New White House Digital Government Strategy Offers Promise, Raises Concerns

On May 23, the White House launched its new Digital Government Strategy, an initiative aimed at improving the way government agencies utilize new tools and technologies to serve the public. The plan lays out clear-cut procedures for making public information open and machine readable within one year, allowing Americans to engage with their government more easily.

In a memorandum introducing the new strategy developed by the Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO), Steven VanRoekel, President Obama directs each major federal agency to make two of their key services available on mobile devices within the next 12 months and to make “applicable” government information open and machine-readable by default. The strategy intends to “ensure that agencies use emerging technologies to serve the public as effectively as possible” and will require agencies “to adopt new standards for making applicable Government information open and machine-readable by default.” The memo calls on agencies to publicly report on their progress.

Further, the strategy promises to “transform Data.gov into a data and API (application programming interfaces) catalog that in real time pulls directly from agency websites,” as summarized in a blog post by VanRoekel. An excerpt from the report explains:

Rather than thinking primarily about the final presentation—publishing web pages, mobile applications or brochures—an information-centric approach focuses on ensuring our data and content are accurate, available, and secure. We need to treat all content as data—turning any unstructured content into structured data—then ensure all structured data are associated with valid metadata. Providing this information through web APIs helps us architect for interoperability and openness, and makes data assets freely available for use within agencies, between agencies, in the private sector, or by citizens.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will formulate a government-wide policy pertaining to API and systems will be required to support access to high-value open data. The report also outlines plans to set up a Digital Services Innovation Center to be carried out by the General Services Administration through a centralized effort to help agencies build out shared solutions for a “citizen-centric” approach to the web.

The scope of this new digital government strategy is laudable. The White House has put forth an ambitious and progressive strategy that has the potential to improve government transparency and accessibility. However, there are several omissions from the report that are cause for concern. Though leaders in producing, disseminating and preserving electronic information, the Government Printing Office and the Library of Congress are never mentioned in the report, and the National Archives and Records Administration is mentioned only once. NARA is charged with working with the Federal CIO Council and National Institute of Standards and Technology to “develop guidelines for standardized implementation of digital privacy controls and educate agency privacy and legal officials on options for addressing digital privacy, records retention, and security issues.”

Most troubling, the report puts forth a strategy for access to “high-quality digital government data” but does not address the need to ensure that the information is trustworthy, accurate, preserved and permanently accessible to the public, with explicit procedures to do so.

In all, the Digital Government Strategy is an important commitment by the White House to greater government transparency and more accessible information. However, to adequately create a digital government, the White House must take into account issues of the lifecycle of electronic information before it can offer a truly comprehensive solution.

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