U.K. National Archives makes ‘good law’ online, builds upon open data as a platform


This September, I visited the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice and looked at the last remaining section of the Magna Carta that remains in effect. I was not, however, in a climate-controlled reading room, looking at a parchment or sheepskin.


Rather, I was sitting in the Ministry’s sunny atrium, where John Sheridan was showing me the latest version of the seminal legal document, now living on online, on his laptop screen. The remaining section that is in force is rather important to Western civilization and the rule of law as many citizens in democracies now experience it:

NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor [X1condemn him,] but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.


From due process to eminent domain to a right to a jury trial, many of the rights that American or British citizens take as a given today have their basis in the English common law that stems from this document.

I’d first met Sheridan virtually, back in August 2010, when I talked with the head of e-services and strategy at the United Kingdom’s National Archives about how linked data was opening up eight hundred years of legal history. That month, the National Archives launched legislation.gov.uk to provide public access to more than eight centuries of the legal history in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Just over three years later, I stepped off the Tube at the St. James Park Station and walked over to meet him in person and learn how his aspirations for legislation.gov.uk had met up with reality.

Over a cup of tea, Sheridan caught me up on the progress that his team has made in digitizing documents and improving the laws of the land. There are now 2 million monthly unique visitors to legislation.gov.uk every month, with 500+ million page views annually. People really are reading Parliament’s output, he observed, and increasingly doing so on tablets and mobile devices. The amount of content flowing into the site is considerable: according to Sheridan, the United Kingdom is passing laws at an estimated rate of 100,000 words every month, or twice as much as the complete works of Shakespeare.

Notable improvements over the years include the ability to compare the original text of legislation versus the latest version (as we did with the Magna Carta) and view a timeline of changes using a slider for navigation, exploring any given moment in time. Sheridan was particularly proud of the site’s rendering of legislation in HTML, include human-readable permanent uniform resource locators (URLS) and the capacity to produce on-demand PDFs of a given document. (This isn’t universally true: I found some orders appear still as PDFs).

More specifically, Sheridan highlighted a “good law” project, wherein the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel (OPC) of Britain is working to help develop plain language laws that are “necessary, clear, coherent, effective and accessible.” A notable component of this good law project is an effort to apply a tool used in online publishing, software development and advertising — A/B testing — to testing different versions of legislation for usability.

The video of a TedX talk embedded below by Richard Heaton, the permanent secretary of the United Kingdom’s Cabinet Office and first parliamentary counsel, explores the idea of “good law” at more length:

Sheridan went on to describe one of the more ambitious online collaborations between a government and its citizens I had heard of to date, a novel cross-Atlantic challenge co-sponsored by the UK and US governments, and a hairy legal technology challenge bearing down upon societies everywhere: what happens when software interprets the law?

For instance, he suggested, consider the increasing use of Oracle software around legislation. “As statutes are interpreted by software, what’s introduced by the code? What about quality testing?”

As this becomes a data problem, “you need information to contextualize it,” said Sheridan. “If you’re thinking about legislation as code, and as data, it raises huge questions for the rule of law.”

Open data as a platform

In the video below, John Sheridan talks about the benefits of opening up government data using application programming interfaces:

Sheridan has been one of the world’s foremost proponents of publishing legislative data through APIs, an approach that has come under criticism by open government data advocates after the government shutdown in the United States. (In 2014, forward-thinking governments publishing open data might consider provide basic visualization tools to site visitors, API access for third-party developers and internal users, and bulk data downloads.) One key difference between the approach of his team and other government entities might be that the National Archives are “dogfooding,” or consuming the same data through the same interface that they expect third-parties to use, as Sheridan wrote last March:

“We developed the API and then built the legislation.gov.uk website on top of it. The API isn’t a bolt-on or additional feature, it is the beating heart of the service. Thanks to this approach it is very easy to access legislation data – just add /data.xml or /data.rdf to any web page containing legislation, or /data.feed, to any list or search results. One benefit of this approach is that the website, in a way, also documents the API for developers, helping them understand this complex data.”

