The VA is being neither open nor transparent about its missing open government plans or policies. On March 29, 2018, I made a Freedom of Information Act request to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in which I … Continue reading
I won’t bury the lede on this story: today is my first day at the Sunlight Foundation as a senior analyst. I’m enormously excited to be joining an organization that’s been at the heart of a global movement towards opening governments to the people they serve with technology, from open source to open data.
If you’ve followed my writing and interests over the past decade, you know that I’m passionate about open government in all of its forms. I’ve been humbled to meet thousands of people around the world who are deeply committed to public service and improving how government functions.
This is a natural fit. From improving public access to information to civic engagement to collaboration around code to participation in democratic governance processes, from regulations to legislation, the Sunlight Foundation has been at the cutting edge of making government more open, effective and accountable.
There’s also a personal reason I made this decision: Jake Brewer, a former Sunlighter and White House staffer who we lost far too early last year, frequently urged me to to make the most of my short time on Earth. This is the right place for me to be.
Long-time readers should expect me to continue writing and participating in this role, creating acts of advocacy journalism in the public interest.
I believe that people have a right to know what is being done in their name by their elected governments. Implicit in that view is the notion that representative democracy is the worst form of government, save for all the rest. It’s up to us to protect and improve the states that we have founded and fought to preserve.
As people who have been paying close attention to Sunlight know, it’s an organization in transition. I’m proud to join up with this open government “restartup”, pitching in where ever my talents are helpful. I believe 2016 is going to be a dynamic year at Sunlight, which is why I’ve thrown in my lot with the extraordinary folks on staff.
I hope that you will continue to send your thoughts, feedback, suggestions, tips and ideas my way in the days and months to come.
A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit showed that the Obama administration vigorously lobbied against Freedom of Information Act reform in Congress. The documents and correspondence, which were obtained through the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s lawsuit against the Justice Department and reported out by Jason Leopold at Vice Media, showed that the administration was literally lobbying against its own policy becoming law.
The Department of Justice’s six page memorandum shows that the agency opposed Congress making the exact language in Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama’s 2009 memorandums on FOIA law.
The Justice Department opposing FOIA reform direct conflicts commitments made in the U.S. National Action Plan on Open Government required as part of its participation in the Open Government Partnership.
I asked Ambassador Power how the United States can be a credible leader on open government if the White House and DoJ does this. In an alternate universe, she and the administration would respond publicly.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to predict the outcome of this news: publicly committing to open government reforms and then undermining them privately will erode abysmal levels of trust in government even more.
In the face of hypocrisy from the Justice Department on this count, the public should call on their Senators to make the Freedom of Information Act reform legislation the House of Representatives passed in January into law.
Imagine searching Facebook, Google or Twitter for the status of a bill before Congress and getting an instant result. That future is now here, but it’s not evenly implemented yet.
When the Library of Congress launched Congress.gov in 2012, they failed to release the data behind it. Yesterday, that changed when the United States Congress started releasing data online about the status of bills.
For the open government advocates, activists and civic hackers that have been working for over a decade for this moment, seeing Congress turn on the data tap was a historic shift.
It took 14 years 9 months 6 days after I asked: Congress is now publishing actual data on the status of legislation. https://t.co/ITtDev12Xs
— Joshua Tauberer (@JoshData) February 24, 2016
Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle applauded the release of House and Senate bill status information by the U.S. Government Printing Office and Library of Congress.
“Today’s release of bill status information via bulk download is a watershed moment for Congressional transparency,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), in a statement. “By modernizing our approach to government and increasing public access to information, we can begin to repair the relationship between the people and their democratic institutions. The entire Congressional community applauds the dedication of the Legislative Branch Bulk Data Task Force, the Office of the Clerk, the House Appropriations Committee, GPO, and the Library of Congress, which worked together to make this progress possible.”
“Building off previous releases of bills and summaries, today’s release of bill status information largely completes the overarching goal of providing bulk access to all the legislative data that traditionally has been housed on Thomas.gov and now also resides on Congress.gov,” said Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD). “This is a major accomplishment that has been many years in the making. It goes a long way toward making Congress more transparent and accessible to innovation through third party apps and systems. I applaud the dedicated civil servants who made this possible at the Legislative Branch service agencies, and I want to thank the Bulk Data Task Force for their leadership in this effort. While this largely completes a major goal of the Task Force, I look forward to continuing to workwith them to further modernize the U.S. Congress.”
The impact of open government data releases depend upon publicy and political agency. Releasing the states of bills before Congress in a way that can be baked in by third party apps and services is a critical, laudable step in that direction, but much more remains to be done in making the data more open and putting it to use and re-use. If the Library of Congress opens up an application programming interface for the data that supplies both Congress.gov and the public, it would help to reduce the asynchrony of legislative information between the public and elites who can afford to pay for Politico’s Legislative Compass or Quorum Analytics that is the status quo today.
