A Hard Look at What Open Government Means for the Department of Energy

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Every government agency got on the Internet in a different way. Often times, individuals decided that they'd take their little corner of the world online. Hundreds of different ways of presenting government information to the public sprang up. Sometimes these websites were terrible, but other times, they were wonderful, or at least happened to contain vital documents that could be found nowhere else.

Now, though, government agencies know that they *have* to be online, which means they need A Policy. Not only that, they need a plan to deal with the wild legacy infrastructure that preceded the era of The Policy. Dawn Stover, an energy and environmental journalist, dives into what's happened at the Department of Energy, an agency that's tried to consolidate its many websites into the singular Energy.gov.

In short, documents that were once available online are now locked away. She details how the theoretical efficiency and transparency of the open government initiatives has actually worked against the freedom of information in some key cases. References to Yucca Mountain, the Hanford nuclear site, and the new AP1000 reactor design are all very limited. These are not small issues! We're talking about the still-with-us history of nuclear power as well as its possible future. Here's Stover's take:

The Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which once posted Yucca Mountain project documents on its website, closed in September 2010. All of its documents were transferred to the Office of Legacy Management, where I'm told they can be requested using the Freedom of Information Act process, which usually works something like this: Send a letter, wait a few months, and maybe you'll get a response. Maybe. Not only is that inconvenient, but it's also expensive. Instead of a simple download, I practically have to start a letter-writing campaign in order to get assistance from a paid federal employee. Never mind the fiscal drain on my own time. And all of this, remember, is for a document so rare and precious that it was online in full for years.

The Office of Legacy Management (known as LM) oversees a huge records-management facility in West Virginia that opened in December 2009 and boasts a "state of the art electronic record keeping system." LM even requested a $3 million increase PDF in its 2012 budget just to manage the Yucca Mountain records and information systems. But like Energy.gov, the LM website has no section for Yucca Mountain, and its search engine spits out links to a random assortment of PDFs -- with no summaries or index to provide guidance. Apparently that "state of the art electronic record keeping system" doesn't include any provisions for accessing documents online.

The General Accountability Office warned of these problems last May in a report commissioned by House Republicans, which cautioned that Yucca Mountain documents would no longer be electronically accessible to the public or to scientists after the project shut down. And it's not just Yucca Mountain. Search Energy.gov for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, and you get only 33 results. For Hanford, only 20 results. For the AP1000 reactor, a grand total of six. Documents of all sorts have simply disappeared from public view as a result of website consolidation and reorganization, and this has repercussions not just for the general public and independent researchers but also for federal employees and contractors who use the Energy Department website and are no longer able to refer to historic documents -- such as loan guarantees for nuclear power plants or Environmental Impact Statements for energy projects.

Stover contrasts the DOE's approach with that of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which she says "has comprehensive collections of documents, organized by topic area as well as by facility location." I might suggest that part of the problem with the DOE's open government policy is in the nature of the DOE itself. Unlike the NRC, which has one single purpose, the DOE is a sprawling agency with its hands in everything from nuclear weapons stockpiles to solar cell development and a whole lot of other things in between. It's hard to make one size (or site) fit all that. Almost inevitably, some corners are going to be left unswept.

Of course, there are more cynical readings of the agency's moves, and it seems like frustration has led Stover to one of them. She sees the DOE abandoning real transparency for a false, but socia-media friendly kind of transparency.

Every federal agency brags about its commitment to the Obama administration's goal of open government. Unfortunately, each agency charts its own path toward this goal, with different ideas about what should be made available and how it should be structured. For some departments, "open government" means a serious effort to make information easier to find. For others, it simply means summer interns scanning documents into PDFs with poorly worded tags, posting newsy articles with attractive photos, and opening Twitter and Facebook accounts. Unfortunately, the latter is where many federal energy documents seem to be headed.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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