Perhaps because of that perspective, Sheridan, was as supportive of an APIs when we talked this September as he had been in 2012:

The legislation.gov.uk API has changed everything for us. It powers our website. It has enabled us to move to an open data business model, securing the editorial effort we need from the private sector for this important source of public data. It allows us to deliver information and services across channels and platforms through third party applications. We are developing other tools that use the API, using Linked Data – from recording the provenance of new legislation as it is converted from one format to another, to a suite of web based editorial tools for legislation, including a natural language processing capability that automatically identifies the legislative effects. Everything we do is underpinned by the API and Linked Data. With the foundations in place, the possibilities of what can be done with legislation data are now almost limitless.

Sheridan noted to me that the United Kingdom’s legislative open government data efforts are now acting as a platform for large commercial legal publishers and new entrants, like mobile legislative app, iLegal.

ilegal-launch-website_05_indexThe iLegal app content is derived from the legislation.gov.uk API and offers handy features, like offline access to all items of legislation. iLegal currently costs £49.99/$74.99 annually or £149.99/$219.99 for a lifetime subscription, which might seem steep but is a fraction of the cost of of Halsbury’s Statutes, currently listed at £9,360.00 from Lexis-Nexis.

This approach to publishing the laws of the land online, in structured form under an open license, is an instantiation of the vision for Law.gov that citizen archivist Carl Malamud has been advocating for in the United States. 2013 saw some progress in that vein when the U.S. House of Representatives publishes U.S. Code as open government data.)

What’s notable about the United Kingdom’s example, however, is that less then a decade ago, none of this could have been possible. Why? As ScraperWiki founder Francis Irving explained, the UK’s database of laws was proprietary data until December 2006. Now, however, the law of the land is released back to the people as it is updated, a living code available in digital form to any member of the public that wishes to read or reuse it.

The United Kingdom, however, has moved beyond simply publishing legislation as open data: they’re actively soliciting civic participation in its maintenance and improvement. For the last year, the National Archives has been guiding the world’s leading commercial open data curation project.

“We are using open data as business model for fulfilling public services,” said Sheridan, in our interview. “We train people to do editorial work. They are paid to improve data. The outputs are public.”

In other words, the open government data always remains free to the people through legislation.gov.uk but any academic, nonprofit or commercial entity can act to add value to it and sell access to the resulting applications, analyses or interfaces.

As far as Sheridan could recall, this was the only such example in the government of the United Kingdom where such a feedback loop exist. The closest parallels in the United States is the U.S. Agency for International Development crowdsourcing geocoding 117,000 loan records with the help of online volunteers [Case Study] or the citizen archivist program of the U.S. National Archives.

Since the start of the UK project, they have doubled the number of people working on their open data, Sheridan told me. “The bottleneck is training,” he said. “We have almost unlimited editorial expertise available through our website. We define the process and rules, and then let anyone contribute. For example, we’re now working on revising legislation, identifying changes, researching it — when it comes in, what it affects — and then working with editor. Previous to this effort, government hasn’t been able to revise secondary legislation.”

Sheridan said that the next step is feedback for other editorial values.

“We’re looking for more experts,” he said. “They’re generally paid for by someone. It’s very close to open source software model. They must be able to demonstrate competence. There’s a 45-minute test, which we’re now given to thousands of people.”

If this continues to work, distributed online collaboration is a “brilliant way to help improve the quality of law,” said Sheridan.

“It’s a way to get the work done — and the work is really hard. You have to invest time and energy, and you must protect the reputation of the Archive. This is somewhat radical for the nation’s statute book. We have redesigned the process so people can work with us. It’s not a wiki, but participation is open. It’s peer production.”

A trans-Atlantic challenge to map legislative data


In September, Sheridan also told me about an unusual challenge that has just gone live at Challenge.gov, the United States’ flagship prizes and competitions platform: a contest to assess the compatibility of Akoma Ntoso with U.S. Congress and U.K. Parliament markup languages.

The U.K. National Archives and U.S. Library of Congress have asked for help mapping elements from bills to the most recent Akoma Ntoso schema. (Akoma Ntoso is an emerging global standard for machine-readable data describing parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents.) The best algorithm that maps U.S. bill XML or UK bill XML to Akoma Ntoso XML, including necessary data files and supporting documentation, will win $10,000.

If you have both skills and interest, get cracking: the challenge closes on December 31, 2013.

What is the value of open data?

