The problem with promises is that they set expectations on which it's impossible to deliver.

Consider transparency. It's a friendly word with a progressive edge as used by the Obama administration, which days after inauguration, declared its commitment "to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government."

The president then directed federal agencies and departments to "adopt a presumption in favor" of Freedom of Information Act requests, noting that potential embarrassment and the revelation of errors or failures don't constitute reasons to keep data private.

That was the bargain struck as the administration began. Echoing themes from the campaign, government was going to change even as the notion of public information was changing. Mash-up contests, such as Apps for America, demonstrated that the old-fashioned notion of the public record as exclusively a paper artifact had been eclipsed by live data sets and feeds that could be used to do interesting, useful things.

Watchdogs immediately weighed in too and began to fill in what "unprecedented" transparency should mean. The Sunlight Foundation, the group behind Apps for America, suggested government information should not be considered public until it's posted online -- and freely accessible -- in an easily downloaded format. Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, called for a similar standard: "Almost all our public sphere is now online. Our information should be there too."

There has been much progress in the first nine months of the transparency experiment, along with considerable behavioral change. The White House's Open Government Initiative -- a national online brainstorm -- developed, vetted and ranked hundreds of ideas across 16 topical areas for improving government. The brainstorm's greatest hits were the basis of follow-up discussions on the Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog.

National Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra has been working with the technology industry. And federal CIO Vivek Kundra has been working with agency CIOs without a hint of looming mandates or coercion. By most reports, federal agencies (except possibly the Department of Justice) are stepping up to the challenge because they see the value in getting transparency right. Meanwhile, and industry players don't want to waste the air cover that comes from having a geek in chief in the White House. For their part, states and localities are replicating Data.gov-style repositories and other good, if nascent, practices coming from the federal government.

But there are limits to all this goodness. First, unprecedented transparency should not be confused with universal transparency. Openness doesn't include the White House visitors' log and other presidential records, the disclosure of CIA documents, the use of National Security Letters and the rapidly growing universe of classified records -- much to the consternation of the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that consider themselves part of Obama's base. No Web site trumps policy.

Second, transparency isn't free. In anticipation of this month's state reporting deadlines for the federal economic stimulus, over the summer the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board awarded a $9.5 million contract to rebuild Recovery.gov so it would be able to keep the promise of transparency in the spending of $787 billion stimulus. (The total outlay could rise to $18 million by 2014.)

Third, a narrow understanding of "freely accessible" public information could unwind public-private partnerships. Almost half of state Web portals rely on a fee structure for commercially valuable data that helps pay the freight for everything else.

Sure, information wants to be free, but somebody still has to pay to put in the plumbing.

 

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer