Watchdog knocks Obama administration on transparency

More than two years after he took office the success of President Obama's open government directive is still very much in doubt, according to a prominent government transparency watchdog.

Sunlight Foundation executive director Ellen Miller called 2010 "tremendously disappointing" for open government advocates and said little has happened in 2011 to change her view that the Obama administration has failed to deliver on transparency.

"It seems like there's been more promises made than reality delivered and we're disappointed," Miller told The Hill this week.

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Miller said the president's open government directive had made the open government community hopeful after years of secrecy from the Bush administration, particularly because the government promised things like data audits of federal agencies and the publishing of high-value government data sets for public use that have yet to come to fruition.

But Miller joined several experts in recent months in questioning the quality of the data sets published on federal transparency websites like Data.gov and the IT Dashboard, arguing the data on the sites is often inaccurate and not as useful as advertised.

"Data.gov is really cool except that when you really dig into it, there aren't as many data sets as it looks," she said, adding that much of the data is only useful for building maps and little else. "There's general diappointment with the speed at which agencies have put data online."

A spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget said agencies have created data quality plans and are currently refining their internal controls to ensure data provided is timely, accurate, and complete.

The spokesperson argued sites like Recovery.gov and PaymentAccuracy.gov provide unprecedented transparency in Federal spending. The spokesperson also pointed to a recent blog post by federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra extolling the virtues of the IT Dashboard and its role in helping drive federal decisions on information technology investments.

"It’s important to note that transparency is not only good government, it also bolsters accountability, and helps us deliver billions in savings and better results for the American people," Kundra said.

"More work lies ahead and we will continue to leverage the power of IT to make government more open and more effective so we can win the future."

Miller said the White House has failed to compel agenices to overcome their cultural resistance to releasing information on their operations. She said without a real push from the White House some agencies would be unwilling to turn over meaningful data, though she praised NASA and the Department of Health and Human Services for publishing interesting data sets.

"If [agencies] resist, they resist. There's almost nothing [the White House and OMB] can do," Miller said.

As a final example, she noted that President Obama was scheduled to receive an award for his commitment to transparency earlier this month from a group of transparency advocates to commemorate Sunshine Week.

Miller called the award a "notion foolishly conceived" and said Sunlight didn't take part because Obama's commitment alone wasn't sufficient to merit an award.

The president was forced to re-schedule what Miller said was essentially a photo-op, evidence to her that transparency is no longer a top priority.

"We're left twiddling our thumbs until the promise becomes reality."