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New White House open government plan looks good on paper, say transparency advocates

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The final version of a new White House open government action plan is substantially expanded from a recently circulated preliminary draft – although many of the actions called for in the plan aren't new initiatives.

The new plan nonetheless has the admiration of many government transparency advocates, some of who say the important thing is for a transparency effort to be included in the White House plan as a sign of the Obama administration's ongoing commitment to it. The plan is the second the White House has issued as part of the Open Government Partnership, an international organization it helped create in 2011 meant to push transparency in national governments across the globe.

Among the initiatives added to the plan is a call to increase the transparency of foreign intelligence surveillance activities. In response to leaks from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the Office of the Director Of Intelligence began publishing this past summer declassified (although redacted) Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions and other internal documents. The plan says the ODNI will continue to declassify information about U.S. surveillance of foreigners and the White House will release an annual public report on the federal government's use of some national security authorities to gain access to data.

The plan also has a new section calling for the transformation of the security classification system, and says the White House will create a committee to review recommendations (.pdf) made in 2012 by another committee, the Public Interest Declassification Board. Steven Aftergood, who has drawn attention for years to the problems of overwhelming secrecy in the federal government, says in a blog post that the committee "has the potential to overcome the autonomous classification practices of individual agencies that have contributed to the explosive growth in secrecy," but notes that "positive results are naturally not guaranteed."

Aftergood points to a problem many transparency advocates have made of the Obama administration over the years, that it's talked a better game than it has practiced. Although among the open government advocates praising the new plan, Patrice McDermott of openthegovernmetn.org said that her organization will monitor closely its implementation. "We will hold their feet to the fire," she vowed.

As expected, the final plan carries forward from its earlier public draft a vow to modernize the way agencies process Freedom of Information Act requests, stating that it will launch a consolidated request portal for submitting requests to all agencies subject to it. The White House will also standardize core aspects of FOIA processing in agency regulations, the plan says – disparate regulations have resulted in some agencies processing requests in ways that don't take into account updates to the FOIA statute, because the agency has yet updated their regulations.

For more:
- download the second open government national action plan for the United States of America (.pdf)

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