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Response to agencies' openness plans largely positive

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  1. Freedom of Information
Federal agencies unveiled open government plans this week as required by the Obama administration's Open Government Directive. Though the assessments…

Federal agencies unveiled open government plans this week as required by the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive. Though the assessments made by open-government advocates have been largely positive, some agencies’ plans display a stronger commitment to transparency than others.

December’s Open Government Directive set April 7 as the deadline for agencies to release their plans for improving transparency and access to records. The open government plans are now available on each agency’s Web site.

“At their best, the Directive and the actions taken today represent a process that could become as important to government transparency as enactment of the Freedom of Information Act,” said Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch in a release. “Even at their worst, today’s actions represent solid progress toward meaningful government transparency, with many details still needed.”

Still, the improvement in agency transparency cannot be fully assessed without analyzing each individual plan, some of which are complex and lengthy, said Amy Bennett, a program associate with the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition.

OpenTheGovernment.org began a full-scale assessment of the plans soon after their release, in an attempt to identify “where an agency’s plan is lacking, and where it excels.” The evaluation is expected to be released in late April or early May.

But even without a full evaluation, some agency plans are impressive standouts while others fail to establish any concrete results. Critics have been disappointed that some agencies have promised to provide data in the future, but don’t provide a step-by-step timeline for doing so, dubbing this type of agency response “planning to plan,” according to OMB Watch.

One plan that pleased transparency advocates is that of Health and Human Services, which promises to release a dozen high-value, never-been-released data sets before the end of the year. “HHS has also really committed to aggressively updating and improving its plan as time goes on,” Bennett said.

Another standout agency proposal is the Department of Justice’s plan to host a FOIA dashboard, which will require the DOJ to improve FOIA reporting and develop standardization across agencies just to make it work. “It’s really going to reward agencies for doing well and incentivize others to do well,” Bennett said.