Is the Transportation Department really “open”? No, but it’s getting there

by Christopher Elliott on February 11, 2010

The Department of Transportation yesterday claimed to be a leader in the administration’s open government initiative, which is supposed to transform the federal bureaucracy into a “transparent, collaborative, and participatory government” that touches the lives of citizens.

While it’s not there yet, I think — I hope — it’s well on its way.

I’ve already raved about DOT’s new complaint site for air travelers, and some of the encouraging responses readers have reported from using the page. I’m not entirely sure if that’s what the DOT means by openness. The department has a section on its site dedicated to its open government project, and it describes its efforts in ways only a bureaucrat can fully appreciate:

The Department of Transportation’s Open Government Plan development process follows a strategic methodology designed to guarantee the creation of meaningful programs that will fulfill the Administration’s stated goals of increasing transparency, participation, and collaboration between the Federal government and citizens.

It doesn’t really matter what the DOT thinks is “open” or even how the administration defines openness. What matters is that we, the taxpayers, feel our government is open. And for now, at least, it isn’t. But it can be.

Here are a few ideas from the front lines of consumer advocacy:

1. Overhaul the Bureau of Transportation Statistics site. Despite several redesigns, the DOT’s BTS site — which has a wealth of information about airfares, on-time departures and arrivals and fees — is about as easy to access as a Byzantine choir book. That’s a real shame. That information can help travelers have a better flight, and keeping it locked on a site that only people with library science degrees can access is profoundly unhelpful.

2. Deliver data in real time. The information we receive from airlines is delayed by two months. Two months! Hey folks, check your calendars. It’s 2010. Why not send the information in real time, like everyone else?

3. Scrap those Air Travel Consumer Reports. The government shouldn’t be issuing monthly report cards as clunky PDF documents anymore. It should be offering up-to-the-minute performance data on everything from flight delays to mishandled baggage and oversales. It should put those into historical context, so we can see whether the airlines are doing better or worse over the long term. And it should offer a way to integrate the performance data with our personal itineraries, so we know our airline’s track record on a given route or flight number.

4. Make easy to use for the rest of us. Ever tried to access, the site that allows you to search for U.S. government regulations from nearly 300 federal agencies? If you did, then you know it’s about as easy to use as the BTS site. Let’s say you want to track any rule or regulation by industry, or God forbid, find out if your favorite airline has had a consent order against it? You can’t do that. You should be able to, but you can’t. Why not?

In short, I think the Transportation Department can become more responsive to the needs of the American people. But a government initiative and a feel-good blog posting isn’t going to cut it. The agency has a lot of hard work ahead if it truly wants to be more open.

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