Federal Agencies Miss the Mark on Open Data Mandate – Again

Posted December 20th, 2013

By Ian Kalin

By Ian Kalin


On May 9, 2013, President Obama issued an Executive Order on open data. The Executive Order was hailed as a revolutionary improvement to the Federal open government initiative. The Administration’s accompanying memorandum was a digital innovator’s dream come true, with detailed guidance on the massive amount of new information that was supposed to be published by Federal agencies. The Executive Order and the accompanying memorandum are collectively referred to as the Open Data Mandate. Unfortunately, with the passage of the first major deadline of the Mandate on November 30th (the original Nov. 1 deadline was extended due to the government shutdown), it is clear that many Federal agencies have failed to deliver the promised products.

Grading Federal Agencies on Open Data

How successful were the Federal agencies in supplying open, non-confidential, and non-private data back to the taxpayers? Non-profit transparency watchdog the Sunlight Foundation detailed Agency responses to the Open Data Mandate in a great blog post. Of the 31 agencies listed, Sunlight found that only two, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency, were fully compliant by the revised deadline. Sunlight also calls out the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Commerce Department as being the most delinquent of “The Bad.” I believe those two agencies have since caught up significantly.  

Hurdles to Compliance

There are many different reasons for the failure to comply with the Mandate. Some degree of delay is to be expected from large agencies that have combined annual spending measured in trillions of dollars. But, as to the specific reasons, here are just a few. Undoubtedly, several agencies suffered from a lack of leadership support for the President’s Executive Order; others struggled with technology hurdles; and, for those that did take action, many were unable to complete the directed tasks in time. Leaders of the remaining agencies simply did not consider government transparency to be part of their Agency’s core responsibilities.

Those agencies that have failed to fulfill the promised deliverables should be held accountable for their poor performance. In comparison to the recent disaster with HealthCare.gov, this incomplete technology launch is not an emergency. It is more about missed opportunities. To be fair, there are a few agencies that have delivered amazing open data platforms, such as the Department of Energy. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) already said that there “is still much more work to do.” But from an outsider’s view, the OSTP blog on the passing deadline should be the beginning of the public accountability, not the end of it.

Those agencies that have failed to fulfill the promised deliverables should be held accountable for their poor performance.

Accountability is as essential to commercial product launches as it is to the fabric of democracy. So here’s one taxpayer’s humble suggestion: continue to be honest about who failed to deliver and why. OSTP recently released their revised Open Government Plan, which included an assessment of their performance on the first version. The U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer, Nick Sinai, was very transparent in earlier dispatches to say that the first version of the Open Government Plan only achieved 24 of its 26 goals. This great example should continue with the latest Open Government Plan, which includes open data at its core.

We shouldn’t have to look to the Sunlight Foundation to figure out which agencies are actually publishing open data as the President directed. When people are better informed, they can help the White House to put pressure on those agencies that have been too slow to deliver what was ordered.

What’s your take on this issue? Let me know in the comments section on this blog, or on Twitter @IanJKalin.