US CIO says White House OMB will continue to explore selling public data

When I asked whether when or if it is acceptable for the United States government to charge companies, journalists and the public for government data, citing the example of paywalled immigration data, the chief information officer of the United States told me that “it’s part of the commercial equation” and that it was “actually a discussion point for the strategy” in her office in the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“I don’t have a specific answer,” Suzette Kent went on. “That is something that we’re looking at because there’s many tenets of it. There’s some data the government collects & document on behalf of the american public that may have the mode. There’s other types of data, that people are asking for. It’s a broad spectrum and one we are going to continue to explore.” Kent was speaking at the Data Coalition’s Data Demo Day on June 6 in Washington, DC. Video of the keynote speech she gave on data is embedded below:

When asked about the continued disclosure of data in PDFs and non-machine readable forms by federal agencies, despite President Barack Obama’s 2013 executive order, Kent said simply that she advocates compliance with every executive order and law and cited a Cross-Agency Priority goal to remove paper from agency systems.

Charging for public data is not a new topic or debate, but it has continued to be relevant during the Trump administration, when new concerns have grown about government data access, collection, and quality.

As I wrote back in 2014, local, state and national governments across the United States and around the world can and do charge for access to government data.

While some developers in Europe advocate charging for public sector information (PSI) as a way to ensure higher service levels and quality, adding fees does effectively charge the public for public access and has frequently been used as a barrier to press requests:

A city hall, state house or government agency charging the press or general public to access or download data that they have already paid for with their tax revenues, however, remains problematic.

It may make more sense for policy makers to pursue a course where they always make bulk government data available for free to the general public and look to third parties to stand up and maintain high quality APIs, based upon those datasets, with service level agreements for uptime for high-volume commercial customers.

Instead of exploring a well-trodden path, the United States government should follow the money and determine which data is agencies are currently charging for under public records requests or other means, using FOIA demand to drive open data disclosure.

United States opens public comment on commitments for a new national open government plan

Last fall, the U.S. government delayed formation of the fourth national action plan after committing to participation with a public consultation – despite historic regressions on open government across federal agencies under the Trump administration. This May, the White House quietly … Continue reading

VA rejects Freedom of Information Act request for missing open government plan

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

Why I’m joining the Sunlight Foundation

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.

Obama Administration Secretly Lobbied Against FOIA Reform In Congress

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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.

Congress releases open data on bill status

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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.

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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.

New Freedom of Information Act Reform Bill Introduced In Congress

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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.

The FOIA Reform Act,  authored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) is once again on the Congressional Calendar, with an additional 22 page report, H.R. 391.

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.

“Now is the time to register any objection or endorsement you may want to offer regarding any specific provisions,” she wrote.”Feedback to your representative, or any member of the Oversight Committee, may be submitted by calling the U.S. House switchboard at (202) 224-3121.”
That feedback matters because of the way that FOIA reform died in 2014.

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.

Researchers at the FOIA Project at Syracuse University found last week that there was a record number of pending FOIA lawsuits in 2015.

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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.

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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.

Updates: 

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    Yep: this FOIA reform bill could enable a vast portion of the federal government to be more secretive, not less.

    “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.”

  3. 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.

    In fact, the House moved to consider H.R. 653 “as amended” on Monday night, under suspension of the rules, and passed the bill under voice vote.

    Now that the House has passed FOIA reform (again), it’s on to the Senate.

 

U.S. Civil Society Groups release model National Open Government Action Plan

This is the week for seeking feedback on open government in the United States. 4 days ago, the White House published a collaborative online document that digitized the notes from an open government workshop held during Sunshine Week in March. Today, Abby Paulson from OpenTheGovernment.org uploaded a final draft of a Model National Action Plan to the Internet, as a .doc. I’ve uploaded it to Scribd and embedded it below for easy browsing.

Nelson shared the document over email with people who contributed to the online draft.