In an era when Congress job approval ratings and trust in government are at historic lows, the shift didn’t make news beyond the Beltway. Govtrack.us, which is based upon data scraped from the Library of Congress, has been online for years. Until this XML data is used by media and technology companies in ways that provide the public with more understanding of what Congress is doing on their behalf and give them more influence in that legislative process, that’s unlikely to change quickly.
On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives will once again weigh reforming the Freedom of Information Act to improve how the most important open government law of the United States is honored.
According to government transparency advocate Lisette Garcia, an expert on FOIA law, the new FOIA bill (H.R. 653) was “heavily negotiated between both parties throughout the drafting stages.” She expects it to be considered in suspension of ordinary debate rules and fast-tracked with little opportunity for public input.
Garcia, who alerted us to the new bill text via email, said that Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-CO) gave her an advance copy of the bill last December in exchange for her feedback as an experienced FOIA requester.
Alert readers may recall that Congress was poised to enact historic Freedom of Information Act reforms in late 2014, only to see FOIA reform die as the press looked the other way and lobbying by the financial industry scuttled it at the last minute.
That was a huge loss for the public interest and a giant missed opportunity for public engagement around public access to public information.
Despite FOIA reform passing both Houses of Congress unanimously, the government transparency bill expired when federal agencies, including the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Agency, reportedly lobbied against the bill when it came before the House one final time and Speaker of the House John Boehner failed to put it on the legislative calendar.
The fiasco led press freedom advocates to criticize the Obama administration for failing to support making the same FOIA policy the President introduced and endorsed publicly in 2009 the law of the land.
Over the past several years, the Obama administration has committed and recommitted to modernizing how the federal government complies with the Freedom of Information Act for years.
On the one hand, there has been progress on a new website for requests and pilot projects for ‘release to one, release to all’ policies. The administration has also released vast amounts of public data online and used technology to inform and engage the public in governance and science in unprecedented ways, from crowdsourcing and challenges to social media.
On the other, there’s a gap between what the Obama administration says about open government and how it follows through when informed members of the public ask tough questions.
The “presumption of openness” presented with such hope on the first day of President Barack Obama’s presidency in 2009 hasn’t led to the change that the public wished to see in 2016.
FOIA reform may face higher barriers to passing in the 114th Congress, but it’s more sorely needed than ever.
Here’s one way to give it some more attention. At the end of 2015, the Obama administration outlined 45 different ways it’s working to make the U.S. government more open and accountable to the people it serves.
If the White House intends to fulfill the open government promise it made in January 2009, President Barack Obama could start by adding a single sentence endorsing FOIA reform in Congress during his final State of the Union speech tomorrow night, making the “presumption of openness” law.
If President Obama still believes that he has led the “most transparent administration in history,” maybe it’s time to ask the public and Congress to make his public policies permanent so that the next inhabitant of the People’s House cannot easily reverse them.
- Yes, FOIA is still broken, but for more reasons than you might think.
The Washington Times and The Blaze reported on today’s House Oversight Committee’s report, which lambasted the Obama administration’s handling of FOIA requests as “hobbled” and “broken.”What both publications left out — along with Congressman Issa, who wrote an op-ed in the Daily Caller about the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act he sponsored — is important. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2013 and the New York Times reported today, the private sector is a huge user of this open government law. Consulting groups and hedge funds use FOIA requests for business intelligence.
In fact, according to a 2015 study by Margaret B. Kwoka, an assistant professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, cited by the Times, commercial resellers of data make the majority of FOIA requests at some federal agencies: 75%+ at the FDA, 9% at the Defense Logistics Agency.
In theory, a “release to one, release to all” policy would address this issue, if FOIA officers and agencies worked to reconcile it with complementary efforts to proactive disclosure of open data online across the federal government — and the Department of Justice was willing to hold agencies and itself to a higher standard.
- This reform could weaken the current Freedom of Information Act.
While they’re supportive of the core reforms that are preserved from the original FOIA Reform Act, open government advocates are decrying the addition of new language that would exempt the U.S. intelligence community from certain provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, including the consultation process that the bill would create.
“The changes to the House FOIA bill, added as a result of a last-minute demand of HPSCI, is a pattern that is becoming all too familiar and objectionable” said Patrice McDermott, the executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, in a statement.
“The efforts to exempt the Intelligence Community are not acceptable. They are particularly offensive in this bill intended to promote openness across the federal government.”
- FOIA reform passed the House but the bill is not law yet.
The Hill reported that the House is poised to approve the FOIA reform bill on Tuesday, Jan.12.
Now that the House has passed FOIA reform (again), it’s on to the Senate.
