Public Input on Open Government Solicited

The Obama Administration’s open government initiative might possibly inspire a transformation in the character of government operations along with an expansion of citizen engagement in policy development.  But in order to succeed, it needs some thoughtful, creative input from members of the public.

All Cabinet level agencies (and a few others) have now prepared Open Government Webpages to document their progress in improving transparency and to solicit public suggestions for how to proceed, including recommendations for development of the Open Government Plans that will define each agency’s transparency program.

What this means is that “openness” is becoming incorporated into the bureaucratic machinery of government.  While executive branch agencies remain constrained by security restrictions, resource limits and other considerations, these rule-driven organizations are being given some new rules to follow.

But the actual contours of the new thrust towards openness — its scope, its content, its urgency — depend significantly on the quality of feedback and support that the initiative receives from the interested public.

Agencies need specific, achievable, actionable suggestions for how to meet their new openness obligations.  Each agency’s openness webpage (linked here) invites readers to “share your ideas” on how to proceed.  There has never been a better time for concerned citizens to help shape the government transparency agenda.  (Actually, there has never been a “government transparency agenda” before.)

And there is a premium on good ideas.  Proposals that are unintelligible, impractical, irrelevant, or inane are effectively endorsements of the status quo because they cannot be implemented.

What kind of ideas would be useful and appropriate?  Those who already interact with each particular agency will be in the best position to say what that agency could and should provide to help advance the Administration’s declared goals of transparency, participation and collaboration.

But one general approach to the issue is to consider the diverse categories of government information that have been removed from public access over the past decade, and to use those as a metaphorical trail of bread crumbs leading back to a more transparent posture.  Restoring access to that missing information could help agencies to reorient their policies and to chart a new direction forward.  And it is clearly within the realm of possibility, since it has already been done.

So, for example, these are some suggestions that we have submitted for agency consideration:

Restore public access to the Los Alamos Technical Report Library.  Until 2002, thousands of unclassified technical reports from Los Alamos National Laboratory dating back half a century and longer were publicly available on the Lab web site.  And then they weren’t.  They constitute an invaluable archive of technological development, historical information, and current scientific research.  A sizable fraction of the sequestered reports have been republished on the Federation of American Scientists website.  But the entire collection, with updated content since 2002, should be restored to the public domain.

Restore public access to orbital element data.  For many years, NASA provided direct public access to so-called Two-Line Element sets that characterize the orbits of the many objects in Earth orbit that are tracked by Air Force surveillance, including active and defunct U.S. and foreign spacecraft, as well as significant debris.  In 2004, open public access was terminated.  That step should be reversed.

Publish the Defense Department telephone directory.  For decades, the Pentagon telephone directory served as a public guide to the complex structure of the Department of Defense, and provided a way to establish direct contact with individual offices and officials.  It was always for sale at the Government Printing Office Bookstore to anyone who cared to buy it.  But in 2001, the DoD telephone directory was designated “for official use only.”  In the interests of “openness, participation, and collaboration,” public access to the DoD directory should be restored.  (Other agencies with national security and foreign policy missions including the Department of Energy and the Department of State already make their personnel directories available online.)

There must be countless other possibilities for moving towards a more open, responsive and accountable government.  Some will be of broad interest, while others may serve a specialized constituency.  Some will be easily achievable, others may require new investments or new modes of operation.  But all of a sudden, “openness” is on the government-wide agenda in a way that it has never been before.  The opportunities are there to be seized.

No Responses to “Public Input on Open Government Solicited”

  1. Brian W February 16, 2010 at 3:26 PM #

    All of the satellite positional data that was formerly on the NASA OIG website is still publicly available through a different website, Space Track:

    http://www.space-track.org

    I’ve written extensively on this subject, having formerly been a USAF officer who produced the satellite catalog. Here are some articles with more information:

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1314/1
    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1417/1

  2. Steven Aftergood February 16, 2010 at 3:36 PM #

    The space-track.org site is restricted to authorized users, and is not publicly available without approved registration. And even if registration by an individual is approved, he or she may not publicly disclose the data found there.

    That represents a change from the old policy on the NASA OIG site, in which free access to the data was openly provided. That is still true for archived data for 1980-2004. See:

    http://celestrak.com/NORAD/archives/

    But it is no longer true for current data. Our proposal was to revert to the prior policy.

  3. Allen Thomson February 16, 2010 at 4:59 PM #

    I just checked the CIA site and couldn’t find where to leave a suggestion. Which would be:

    Release all unclassified Headquarters Notices more than five years old.

    Release all FOUO Headquarters Notices more than fifteen years old.

    Review for release Headquarters Notices classified CONFIDENTIAL that are more than twenty-five years old.

  4. Allen Thomson February 16, 2010 at 5:07 PM #

    With regard to orbital elements, the relevant part of the Space Track user agreement is below. I note that, after several attempts to discover what one does to get “prior express approval of the Secretary of Defense or his delegatee”, no one seems to have gotten an answer. If that’s been disclosed, I’d really like to know about it.

    http://www.space-track.org/perl/user_agreement.pl

    BY ACCESSING, BROWSING, AND USING THIS SITE, YOU AGREE TO BE BOUND BY THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS DESCRIBED HEREIN.

    The user agrees not to transfer any data, including, but not limited to, the analysis of tracking data, or other information received through this website or any services described herein to any third party without the prior express approval of the Secretary of Defense or his delegatee. Any unauthorized use of this website will terminate the permission granted by the U.S. Government. Notwithstanding any of these terms and conditions, the U.S. Government reserves the right, without notice and in its sole discretion, to terminate the user’s access to this website, and to block or prevent future access to and use of the website. Any
    user found to be redistributing data will have their access to this
    website immediately terminated. Other enforcement action may also be pursued. United States law may restrict access to some data in accordance with the Arms Export Control Act and the Export Administration Act together with their implementing regulations. Violations of those restrictions will be referred to appropriate legal authorities for enforcement/prosecution.

  5. Brian W February 17, 2010 at 10:48 AM #

    I’m all for the right to redistribute the data, but that is different from what your blog posting says. Perhaps rewording it to explicitly point out the redistribution would help.

    Also, there are tens of thousands of registered users of Space Track from countries all over the world, so AFAIK there is no discrimination going on as to who gets access. I know I have personally shown people from China how to sign up.

    The requirements for both having only authorized users and restricting redistributing come from Congress, not the USAF. (refer to Public Law 108-136, Section 913, 10 U.S.C. §2274 which has the original legislation for the Commercial and Foreign entities Program). In particular, the driving factor here is not national security per say also

    As far as getting permission to redistribute, the Space Track website clearly outlines the process to request such permission using a variation of the old NORAD Form 1 procedures:

    http://www.space-track.org/orbitaldatarequestprocess.html

  6. Allen Thomson February 17, 2010 at 7:06 PM #

    > I know I have personally shown people from China how to sign up.

    And did they get access?

    > requirements for both having only authorized users and restricting redistributing come from Congress

    I truly doubt that any members of Congress have such things on their minds. Somebody (I suspect I know who) in the national security community got a staffer to write the law and get his/her principal to sponsor it. And because nobody else had a clue what it meant or cared, it passed.

    > the Space Track website clearly outlines the process

    Thanks. I’ll exercise that to try to update the archives on Jonathan McDowell’s and report what happens.