This morning, the New America Foundation hosted a forum on the value of open data. Archived video of the event is embedded below:

Video streaming by Ustream

The event featured comments from deputy United States chief technology officer Nick Sinai, the authors of the McKinsey report on the economic value of open data, and a panel of experts, moderated by yours truly.

Will White House epetitions drive change or disillusionment?


An epetition for The White House that really worked? Yep. 

P.J. Vogt, a producer for NPR’s “On The Media,” was surprised to find that a “We the People” epetition had played a role in the FCC moving to make a deal with wireless carriers that will allow consumers to unlock their cellphones.

He’s not alone. Historic lows in trust in the federal government mean that any progress toward a positive outcome — like legal unlocking of mobile devices — is viewed skeptically in public discourse.

Should carriers actually allow consumers to unlock those devices, it would be the the open government platform has now played a role in U.S. history.

I’ve been following the White House epetition system since it launched, more than 2 years ago. Prior to the 2012 election, this open government effort was a relatively slow burn, in terms of growth. Until the fall of 2012, the most significant role it had played came in January of that year, when the White House took an official position on petitions on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), changing the political context for the bills.

As I’ve observed before, on the evening of December 20, 2012, however, President Barack Obama responded to 32 different e-petitions related to gun violence. It was the first direct response to an e-petition at The White House by a President of the United States. While this remains the only e-petition that the President has responded to personally, before or since, it was a milestone in digital government, marking the first time that the President spoke directly to the people through the Internet about an issue they had collectively asked to be addressed using the Internet.

By January 2013, it had 5 million users. Now, there are over 10 million. It’s the first open government platform to reach that scale of use, in no small part due to the epic response to the Death Star petition that drew both Internet-wide and mainstream media attention.

And here’s the thing: most of those users are satisfied with the responses. Not all of them have resulted in policy shifts — in fact, only a few have, like a rulemaking on online puppy mills — but the ones that did are significant: SOPA/PIPA, increasing public access to scientific research online, and supporting consumers unlocking their mobile devices.

More challenging requests lie ahead. An epetition for the administration to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act just passed the 100,000 signature threshold this week, requiring a response.

The epetition will join a dozen or so popular online petitions that have passed the threshold, some of which have lingered unanswered for over a year.

This tardiness of response might lead critics of the administration to conclude that this White House putting off public responses to popular petitions it finds politically inconvenient, like the one to pardon Edward Snowden.

Even if that’s the case, if this trend continues, these epetitions from the American people look a bit less like a useless exercise in democracy theater at week’s end.

In 2014, the White House has announced a plan to launch a public version of the application programming interface (API) for “We The People,” enabling third parties to build applications on top of it.

Should mainstream adoption continue, American citizens may find a bonafide means to exercise their right to petition the United States government for the redress of grievances in the public desire of the twenty-first century.

HHS CISO: “no successful security attacks on Healthcare.gov”

obamacare-hackOne of the persistent concerns about Healthcare.gov regards the security of the federal health insurance exchange marketplace, as I reported for Politico Magazine this month. At least one glaring security flaw remained unpatched until the end of October. Despite the “big fix” announced on December 1, the security of the website and the backend systems behind it have not only remained in doubt, given issues that have come out in Congressional testimony but have now become the subject of contentious exchanges between the United States House Oversight Committee and the Department of Health and Human Services, which operates them.

Today, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a memorandum regarding a security briefing on the Affordable Care Act (embedded below) that includes a summary of a classified briefing from Dr. Kevin Charest, the HHS Chief Information Security Officer, and Ned Holland, HHS Assistant Secretary for Administration. The memorandum states that “there have been no successful security attacks on Healthcare.gov. In it, Dr. Charest is quoted as saying that “no person or group has hacked into Healthcare.gov, and no person or group has maliciously accessed any personally identifiable information from users.”

The authors of the memorandum, Representatives Henry A. Waxman and Diana DeGette, write that “the information provided in the briefing was reassuring,” given the assurances of the chief information security officer that “the security of Healthcare.gov has not been breached, and hackers have had no access to personally identifiable information.”

Despite this letter, it’s not clear whether the Healthcare.gov security concerns that TrustedSec has highlighted have been addressed. Given the continued focus of Congressional committees on the issue, expect more assessments and audits to emerge in the future.

