full day of office -- to usher in a new era of transparent, participatory governance.

The Directive, issued over the signature of OMB Director Peter Orszag, explains:

"Transparency promotes accountability by providing the public with information about what the Government is doing. Participation allows members of the public to contribute ideas and expertise so that their government can make policies with the benefit of information that is widely dispersed in society. Collaboration improves the effectiveness of Government by encouraging partnerships and cooperation within the Federal Government, across levels of government, and between the Government and private institutions."

What is arguably most impressive about the Directive, as highlighted in a public briefing by CIO Vivek Kundra and and CTO Aneesh Chopra, is its specificity and focus on execution.

Some examples:

  • Agencies get 45 days to "identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value data sets. "
  • Agencies get 60 days to "create an Open Government Webpage . . . 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."
  • Agencies have 45 days to "designate a high-level senior official to be accountable for the quality and objectivity of, and internal controls over" publicly disseminated Federal spending information.
  • Each agency has 120 days to "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."

This is exciting stuff, but it only heightens the need for what communication scholars call "trusted intermediaries" to help everyday citizens make the maximum use of new information resources.

A couple of weeks ago, I was briefing a Columbus city employee who is working on social networking innovations for the city on transparency initiatives at the Federal Communications Commission. She said, "Great! I now have another mountain of information I cannot possibly digest myself."

If Americans are to take advantage of newly available data sets, community institutions need to alert them to the ways in which they can do so.

If citizens are to contribute their ideas in ways that truly affect policy, then organizers need to mobilize public interest around those opportunities and help people to elaborate their ideas in ways most likely to affect policy thinking.

If transparency is truly to promote accountability, then the public needs journalists to help discover, gather, compare, contextualize, and share the new information becoming available. These journalists may be citizen journalists. They may work for community foundations. They may be graduate students. They may work for Huffington Post or any of our local, regional, or national media outlets.

But if more information is coming, we need more people who engage with information not only for their personal benefit, but for the benefit of the public as a whole. It is skillful engagement with information that turns greater transparency into deeper democracy.