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Are Federal Agencies Open? Audit Gives Mixed Grades

Agencies that should be leading the charge on transparency are among the weakest, an audit of open government plans says. Among the weakest plans, according to the audit, were Justice, which coordinates Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reporting and training, and the OMB, which issued the directive requiring transparency plans.

NASA was commended by transparency groups for doing more than required with its open government plans. (NASA 1965 file photo) The mere fact that federal agencies had to produce plans for how they will be more open to citizens is huge step for government transparency. But some of those plans look more promising than others.

An audit of agency open government plans released today by a consortium of transparency groups found that while some agencies outlined concrete steps for improvement, others lack specifics about how or when the agency will be more open.

Among the weakest plans, according to the audit, were those from some agencies that should be leading the charge: the Department of Justice, which coordinates Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reporting and training, and the Office of Management and Budget, which issued the directive requiring transparency plans.

Under the December directive, agencies were to complete several tasks and post transparency plans on their new open government Web sites by April 7.

Open government plans were to include an outline for the timely publication of data and information about how agencies process FOIA requests. Agencies also were to describe how they would make it easier for citizens to participate in agency activities.

Openthegovernment.org, which coordinated the audit, has put all of the open government plans online, along with the audit results and a ranking of the agencies.

The overachiever among the agencies was NASA, which scored bonus points for doing more than required. Other plans cited as models for other agencies by the audit include the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency.

At the back of the class: The Department of Justice, which proposed broad actions with "very few timeframes provided," according to the audit. It also failed to list currently available data sets or any plans to post in the future.

The plan from OMB lacked "details of proposed actions to be taken, with clear milestones, to inform the public of significant actions and business of your agency." The Department of Energy’s plan lacked information about "how it would measure improved transparency" or "how it would sustain and improve the initiatives."

OpentheGovernment.org is calling on some agencies to beef up their plans by later this month. The group will take another look at those plans in early June.

"The plans in general begin the process of moving the Executive Branch toward greater openness," said Patrice McDermott, executive directive of OpentheGovernment.org.

"While the change will inevitably be easier in some agencies than others and some are farther along, we encourage all agencies to challenge themselves to meet the promise their plans represent and to go beyond those commitments," she said.