Advocates Release Best Practices for Making Open Government Data “License-Free”

CC-0-PD-blog1As more and more governments release data around the world, the conditions under which it is published and may be used will become increasingly important. Just as open formats make data easier to put to work, open licenses make it possible for all members of the public to use it without fear.

Given that wonky but important issue, it’s important that governments that want to maximize the rewards of the work involved in cleaning and publishing open government data get the policy around its release right. Today, several open government advocates have released an updated Best-Practices Language for Making Data “License-Free”, which can found online at at theunitedstates.io/licensing.

“In short what we say is ‘Use Creative Commons Zero (CC0),’ which is a public domain dedication,” said Josh Tauberer, the founder of Govtrack.us, via email. “We provide recommended language to put on government datasets and software to put the data and code into the world-wide public domain. In a way, it’s the opposite of a license.

Tauberer, Eric Mill, developer at the Sunlight Foundation, and Jonathan Gray, director of policy and ideas at the Open Knowledge Foundation, who have been working on the guidance since May, all blogged about the new guidance:

“Back in May, the Administration’s Memorandum on Open Data created very confusing guidance for agencies about what constitutes open data by saying open data should be ‘openly licensed’,” explained Tauberer, via email. “In response to that, we began working on guidance for federal agencies for how to make sure their data in open under the definition in the 8 Principles of Open Government Data.”

The basic issue, he said, is that the memorandum directed agencies to make data open but, in the view of these advocates, told agencies the wrong thing about what open data actually means. “We’re correcting that with precise, actionable direction,” said Tauberer.

What would the consequences of United States government entities not adopting this guidance be?

“Because M-13-13 required open licensing as the new default, I worry about agencies taking the guidance too literally and applying licensing where they might not have before, even if the work is exempt from copyright,” said Tauberer. “Or they may now consider open licensing of works produced by a contractor to be the new norm, since it is permitted by M-13-13, but for certain core information produced by government this would be a major step backward.”

Getting ahead of these kinds of issues is not an abstract issue, similar to concerns about language regarding the “mosaic effect” in the U.S. open data policy.

“Imagine if after FOIA’ing an agency’s deliberative documents, The New York Times was legally required to provide attribution to a contractor, or, worse, to the government itself,” said Tauberer. “The federal government is relying more and more on contractors and lawyers, so it’s important that we reinforce these norms now.”

The language has been endorsed by many of the prominent open government advocates in the world, including the Sunlight Foundation, the Open Knowledge FoundationPublic Knowledge, The Center for Democracy and Technology, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Free Law Project, the OpenGov Foundation, Carl Malamud at Public.Resource.Org, Jim Harper at WashingtonWatch.com, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and MuckRock News.

While it remains to be seen if the White House Office of Management and Budget merges this best practice into its open data policy, the advocates have already had success getting it adopted.

“Since we first published the guidance in August, it’s led to three government projects using our advice,” said Tauberer. “Partly in response to our nudging, in October OSTP’s Project Open Data re-licensed its schema for federal data catalog inventory files. (It had been licensed under CC-BY because of non-governmental contributors to the schema, but now it uses CC0.) In September and October, The CFPB followed our guidance and applied CC0 to their “qu” project and their eRegs platform.”

New partnership with Microsoft and Bing lets citizens Skype the White House


For almost five years now, the Obama administration has encouraged the American people to ask or answer questions over the Internet. On Wednesday, December 11th, we’ll see a new wrinkle: the White House is using a collaboration between Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, and Skype to enable people to ask questions from their house.

The occasion is a conversation on immigration reform with Vice President Joe Biden and the Director of the Domestic Policy Council, Cecilia Muñoz. In addition to questions posed on Twitter at #AskTheWhiteHouse (virtually old hat in 2013), people will be able to use Skype to record short messages, as campaign manager Lucy Woolfenden explained at Skype’s blog. According to Woolfenden, “a select group of questioners” will also connect to the White House via live Skype Video Calls. (The criteria for their selection was not disclosed.)

That the use of real-time online video links between elected officials and Americans isn’t exactly a groundbreaking of technology in government in late 2013, which says something about the world we live in. It’s hard to believe that almost two years ago, President Obama joined a Google+ Hangout in January 2012, followed by many more Hangouts from the White House by members of his administration.

