Obama Administration Promises a Machine-Readable Federal Government Organization Chart

The Open Government Partnership is an “international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens.” Shortly after the OGP’s creation, in my November 2012 study, “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices,” I gave the OGP unenthusiastic praise. It appeared to substitute meetings about open government with actual forward motion on the government transparency that President Obama promised in his first presidential race.

But an important commitment emerged late last month from the “Third Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America.” The plan includes “a wide range of actions the Administration will take over coming months to strengthen, deepen, and expand upon” U.S. open government efforts. Among them (at the bottom of page 10) is the commitment  to develop a machine-readable government organization chart. 

The lack of a machine-readable government organization chart has been an emphasis of mine in writings and speeches since at least 2012. The Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott cited my quest for one in a favorite article calling me a “digital Diogenes.”

Having access to data that represents the organizational units of government is essential to effective computer-aided oversight and effective internal management. Presently, there is no authoritative list of what entities make up the federal government, much less one that could be used by computers. Differing versions of what the government is appear in different PDF documents scattered around Washington, D.C.’s bureaucracies. Opacity in the organization of government is nothing if not a barrier to outsiders that preserves the power of insiders—at a huge cost in efficiency.

The promise to produce a useful organization chart is not self-delivering, of course, and there are ways that this commitment could go off the rails. But the phrasing of the commitment suggests understanding of what a well-published digital organization chart is.

The General Services Administration and National Archives Office of the Federal Register will “capture agencies’ organizational directories as machine-readable raw data in a consistent format across the U.S. Federal government.” That suggests to me that the relationships among agencies, bureaus, and program offices (to use one nomenclature) will be represented in a consistent manner government-wide. Each sub-unit of government must have a unique identifier that embeds its relationship to its parent, like the identifiers in this document published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 2008. We’re not talking about a flat digital phone book.

It is not clear whether this commitment is a commitment of the Obama Administration to make this the authoritative organization chart. Obviously, an org chart that doesn’t accurately represent and guide the government’s own actions is not much of an org chart. But if the White House (i.e. OMB) and other important actors such as the Treasury Department (which cuts the checks) rely on and use this machine-readable government organization chart, then we will really have something. That will raise the pressure on Congress to make its processes more transparent by referring to agencies and their sub-units in legislative documents using the same identifiers.

I’ll report here on the success or failure of the project. The national action plan does not give a definitive timeline or deadline, but it does speak of action on its commitments in terms of “months.”