Today, a new survey released by the Pew Research Internet and Life Project provided one of the most comprehensive snapshots into the attitudes of the American public towards open data and open government to date. In general, more people surveyed are guardedly optimistic about the outcomes and release of open data, although that belief does vary with their political views, trust in government, and specific areas. (Full disclosure: I was consulted by Pew researchers regarding useful survey questions to pose.)
“Trust in government is the reference that people bring to their answers on open government and open data,” said John Horrigan, the principal researcher on the survey, in an interview. “That’s the frame of reference people bring. A lot of people still aren’t familiar with the notion, and because they don’t have a framework about open data, trust dominates, and you get the response that we got.”
While majorities of the American public use applications and services that use government data, from GPS to weather to transit to health apps, relatively few are aware that data produced and released by government drives them.
“The challenge for activists or advocates in this space will be to try to make the link between government data and service delivery outcomes,” said Horrigan. “If the goals are to make government perform better and maybe reverse the historic tide of lowered trust, then the goal is to make improvements real in delivery. If this is framed just as argument over data quality, it would go into an irresolvable back and forth into the quality of government data collection. If you can cast it beyond whether unemployment statistics are correct or not but instead of how government services improve or saved money, you have a chance of speaking to wether government data makes things better.”
The public knowledge gap regarding this connection is one of the most important points that proponents, advocates, journalists and publishers who wish to see funding for open data initiatives be maintained or Freedom of Information Act reforms pass.
“I think a key implication of the findings is that – if advocates of government data initiatives hope that data will improve people’s views about government’s efficacy – efforts by intermediaries or governments to tie the open data/open government to the government’s collection of data may be worthwhile,” said Horrigan. “Such public awareness efforts might introduce a new “mental model” for the public about what these initiatives are all about. Right now, at least as the data for this report suggests, people do not have a clear sense of government data initiatives. And that means the context for how they think about them has a lot to do with their baseline level of trust in the government – particularly the federal government.”
Horrigan suggested thinking about this using a metaphor familiar to anyone who’s attended a middle school dance.
“Because people do engage with the government online, just through services, it’s like getting them on a big dance floor,” he suggested. “They’re on the floor, where you want them, but they’re on the other part of it. They don’t know that there’s another part of the dance that they’d like to see or be drawn to that they’d want to be in. There’s an opportunity to draw them. The good news that they’re on the dance floor, the bad news is they don’t know about all of it. Someone might want to go over and talk to them an explain that if you go over here you might have a better experience.”
Following are 13 more key insights about the public’s views regarding the Internet, open data and government. For more, make sure to read the full report on open government data, which is full of useful discussion of its findings.
One additional worth noting before you dive in: this survey is representative of American adults, not just the attitudes of people who are online. “The Americans Trends Panel was recruited to be nationally representative, and is weighted in such a way (as nearly all surveys are) to ensure responses reflect the general population,” said Horrigan. “The overall rate of internet use is a bit higher than we typically record, but within the margin of error. So we are comfortable that the sample is representative of the general population.”
Growing number of Americans adults are using the Internet to get information and data
While Pew cautions that the questions posed in this survey are different from another conducted in 2010, the trend is clear: the way citizens communicate with government now includes the Internet, and the way government communicates with citizens increasingly includes digital channels. That use now includes getting information or data about federal, state and local government.
College-educated Americans and millennials are more hopeful about open data releases
Despite disparities in trust and belief in outcomes, there is no difference in online activities between members of political parties
Wealthier Americans are comfortable with open data about real estate transactions but not individual mortgages
This attitude is generally true across all income levels.
College graduates, millennials and higher-income adults are more likely to use data to monitor government performance
About a third of college grads, young people and wealthy Americans have checked out performance data or government contracting data, or about 50% more than other age groups, lower income or non-college grads.
The ways American adults interact with government services and data digitally are expanding
But very few American adults think government data sharing is currently very effective:
A small minority of Americans, however, have a great deal of trust in federal government at all:
In fact, increasing individual use of data isn’t necessarily correlated with belief in positive outcomes:
Pew grouped the 3,212 respondents into four quadrants, seen below, with a vertical axis ranging from optimism to skepticism and a horizontal axis that described use. Notably, more use of data doesn’t correlate to more belief in positive outcomes.
“In my mind, you have to get to the part of the story where you show government ran better as a result,” said Horrigan. “You have to get to a position where these stories are being told. Then, at least, while you’re opening up new possibilities for cynicism or skepticism, you’re at least focused on the data as opposed to trust in government.”
Belief in positive outcomes from the release of open data is correlated with a belief that your voice matters in this republic:
If you trust the federal government, you’re more likely to see the benefit in open data:
But belief in positive outcomes from the release of open data is related to political party affiliation:
Put simply, Democrats trust the federal government more, and that relates to how people feel about open data released by that government.
Political party has an impact upon the view of open data in the federal government
One challenge is that if President Barack Obama says “open data” again, he may further associate the release of government data with Democratic policies, despite bipartisan support for open government data in Congress. If a Republican is elected President in November 2016, however, this particular attitude may well shift.
