Open Data: Additional Action Required for Full Public Access

GAO-22-104574 Published: Dec 16, 2021. Publicly Released: Dec 16, 2021.
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Fast Facts

Federal data that is open—publicly accessible and free to use, modify, and share—is key for government transparency. To increase access to federal data, the OPEN Government Data Act requires agencies to:

  • Publish data in open formats
  • Maintain comprehensive data inventories
  • Engage with the public about agency data

It also requires the Office of Management and Budget to issue agency guidance, which it hasn't done yet.

Of the 4 agencies we reviewed, some have made progress on their data inventories, but none are meeting all of the public engagement requirements.

Our recommendations are to help OMB and agencies more fully implement the act.

Snapshot of the Data.gov website on November 30, 2021

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act of 2018 (OPEN Government Data Act) codifies and expands on existing open data policy. It requires, among other things, agencies to publish information as open data by default, as well as develop and maintain comprehensive data inventories.

However, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has not issued statutorily-required implementation guidance to agencies on making data open by default and comprehensive data inventories. GAO previously recommended that OMB issue inventory guidance, but that recommendation has not been implemented.

Despite the lack of guidance, selected agencies—AmeriCorps, the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and State, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)—made progress developing data inventories. Specifically, DOJ, the Department of State, and FDIC are at varying stages of updating their data inventories as required under the act. Further, although AmeriCorps lacks a comprehensive data inventory of all of its data assets, it has developed a searchable open data portal.

Regarding engaging with the public, GAO found that the selected agencies had mixed results in addressing all requirements of the act (see figure below). For example, while most of the agencies were assisting the public in expanding use of data assets, none were fully addressing the requirement to publish information on such use.

Selected Agencies' Efforts to Address Requirements to Engage with the Public on Open Data

Fig HL_5-v5-104574-aw-01

Federal data users spanning the public, private, and nonprofit sectors reported that they use and value a variety of data from across the federal government, such as demographic, spending, economic, and law enforcement data. Data users suggested that creating more comprehensive, standardized, accessible, and curated government data could increase the overall value and usefulness of open data. Full implementation of the public engagement requirements in the act could help address issues identified by federal data users.

Why GAO Did This Study

Federal agencies create and collect large amounts of data to fulfill their missions. Public access to open data—data that are free to use, modify, and share—holds great promise for promoting government transparency and engendering public trust.

The OPEN Government Data Act includes provisions for GAO to report on federal agencies' comprehensive data inventories and on the value of the data made available to the public, among other requirements.

This report examines, among other things, (1) the extent to which OMB met its statutory requirements; (2) selected agencies' progress developing comprehensive data inventories; (3) the extent to which selected agencies engage with the public; and (4) how data users value and use information made publicly available.

GAO reviewed four selected agencies' websites and related documentation, and interviewed OMB staff, General Services Administration and agency officials, and data users.

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Recommendations

GAO is making 10 recommendations, including that OMB issue guidance on making data open by default, and that AmeriCorps, DOJ, the Department of State, and FDIC fully address the act's public engagement requirements.

