Today in Washington, DC, the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Data Coalition are hosting a public forum for feedback on the draft action plan for the new federal data strategy. Remote access is available for those unable to attend using a call-in phone number at 800-593-7188, using the participant passcode 6700630.
I asked to speak about open government and was given the opportunity to make five minutes of comments. While I had trouble getting to the auditorium inside of the Department of Commerce, I arrived just in time & livestreamed the talk online. (Sorry about the angle.)
Building on those comments, here are some of the key points that I tried to convey to the audience of federal government staff and industry:
1) “Promote Transparency” is a good principle, and “Maximize Economic Value through Open Access” is worthy mission – but the U.S. government should be maximizing democratic value through open access to data in this strategy, too.
There’s not much about good governance, fighting corruption, accountability, or democracy itself in the federal data strategy, or any specific action items about restoring diminished public trust. As I’ve told this White House before, achieving its policy goals requires more.
2) The U.S. government is failing to inform and engage the public about the strategy, the action plan, and the open government initiative it’s in.
This federal data strategy was touted as the first commitment of the 4th national action plan for open government for the Open Government Partnership, the “global multi-stakeholder initiative that attempts to act as a convening platform for national governments and their publics to create concrete commitments towards democratic reforms.”
The commitment to “Leverage Data as a Strategic Asset: Publish a Comprehensive Federal Data Strategy,” however, was something that the White House was already doing, however, not the result of a groundswell of public participation or advocacy from good governance groups.
3) The agenda shows that many experts in data governance, tech companies and watchdogs are not present: watchdogs like the Electronic Information Privacy Center, advocates like the Center for Democracy and Technology, technologists from companies like Google and IBM, law professors or academics, or leading data scientists from industry. But there are a lot of representatives from DC-based contractors, consultants and systems integrators.
4) Priorities in this administration are expressed in what forums and initiatives get promoted by the @WhiteHouse and are discussed by surrogates on Fox News. This one wasn’t.
As I said at the forum, during the plan’s co-creation process and in 2018, during the strategy’s formation, this administration fell far short of the standard we should expect from the United States government for engaging and informing the public and relevant stakeholders.
The Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Kevin Droegmeier, opened today’s forum – but there’s no release about it online with his remarks, or tweets from @OMBPress, which is co-hosting it.
Unleashing Federal data can open doors to innovation and scientific advancement. @WHOSTP Director Droegemeier knows this firsthand as a meteorologist and discussed the #FedDataStrategy with science and tech leaders from inside and outside government at the @DataCoalition forum. pic.twitter.com/eXaT0EwuNe
— White House OSTP (@WHOSTP) July 8, 2019
For many months, this White House has not effectively engaged the public about either the open government plan or its formation, nor this strategy, despite the “co-creation” standards and guidelines required by the Open Government Partnership for the former.
By way of contrast, this White House created and promoted an online form and is hosting a “social media summit” this week, both of which then gained national attention. But this federal data strategy will actually matter for public access to information under the Freedom of Information Act, on federal websites, and various agency policies for use and re-use in a way that summit will almost certainly not.
For instance, consider how this strategy could be applied to FOIA decisions, which are already under pressure from appointees restricting disclosure. Remember when the Obama White House talked about the “mosaic effect” and open data in 2013?
5) Beyond engaging and informing the public better about the data strategy, one of my key recommendations to the federal government regards Action Item 16: it should use FOIA demand to prioritize open data disclosure!
Follow the money: the Department of Commerce should track who’s buying government data through the Freedom of Information Act and share that on Data.gov, prioritizing the clear value that’s being ascribed to it by those who buy it. Governments save time and money when they do this.
6) As with that new “action plan” on open government, there are reasons to be cautious about the liminal space this strategy and action plan occupies, or how much impact or influence it will have.
Consider: after the passage of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, the White House announced that the Department of Justice’s pilot of a “release to one, release to all” policy for disclosure (which involved six agencies) should be extended to all agencies and introduced in 2017, and a cross agency priority goal for FOIA would be established at OMB.
Both of these voluntary commitments are gone, but they can and should be restored under an administration more committed to good government and improving public access to public information instead of censoring science and introducing disinformation into public discourse.
Keep a close eye on how and whether the principles of this strategy are applied, or if there is any accountability for violating them.
For instance, did this administration uphold ethics and designing checks and balances to “protect and serve the public good” when they scanned state databases of driver’s licenses?
Is this administration “exercising effective data stewardship and governance” when it seeks to add a question about citizenship status to the 2020 census over the objections of hundreds of civil liberties groups, academics, and former Census Bureau directors – and a Supreme Court ruling, despite the chilling effect on participation and thus data quality?
Is this administration “promoting transparency” and articulating the “purposes and uses of federal data to engender public trust” in its approach to data?
If the answer is no, perhaps the public, press, and Congress should ask the White House Office of Management and Budget whether this strategy should be taken seriously – or not.
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