Even with the rampant cynicism and historic lows in public trust in government, however, there’s reason to hope for something interesting to come out of the event. The first Hangout with the president featured real, tough questions from citizens that made news on the use of drones. Earlier this year, an unexpected question on “patent trolls” posed to Mr. Obama by Adafruit founder Limor Fried led to a series a series of executive actions in June.

That isn’t to say that recorded questions or the live Skype conversation tomorrow will lead to executive action on an immigration issue, like deportation policy, or even make news. It does mean the livestream at Bing.com/whitehouse and wh.gov/live tomorrow may be a bit more interesting.

While this is a novel use of Skype, the context for it is much the same as past efforts, where the Obama administration is trying to use its bully pulpit and social media prowess to engage the public to put more pressure on Congress on a given policy agenda. (In this case, it’s trying to move stalled immigration reform legislation forward. It’s not at all clear whether the effort will change any votes in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.)

There’s one other new media angle teased by Crittenden last week to watch: “for greater interactivity, live polls will map public engagement with the conversation in real time.”

We’ll see how that goes, but the fact that Bing is being used to host the conversation and analyze engagement is something of a coup for Microsoft’s public sector team, which has not been a major part of the mix of this administration’s digital public engagement strategies, as the White House has tumbled further into social media over the years.

Historic lows in trust in government creates icy headwinds for U.S. open government policies

Open government advocates in the United States can expect to find public support for more accountability on a host of federal programs and policies among an electorate deeply distrustful of the White House’s commitment to more transparency regarding them.

Anyone interested in engaging the public regarding rules, regulations and proposed laws, however, should take note of the tenor of the comments on the coverage of the second United States National Action Plan on Open Government. They are a bellwether for the degree of damage to public trust in government that now persists in the United States.

If you feel like reading through the comments on “White House promises more transparency in second Open Government plan” at The Verge or “White House announces second open government plan” at Politico or “New White House plan reaffirms commitment to open data” at The Washington Post, you’ll find anger, disbelief and mockery.


I couldn’t find a single positive or even neutral comment on any of the stories. Considered in the context of the current political climate in the United States, that’s not surprising.

Gallup polling data from September 2013 indicated then that the trust of Americans in government had now fallen to historic lows.

After the government shutdown this fall and the messy rollout of the Affordable Care Act over the past two months, including a high stakes Internet failure at Healthcare.gov, I suspect that a Gallup poll taken today would find that even fewer people trust that the executive or legislative branch of the federal government of the United States.

If my own article on the White House’s second open government national action plan gains more attention, I expect to find similar sentiments from people who choose to comment.

United States releases second Open Government National Action Plan

This morning, the White House released its second action plan (PDF) for improving the state of open government in the United States. The action plan is required for U.S. participation in the Open Government Partnership, an international, multilateral initiative that seeks to push nations to make and keep commitments to open government.

“This second National Action Plan is another opportunity to set concrete and measurable goals for achieving a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative government,” wrote Nick Sinai, United States deputy chief technology officer and Gayle Smith, special assistant to the president and senior director for development and democracy, at the White House blog. “We look forward to working alongside civil society to carry out these commitments and continue identifying new ways to open our government in the future.”

open gov nap 2.0

As I previously reported, the action plan commits to modernizing the Freedom of Information Act, open more government data, improve the management of natural resources and engage citizens in innovation. Additionally, the final plan (a draft was released earlier this fall) includes commitments to join the Global Initiative on Fiscal Transparency  (GIFT), promote participatory budgeting, increase the transparency of spending and foreign assistance, improve the participation of the public in rulemaking and a number of other measures that expand existing commitments.

Initial reactions from open government advocates — many of whom, it must be said, worked to shape the contents of the plan — are strongly positive.

“The United States helped found the Open Government Partnership to challenge other countries to make concrete commitments to make themselves more transparent and accountable to the people,” said Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, in a statement.

“This plan shows that the US is also serious about challenging itself. While we have been critical of some of this Administration’s decisions, particularly its continued insistence on walling off all information related to national security, this plan begins to break down that wall and advance open government.”

