Open letter on open government to Press Secretary Psaki and White House officials

Dear Secretary Psaki and the Office of the Press Secretary,

My name is Alexander B Howard; you may have noticed me tweeting at you this past couple months during the transition and now the administration. I came to DC over a decade ago as a regulatory compliance journalist, reporting on technology policy and open government before working as a good government watchdog at the Sunlight Foundation.

Today, I work on a project improving digital democracy and good governance incubated within the Demand Progress Education Fund, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) entity sponsored by the New Venture Fund. Since 2020, I have a had specific focus and interest on rebuilding public trust in government and media and combating civic disinformation and media misinformation through disclosure of trustworthy information and proactive civic engagement.

I’m inquiring about the Biden administration’s plans for transparency, accountability, and ethics at the outset of the administration, when the defaults are critical and set the bar and tone for the 4 years ahead.

Four years ago, when I was the deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, I sent your predecessor questions about open government. The Trump White House never answered, but their dismal record on transparency and good governance over the past four years certainly did.

I hope you’ll respond to these questions publicly, as soon as possible. Your vocal commitment to truth and transparency are beyond welcome, but it would be useful to learn more about concrete commitments in policy, programs, and personnel.

On that count, some of the following questions on administration-wide priorities or policy may be best directed to Chief of Staff Klain, Vice President Harris and President Joe Biden. Others may be for White House Communications Director Bedingfield. If so, please connect them (and me) to them to discuss. 

  1. When will this White House begin posting visitor logs? Will you post them as open data at open.whitehouse.gov, as before?
  2. Will the administration post all executive branch ethics waivers, authorizations, approvals, certifications, pledges & other legally operative ethics documents (excluding individual advice) in a centralized database on Office of Government Ethic’s website, and redirect Ethics.gov to it?
  3. Will the White House support bills that codify visitor log disclosure online for the administration in Congress? What about for agencies?
  4. Will you post pool reports and daily guidance that goes to the press where American public can see them on WhiteHouse.gov?
  5. Accessibility was part of WhiteHouse.gov at launch. Will the White House annotate all images on social media and always link to plaintext of statements, orders, or other official documents from its updates on Twitter, Facebook, or other platforms?
  6. Will you bring back White House petitions, a flagship commitment to the Open Government Partnership that President Obama founded?
  7. Will you and/or other officials host a weekly online Q&A with the public on social media using synchronous video platforms like YouTube, Facebook Live, Periscope, Meet, Teams, or Zoom? (This was a good start, though you didn’t answer the questions I tweeted about transparency and good government.) Will you choose platforms that allow people to vote up the questions they’d like to have answered, as President Obama once did with Google Moderator and YouTube, or Reddit, and commit to answer them?
  8. How will this administration approach using technology for transparency, accountability, & ethics to rebuild public trust in government and public health information?
  9. Who will be the fifth U.S. Chief Technology Officer and the next U.S. Chief Information Officer? Will there be a U.S. Chief Data Officer or Chief Data Scientist again?
  10. In January 2009, President Obama issued a memorandum on transparency on Day 1. Is a government transparency memorandum, especially on the Freedom of Information? Will there be a refreshed executive order on open government?
  11. How will President Biden, presumed U.S. Attorney General Garland, and the Office of Information Policy harmonize the Open Government Data Act with FOIA administration and proactive disclosure?
  12. 2 years ago, the US government committed to expanding public participation in developing future national action plans for open government in the 4th National Action Plan for Open Government. Will this White House do so, & include commitments to transparency & ethics in Congress & the courts?
  13. How will the Biden administration approach reclaiming American leadership in open government and democracy globally?
  14. Will you bring back wh.gov/open? (Many /open pages across the US government once linked to it.)
  15. Who will lead the open government portfolio for the Biden administration? Will there be a White House ethics, transparency, or accountability “czar” in OMB or the Cabinet?
  16. Will the Biden restart agency open government action plans again, as mandated under the Open Government Directive, and refresh agency.gov/open pages?
  17. Will the monthly interagency open government meetings start up again?
  18. Will the administration support a federal shield law for acts of journalism? Will the Biden administration commit to never prosecute journalists using the Espionage Act?
  19. Will the Biden administration fill all of the open inspectors general positions at agencies by the end of 2021?
  20. What specific steps will the Biden administration take to support and defend whistleblowers and whistleblowing?
  21. How will the Biden administration build upon the federal open source software policy and Code.gov
  22. How will the Biden approach algorithmic transparency, accountability, and auditability for federal digital services to address potential bias or inequities in service delivery or outcomes?

I would be happy to correspond about these issues, hop on the phone or log onto Zoom, or otherwise meet with you and your colleagues to discuss this White House’s strategy for restoring good governance and using civic technologies to strengthen rather than weaken our democracy and that of other nations.

Thank you for your continued service, attention to these issues, and dedication to strengthening democracy at home and abroad .

Best regards,

Alexander B. Howard

The online version of this letter was updated with links and an additional question after transmission.

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