New Report: Opening up the One Agency that Rules Them All

The most powerful federal agency is one no one outside of Washington has heard of. It controls how agencies request money from Congress and spend it, oversees virtually all major rulemakings, controls multi-agency processes, sets federal information policy, and more. In some respects, it’s the tail that wags the White House dog. The agency is the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Seal of the Executive Office of the President. Credit: DonkeyHotey.

Over the course of the Obama administration we’ve made recommendations on how OMB should lighten up — I mean open up. We made recommendations to the administration’s National Act Plan, which is intended to contain actionable open government commitments, drafted guidelines on how agencies can improve proactive disclosure, and suggested how to make earmarks more transparent.

More than six years ago the Obama administration started a new process by which agencies release open government plans every two years. OMB oversees the process and is supposed to issue a plan as well. While OMB issued a plan in 2010, it failed to do so in 2012 and 2014.

Today we issue new recommendations to OMB as to what it should include in its open government plan, which are essentially warmed-over recommendations from 2014. But they’re still good ideas. They include:

  • Publishing Congressional Budget Justifications online in one central place. (I wrote about this yesterday).
  • Creating a machine-readable organization chart of the federal government. (This idea was adopted as part of the National Action Plan last year).
  • Fixing how the government gathers information through forms by making sure they’re well designed, catch input errors, flow easily into databases, and are built for maximum disclosure and reuse.
  • Creating better disclosure for when outside lobbyists push OIRA to change or kill a proposed regulation.
  • Set forth guidelines on how agencies can think through and proactively disclose information they hold.

Frankly, this is a fairly modest list. OMB should be leading on federal spending transparency by pushing forward DATA Act implementation, providing significant assistance to improve implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, rethinking its entire regulatory approval process, reexamining how it implements cost/benefit analysis, setting forth regulations mandating public access to information, and much more.

But there isn’t much useful time left in the administration. We hope OMB will act on the recommendations and issue a substantive open government plan soon, especially with Sunshine Week soon upon us.

— Written by Daniel Schuman

It’s Federal Budget Day. (Groan)

How to make sense of the President’s spending proposal.

Photo Credit: Ryan McFarland

Today is the day the White House sends the President’s budget to Congress. The proposal — dead on arrival — is an unintelligible mishmash of happy talk, legislative language, and columns of data.

Buried in the pablum is something useful: explanations of what the government does. Imagine, if you can, a plain language description of what each agency does or plans to do, replete with just enough detail to give a good idea of what’s happening. That, in short, sums up agency-produced documents known as “Congressional Budget Justifications” (or CJs, pehaps named after former White House communications director C. J. Cregg.)

In its CJ, an agency provides Congress a rationale for why the legislative branch should make money available for an agency to spend. It says what they’ve done and what they’re planning to do.

The White House’s consigliere, an agency known as the Office of Management and Budget (or OMB, pronounced Oh Em Bee), makes sure the budget proposal and its explanation reflect White House priorities.

OMB sets the rules for how agencies write the budget in a really tedious document known as OMB Circular A-11. Among many other things, it directs agencies to release the full congressional justification materials available to the public and to post them on the internet within two weeks of sending the stuff to Congress. (I’m paraphrasing section 22.6(c)).

There are a couple of problems with this approach to making budget information available to the public.

  1. Unless you stay as home as much as I do, there’s probably no way to know the CJs exist.
  2. The CJs are scattered across the internet. You have to know exactly what you’re looking for. And even when you do, mighty Google still can lead you on a wild goose chase.
  3. Agencies publish the CJs inconsistently. Some departments publish all agencies justifications together as one giant PDF file — which can be so large it crashes your browser. And it’s not possible to do a track changes on PDFs to show how a CJ has changed from year to hear.
  4. Over time, the CJs can be lost as agencies update their pages.
  5. The White House has a central page for information about the federal budget — this one — filled with everything you’d want to know about the proposal except the Congressional Budget Justifications.

An association of people even nerdier than myself, the American Association for Budget and Program Analysts, usually compiles links to all the CJs. This should be a job for OMB, especially since it already is publishing everything else. Not everyone will find the AABPA website, it may not be complete or timely, and you have to know what you’re doing.

One purpose of open government is to make government accessible and understandable to everyone. OMB should publish explanatory information on the federal budget where the public, journalists, advocates, and policy experts would expect to find it. (The open government community has been asking them to do this for several years.)

Congress could get into the act, too.

The Budget or Appropriations Committee could gather up the documents — they are Congressional Budget Justifications, after all — and publish them on their websites, or encourage a legislative support agency like the Congressional Budget Office to do so. It would be a little weird, as why would Congress publish the White House’s public relations documents, but it would address the disclosure problem.

The Appropriators could also direct (i.e. require) OMB to update its regulation to publish the CJs on OMB’s website. It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to get OMB on the job, but what’s a little nudge between coequal branches of government?

— Written by Daniel Schuman