Sean Moulton, director of open government policy at the Center for Effective Government, was similarly positive about the plan:

We are impressed by the scope and detail of the plan, as well as the administration’s commitment to continue to engage and refine those commitments for which detailed goals are not yet available. This broad and ambitious plan tackles important open government issues that we have long been advocating, including: 1) strengthening the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 2) improving information about government spending, and 3) continuing to open government data to the public. Properly implemented, these commitments can make government openness work for the public and change how government operates. The Center for Effective Government looks forward to working with the administration to ensure the outlined goals are executed over the next two years.

Sunlight Foundation policy director John Wonderlich balanced good with the bad in the plan:

There are some new and meaningful commitments. The proposed FOIA advisory board and committee could be transformative, and commitments to greater transparency in the extractives industry extend the significant new commitments that began in the US’s last plan.

More disappointing are the commitments around spending transparency, which would build on existing efforts to improve federal spending transparency in Congress and the federal government, but but offer only vague commitments. The National Action Plan also outlines a process to ensure federal agencies treat their data as an asset that should be open to the public, (long a Sunlight priority), but without adding much new detail to a process that is already well along its path.

And money in politics, like in the first National Action Plan, is missing entirely.

The measures that are likely to draw the most attention are those that relate to electronic surveillance and national security, and to whistleblower protections.

On that count, the second U.S. national action plan for open government includes measures to increase the transparency of foreign intelligence surveillance activities (largely mirroring the measures President Obama has already introduced this fall and repackaging the commitments made by the intelligence community) and to “strengthen and expand whistleblower protections for government personnel.” I include both below:

6. Increase Transparency of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Activities
In June 2013, the President directed the U.S. Intelligence Community to declassify and make public as much information as possible about certain sensitive intelligence collection programs undertaken under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), while being mindful of the need to protect national security. Nearly two thousand pages of documents have since been released, including materials that were provided to Congress in conjunction with its oversight and reauthorization of these authorities. As information is declassified, the U.S. Intelligence Community is posting online materials and other information relevant to FISA, the FISA Court, and oversight and compliance efforts. The Administration has further committed to:

• Share Data on the Use of National Security Legal Authorities. The Administration will release annual public reports on the U.S. Government’s use of certain national security authorities. These reports will include the total number of orders issued during the prior twelve-month period and the number of targets affected by them.

• Review and Declassify Information Regarding Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Programs. The Director of National Intelligence will continue to review and, where appropriate, declassify information related to foreign intelligence surveillance programs.

• Consult with Stakeholders. The Administration will continue to engage with a broad group of stakeholders and seek input from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to ensure the Government appropriately protects privacy and civil liberties while simultaneously safeguarding
national security.

9. Strengthen and Expand Whistleblower Protections for Government Personnel
Employees with the courage to report wrongdoing through appropriate, legally authorized channels are a government’s best defense against waste, fraud, and abuse. Federal law prohibits retaliation against most government employees and contractors who act as whistleblowers, and those protections were strengthened by recent legislation and Executive action. However, some who work for the Government still have diminished statutory protections. The Government must also ensure that Federal employees know their rights. Therefore, the Administration will:

• Mandate Participation in the Office of Special Counsel Whistleblower Certification Program. To ensure that Federal employees understand their whistleblower rights and how to make protected disclosures, the Administration will require covered agencies to complete the U.S. Office of Special Counsel’s program to certify compliance with the Whistleblower Protection Act’s notification requirements.

• Implement the Presidential Directive on Protecting Whistleblowers. The U.S. Government will continue to work to implement the President’s October 2012 Policy Directive on Protecting Whistleblowers with Access to Classified Information (PPD-19), including by ensuring strong, independent due process procedures; awareness of protections; and agency understanding of the protections available to government contractors under the directive.

• Advocate for Legislation to Expand Whistleblower Protections. With the Administration’s support, Congress recently enacted legislation to strengthen whistleblower protections for most Federal Government employees and contractors, but there are still gaps in statutory protections available to certain government employees and contractors. The Administration will continue to work with Congress to enact appropriate legislation to protect these individuals.

• Explore Executive Authority to Expand Whistleblower Protections if Congress Does Not Act. While statutory protections are preferable, the Administration will explore additional options for utilizing Executive authority to further strengthen and expand whistleblower protections if Congress fails to act further.

