The Trials and Tribulations of Obama's Open Government Initiative

by James Goodwin

June 08, 2009

When President Obama launched his open government initiative on his first full day on the job, few assumed that the ambitious endeavor it contemplated would be easy.  After all, lack of transparency and even active efforts to conceal information had become almost an inextricable feature of the federal government’s internal operations and decision-making—especially during the George W. Bush Administration.  A recent series of developments confirms just how challenging the effort to achieve a more open government will be; fortunately, some of these developments also suggest that the Administration has learned some lessons from the initiatives’ early difficulties and perhaps is now moving in the right direction.

Obama launched the good ship “open government,” via a memorandum issued on January 21, laying out a vision of open government that was predicated on three pillars:  transparency; public participation; and collaboration.  The memo directed the Chief Technology Officer to work with the Director of the Office and Management Budget and the Administrator of General Services to develop a series of recommendations for an “Open Government Directive” that would direct executive agencies (including independent agencies) to take specific actions that are calculated to integrate the three pillars of open government into the agencies’ daily operations and decision-making procedures.  The memo gave the Chief Technology Officer 120 days—that is, until May 21st—to achieve this task.

In those 120 days, not everything went perfectly.  For one thing, Obama didn’t name his choice for Chief Technology Officer—Aneesh Chopra, the current Virginia Technology Secretary—until April 18.  For another, it was becoming increasingly unclear whether a government initiative intended to foster greater transparency, public participation, and collaboration in government would actually involve any transparency, public participation, and collaboration.  The irony of this last concern was lost on no one.  In February, Administration officials began soliciting input from agency staff on the recommendations to include in the Open Government Directive.  It was unclear, however, whether any of this input would ever be made public.  Furthermore, Administration officials repeatedly failed to make good on their promise to solicit open government suggestions from the general public.

Finally, the big day arrived.  Rather than announce the recommendations that had been developed for the Open Government Directive, however, a group of Administration officials gathered to announce the roll out of the public participation portion of the open government planning process.  They described a process for engaging public participation in the open government initiative that would occur in three phases:

  • Phase 1 – “Brainstorming” (May 21 to June 3):  Citizens were invited to access the open government initiative’s dedicated website,, where they could submit new ideas for the open government recommendations, or they could read through other people’s ideas and “vote” on them, by giving them a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down.”
  • Phase 2 – “Blog discussion” (June 3 to June 15):  Citizens can participate in discussions on the biggest issues that were raised during the brainstorming phase.
  • Phase 3 – “Wiki-based drafting” (starting June 15):  Citizens can help to literally craft the language of the recommendations that will be used for the Open Government Directive, just as one might craft the language in a Wikipedia article.

As impressive as the May 21st announcements were, they created, and continue to create, more concerns than they appear to have assuaged.  First, it's not clear what the status of the recommendations for the Open Government Directive is now that the May 21st deadline has passed.  Did the introduction of the public participation process implicitly extend this deadline so that the ideas submitted by the public can be incorporated into these recommendations?  If the deadline was not extended, then what, if any, contribution will the process for soliciting the public’s ideas make to the final Open Government Directive?

Second, some members of the public interest community, such as Patrice McDermott, director of, have been disappointed with how the brainstorming phase of the public participation process was conducted.  It was announced out of the blue and lasted just a little over a week that included an extended holiday weekend.  The publicity for this first phase was inadequate, and as a result, the public had little opportunity to participate in the brainstorming phase in a meaningful way.  Thus, few of the ideas that were submitted during this phase have little if any relevance to the topic of open government.  Instead, the vast majority of the “ideas” that had been submitted are off-topic -- mostly calls for investigations into President Obama’s true country of birth.  There have also been some questions as to the usefulness of the voting function on the ideas webpage.  The subsequent attempts by the website administrators to control misuse of the ideas webpage served only to raise complaints that the Obama Administration was in fact working to censor those ideas about open government with which it didn’t agree.

Third, there is confusion about how the brainstorming phase is being used to contribute to the blog discussion phase.  In particular, it is not clear whether or how the discussion topics in this second phase were generated from the ideas that were submitted during the first phase.

To be sure, it seems that some of the problems that have emerged thus far from the process to engage public participation in Obama’s open government initiative defy solution.  For example, how can the Obama Administration be expected to prevent the abuse of the online participation features when citizens can (and should be able to) use them anonymously?

Some of other problems that have emerged, however, were the result of poor communication by the Obama Administration, and thus were more readily preventable.  For example, the Obama Administration should have made a greater effort to promote the brainstorming phase in order to encourage public participation.  If anything, these communication failures by the Obama Administration reveal that the achievement of the three pillars of open government—transparency, public participation, and collaboration—are not intrinsically easy, but instead require creativity and careful attention.

The story so far is that the Administration's efforts on open government seem genuine, but that there have been some serious glitches. There will no doubt be a steep learning curve.  Hopefully, the implementation of the public participation process—crude as it has been to this point—signals a commitment on the part of the Administration to continue moving along that curve.

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James Goodwin, J.D., M.P.P., is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in May of 2008.

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