GSA, the Department of State, FDIC, and AmeriCorps concurred, and OMB and DOJ neither agreed nor disagreed, with GAO's recommendations. OMB, the Department of State, DOJ, and GSA also provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Management and Budget
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Director of OMB should comply with its statutory requirement under the OPEN Government Data Act to issue implementation guidance to agencies on making data open by default. (Recommendation 1)
Open
OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with our recommendation. In September 2020, OMB provided draft implementation guidance to federal agencies for comment, but has yet to issue final guidance on making data open by default, as required by statute. In March 2022, OMB staff told us that action to implement this recommendation is in progress, but they have not determined a time frame for issuing the guidance. To fully implement this recommendation, OMB will need to issue guidance to agencies on making data open by default that takes into account relevant considerations for this guidance laid out in the OPEN Government Data Act. Although agencies are making some progress toward implementing their requirements under the act, without this guidance, they do not have all the information required to address the act's requirements on making data open by default. Furthermore, OMB's delay in issuing the guidance could lead to increased costs for agencies if they are required to revise their approaches to implementation after OMB releases the guidance.
AmeriCorps The Chief Executive Officer of AmeriCorps should, in coordination with the Chief Data Officer of AmeriCorps, develop and implement an agency-wide plan to host relevant challenges, competitions, events, or other open data related initiatives to create additional value from public data assets of the agency. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In September 2022, AmeriCorps officials told us that they plan to publish agency data on Data.gov, the federal data catalog, before they begin to host relevant challenges, competitions, events, or other open data related initiatives to create additional value from public data assets of the agency. We will continue to monitor AmeriCorps's progress to address this recommendation.
AmeriCorps The Chief Executive Officer of AmeriCorps should, in coordination with the Chief Data Officer of AmeriCorps, develop and implement an agency-wide plan to collect and publish information on the use of data assets by nongovernmental entities at least once a year. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In September 2022, AmeriCorps officials told us that they plan to publish agency data on Data.gov, the federal data catalog, before they begin to develop an agency-wide plan to collect and publish information on the use of data assets by nongovernmental entities. We will continue to monitor AmeriCorps's progress to address this recommendation.
Department of Justice The Attorney General should, in coordination with the Chief Data Officer of the Department of Justice, develop and implement an agency-wide plan to host relevant challenges, competitions, events, or other open data related initiatives to create additional value from public data assets of the agency. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In June 2022, DOJ officials described their plans for implementing this recommendation. They told us that DOJ components have begun hosting internal workforce challenges, competitions, and events encouraging employees to present innovative data management ideas to enhance the execution of DOJ missions. In addition, DOJ officials said that the agency's Chief Data Officer, in consultation with the DOJ Data Governance Board and Data Architecture Working Group, is developing an agency-wide plan to formalize new initiatives, with the goal of creating additional value from DOJ's public data assets. They told us that they plan to finalize this plan by the end of fiscal year 2022 (i.e., September 30, 2022). We will continue to monitor DOJ's actions taken in response to our recommendation.
Department of Justice The Attorney General should, in coordination with the Chief Data Officer of the Department of Justice, develop and implement an agency-wide plan to collect and publish information on the use of data assets by nongovernmental entities at least once a year. (Recommendation 5)
Open
In June 2022, DOJ officials noted that DOJ's Data Strategy plan already includes action for collecting and publishing information on the use of data assets by nongovernmental entities. The plan also includes an approach to expand the use of current DOJ web analytics tools to address this recommendation by the end of fiscal year 2022. We will continue to monitor DOJ actions taken in response to this recommendation
Department of State The Secretary of the Department of State should, in coordination with the Chief Data Officer of the Department of State, develop and implement an agency-wide plan to provide an opportunity for the public to request specific data and make suggestions for the development of agency-wide criteria on prioritizing data assets for disclosure. (Recommendation 6)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of State The Secretary of the Department of State should, in coordination with the Chief Data Officer of the Department of State, develop and implement an agency-wide plan for assisting the public in expanding the use of the Department's public data assets. (Recommendation 7)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of State The Secretary of the Department of State should, in coordination with the Chief Data Officer of the Department of State, develop and implement an agency-wide plan to collect and publish information on the use of data assets by nongovernmental entities at least once a year. (Recommendation 8)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation The Chairman of FDIC should, in coordination with the Chief Data Officer of FDIC, develop and implement an agency-wide plan to collect and publish information on the use of data assets by nongovernmental entities at least once a year. (Recommendation 9)
Open
In September 2022, FDIC told us that by December 16, 2022, FDIC plans to develop and implement an agency-wide strategy to collect and publish information on the use of data assets by nongovernmental entities at least once a year. We will continue to monitor FDIC's efforts to address this recommendation.
General Services Administration The Administrator of GSA should develop and implement procedures for determining user needs and conducting usability testing to ensure Data.gov addresses user needs, consistent with OMB guidance in M-17-06. (Recommendation 10)
Open – Partially Addressed
In August 2022, GSA provided documentation showing that the agency had developed and implemented some procedures consistent with OMB guidance in M-17-06 for determining the needs of Data.gov users and for conducting usability testing of Data.gov to ensure it met these users' needs. GSA developed and implemented a plan that included key steps to determine Data.gov users' needs, conduct usability testing of the website, and address issues discovered through this testing. For example, in May 2022, GSA summarized findings from its user testing. In response to these findings, GSA used its existing Data.gov GitHub system to begin to address issues identified through its user testing. GSA officials told us that they intend to develop a plan for periodic retesting by December 16, 2022. In order to fully implement this recommendation, GSA will need to finish addressing issues identified through its user testing, and complete its work to develop a plan for periodic retesting. We will continue to monitor GSA's progress toward fully implementing this recommendation.

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