“This is big news in my mind,” writes Nathaniel Heller, executive director of Global Integrity. “Yes, the commitments to greater disclosure around surveillance activities are largely retread and don’t go nearly far enough. But for these issues to have made their way into a US National Action Plan is an important first step towards broadening the open government agenda to include “new frontiers” or “thorny” issues. That’s a big deal and a win.”

As with so many aspects of government announcements regarding measures to hold themselves more accountable or become more transparent, the most important part of this plan will be not be the words themselves but in how they are interpreted and implemented by this administration and those to follow. To date, after bold rhetoric in 2009, the Obama administration’s record on open government is mixed, with ongoing challenges regarding transparency on Healthcare.gov’s performance. There’s also precious little acknowledgment of concerns about press freedoms in the plan. Heller would also have liked to have seen something on corporate ownership:

The administration remains silent on public registries of beneficial owners of companies,” he writes. “Sigh. David Cameron and the UK government made a pioneering commitment to public registries of who really owns UK companies at the OGP summit in London. The US is now in the awkward position of having to defend keeping this valuable data private to only government regulators and investigators. That’s an increasingly thin reed. There’s certainly opposition to public registries in Congress, but the White House could have at least committed to publicly pushing for public registries. Instead, mum’s the word.

Steven Aftergood expressed some concerns about the administration’s new goals on open government, focusing on his wheelhouse, overclassification and pervasive secrecy. As he noted, the plan also includes a measure to improve declassication:

…a new interagency Classification Review Committee is being established with White House leadership to evaluate proposals for classification reform, and to coordinate their implementation throughout the executive branch.  The creation of such a body was the primary recommendation of the Public Interest Declassification Board last year, and it was strongly endorsed by public interest groups.

Both because of its interagency character and especially due to its White House leadership, the new Committee has the potential to overcome the autonomous classification practices of individual agencies that have contributed to the explosive growth in secrecy.

Positive results are naturally not guaranteed.  The Administration has not embraced an explicit theory of how overclassification occurs, or even how overclassification is to be defined, and therefore it is not yet well-equipped to address the problem.

The new Plan notes that in June of this year President Obama directed the Intelligence Community to declassify and make public “as much information as possible” about intelligence surveillance programs. But in an optimally functioning classification system, the President’s directive would have been redundant and unnecessary; the system would already be declassifying as much information as possible.

Of course, the existing classification system is not functioning optimally. That is the problem.  So either the President needs to issue individualized directives to all agencies on every conceivable classified topic to “declassify as much as possible,” or else the new White House interagency Committee needs to find alternate means to effectively communicate the same imperative.

Wonderlich also expressed a deeper concern about the plan: its lack of ambition, focus upon political power and personal investment or commitment of political capital from President Obama.

Unfortunately, if we imagine what a National Action Plan could be with a committed, engaged President, and senior political staff at the White House who discuss and engage with integrity issues, rather than treating them as political liabilities, we imagine a wholly different world. Incremental working groups and vaguely redundant reporting procedures would be replaced by bold proposals that affect political and state power, and we’d see a White House that talks more about the transparency we’re building than the transparency they use as a shield against critics. That’s clearly not the National Action Plan the White House released today.

All that being said, the fact that these measures are in the plan shows that the Obama administration has heard the criticism of civil society regarding secret surveillance laws, overclassification, and prosecuting whistleblowers and included elements addressing them.

That’s better. Let’s see what they do next.

This post has been updated with reactions from  open government advocates over time.

Public Interest Declassification Board asked for public comment on prioritization


David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, published a new blog post this week regarding prioritizing the declassification of government secrets.

“The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) recently hosted an open meeting to discuss its recommendations to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System, focusing on declassification prioritization,” he said.

The task before the National Declassification Center is massive, with an estimated backlog of 354 million pages awaiting final declassification review.

The nation’s archivist has asked the public for input on the approach it should take. Should the National Archives “make declassification decisions because of their topicality or ‘gradually declassify everything in an orderly and systematic way’?” he asked. “Or do some of both? Your thoughts?”

For more on this, read Steven Aftergood’s post on declassification prioritization and then weigh in transforming classification, if you’re so inclined.