“That’s definitely the historic pattern, tracked over time, dating to 1958,” said Horrigan, citing a Pew study. “If if holds and a Republican wins the White House, you’d expect it to flip. Let’s say that we get a Republican president and he continues some of these initiatives to make government perform better, which I expect to be the case. The Bush administration invested in e-government, and used the tools available to them at the time. The Obama administration picked it up, used the new tools available, and got better. President [X] could say this stuff works.”
The unresolved question that we won’t know the answer to until well into 2017, if then, is whether today’s era of hyper-partisanship will change this historic pattern.
There’s bipartisan agreement on the need to use government data better in government. Democratss want to improve efficiency and effectiveness, Republicans want to do the same, but often in the context of demonstrating that programs or policies are ineffective and thereby shrink government. If the country can rise about partisan politics to innovate government, awareness of the utility of releases will grow, along with support for open data will grow.
“Many Americans are not much attuned to government data initiatives, which is why they think about them (in the attitudinal questions) through the lens of whether they trust government,” said Horrigan. “Even the positive part of the attitudinal questions (i.e., the data initiatives can improve accountability) has a dollop of concern, in that even the positive findings can be seen as people saying: ‘These government data initiatives might be good because they will shine more light on government – which really needs it because government doesn’t perform well enough.’ That is an opportunity of course – especially for intermediaries that might, through use of data, help the public understand how/whether government is being accountable to citizens.”
That opportunity is cause for hope.
“Whether it is ‘traditional’ online access for doing transactions/info searches with respect to government, or using mobile apps that rely on government data, people engage with government online, “said Horrigan. “That creates the opportunity for advocates of government data initiatives to draw citizens further down the path of understanding (and perhaps better appreciating) the possible impacts of such initiatives.”
It’d be swell if the flap over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s personal email account catalyzed the passage of Freedom of Information Act reform in Congress. Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, laid out a strong case in the Guardian today for why both sides of the aisle should support reform:
Instead of both parties competing over who can be more secretive, like they did in the 2012 presidential campaign, this is also a great opportunity for 2016 presidential candidates to debate about who can deliver the most transparent White House. That doesn’t mean just voluntarily releasing emails you want the public to see – though that’s a start – but implementing lasting policy changes and laws that will change the trajectory of US secrecy law, which has grown out of control in the past decade.
The challenge is that the interests that didn’t want that reform to happen, both inside and outside of government, aren’t going to go away, from the financial industry to government agencies.
As readers no doubt recall, FOIA reform bills passed the U.S. Senate and House *unanimously* last year and yet failed to become law.
The pushback is already (quietly) happening in Congress, as reported last week in E&E publishing:
“I think a number of the agencies are probably concerned. This is the impression that I get: They think that you shouldn’t have this presumption that things should be revealed. In other words, there should be more of a screening process,” [Representative Elijah] Cummings said. “It’s hard for them to just come outright and say, ‘No, we don’t like that, we’re not going to do it.’ But I get that impression that they don’t feel that people need to have access to every record.”
Asked whether he or other lawmakers have heard from agencies regarding his bill, Cummings said their concerns about FOIA are more subtly made to Congress.
“In general, in general. But I don’t think it’s a big push, but that’s just the impression I get,” said the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
That doesn’t mean that reform won’t happen, or that it couldn’t be a political winner for members of both parties, particularly Republican Senators who aspire to higher office. This year, editorial boards are more outspoken on the issue and transparency could, once again, be a campaign issue. Here’s hoping that’s enough to lead to Congress enacting FOIA reform the country needs, not a watered down bill.
Last year, a successful Freedom of Information request for the United States enterprise data inventory by the Sunlight Foundation was a big win for open government, nudging Uncle Sam towards a better information policy through some creative legal arguments. Today, the federal government started releasing its enterprise indices at data.gov. You can browse the data for individual agencies, like the feed for the Office for Personnel Management, using a JSON viewer like this one.
“Access to this data will empower journalists, government officials, civic technologists, innovators and the public to better hold government accountable,” said Sunlight Foundation president Chris Gates, in a statement. “Previously, it was next to impossible to know what and how much data the government has, and this is an unprecedented window into its internal workings. Transparency is a bedrock principle for democracy, and the federal government’s response to Sunlight’s Freedom of Information request shows a strong commitment to open data. We expect to see each of these agencies continue to proactively release their data inventories.”
Understanding what data an organization holds is a critical first step in deciding how it should be stored, analyzed or published, shifting towards thinking about data as an asset. That’s why President Barack Obama’s executive order requiring federal agencies to catalog the data they have was a big deal. When that organization is a democratic government and the data in question was created using taxpayer funds, releasing the inventory of the data sets that it holds is a basic expression of open and accountable government.