Thank you so much for contributing to the civil society model National Action Plan. The Plan has made its way from Google Site to Word doc (attached)! We will share these recommendations with the White House, and I encourage you to share your commitments with any government contacts you have. If you notice any errors made in the transition from web to document, please let me know. If there are any other organizations that should be named as contributors, we will certainly add them as well. The White House’s consultation for their plan will continue throughout the summer, so there are still opportunities to weigh in. Additional recommendations on surveillance transparency and beneficial ownership are in development. We will work to secure meetings with the relevant agencies and officials to discuss these recommendations and make a push for their inclusion in the official government plan. So, expect to hear from us in the coming weeks!

15 key insights from the Pew Internet and Life Project on the American public, open data and open government

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.)

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“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.”

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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.

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College-educated Americans and millennials are more hopeful about open data releases

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Despite disparities in trust and belief in outcomes, there is no difference in online activities between members of political parties

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Wealthier Americans are comfortable with open data about real estate transactions but not individual mortgages

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This attitude is generally true across all income levels.

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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.

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The ways American adults interact with government services and data digitally are expanding

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But very few American adults think government data sharing is currently very effective:

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A small minority of Americans, however, have a great deal of trust in federal government at all:

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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.”

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Instead…

Belief in positive outcomes from the release of open data is correlated with a belief that your voice matters in this republic:

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If you trust the federal government, you’re more likely to see the benefit in open data:

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But belief in positive outcomes from the release of open data is related to political party affiliation:

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Put simply, Democrats trust the federal government more, and that relates to how people feel about open data released by that government.

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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.”

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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.”

National Security Archive finds 40% E-FOIA compliance rate in federal government agencies

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For Sunshine Week 2015, the National Security Archive​ conducted an audit of how well 165 federal government agencies in the United States of America comply with the E-FOIA Act of 1996. They found that only 67 of them had online libraries that were regularly updated with a significant number of documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. The criteria for the 165 agencies were that they had to have a chief Freedom of Information Officer and components that handled more than 500 FOIA requests annually.

Almost a decade after the E-FOIA Act, that’s about a 40% compliance rate. I wonder if the next U.S. Attorney General or the next presidential administration will make improving on this poor performance priority. It’s important for The United States Department of Justice​ to not only lead by example but push agencies into the 21st century when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act.

It would certainly help if Congress passed FOIA reform.

On that count, the Archive highlights a relevant issue in the current House and Senate FOIA reform bills in Congress: the FOIA statute states that documents that are “likely to become the subject of subsequent requests” should be published electronic reading rooms:

“The Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy defines these records as “frequently requested records… or those which have been released three or more times to FOIA requesters.” Of course, it is time-consuming for agencies to develop a system that keeps track of how often a record has been released, which is in part why agencies rarely do so and are often in breach of the law. Troublingly, both the current House and Senate FOIA bills include language that codifies the instructions from the Department of Justice.

The National Security Archive believes the addition of this “three or more times” language actually harms the intent of the Freedom of Information Act as it will give agencies an easy excuse (“not requested three times yet!”) not to proactively post documents that agency FOIA offices have already spent time, money, and energy processing. We have formally suggested alternate language requiring that agencies generally post “all records, regardless of form or format that have been released in response to a FOIA request.”

This is a point that Members of Congress should think through carefully as they take another swing at reform. As I’ve highlighted elsewhere, FOIA requests that industry make are an important demand signal to show where data with economic value lies. (It’s also where the public interest tends to lie, with respect to FOIA requests from the media.)

While it’s true that it would take time and resources to build and maintain a system that tracks such requests by industry, there should already be a money trail from the fees paid to the agency. If FOIA reform leads to modernizing how it’s implemented, perhaps tying FOIA.gov to Data.gov might finally take place. The datasets are the subject of the most FOIA requests are the ones that should be prioritized for proactive disclosure online.

Adding a component that identifies which data sets are frequently requested, particularly periodically, should be a priority across the board for any administration that seeks to “manage information as an asset.” Adding the volume and periodicity of requests to the expanding national enterprise data inventory might naturally follow. It’s worth noting, too, that reform of the FOIA statute may not be necessary to achieve this end, if the 18F team working on modernizing FOIA software worked on it.