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.

United States Releases Draft National Open Source Software Policy

IMG_1256On September 23, 2014, the White House announced that the United States would create an official policy for open source software. Today, the nation took a big step towards making more software built for the people available to the people.

“We believe the policies released for public comment today will fuel innovation, lower costs, and better serve the public,” wrote U.S. chief information officer Tony Scott in a blog post at WhiteHouse.gov, announcing that the Obama administration had published a draft open source policy and would now take public comments on it online.

This policy will require new software developed specifically for or by the Federal Government to be made available for sharing and re-use across Federal agencies. It also includes a pilot program that will result in a portion of that new federally-funded custom code being released to the public.

Through this policy and pilot program, we can save taxpayer dollars by avoiding duplicative custom software purchases and promote innovation and collaboration across Federal agencies. We will also enable the brightest minds inside and outside of government to review and improve our code, and work together to ensure that the code is secure, reliable, and effective in furthering our national objectives. This policy is consistent with the Federal Government’s long-standing policy of technology neutrality through which we seek to ensure that Federal investments in IT are merit-based, improve the performance of our Government, and create value for the American people.

Scott highlighted several open source software projects that the federal government has deployed in recent years, including a tool to find nearby housing counselors, NotAlone.gov, the College Scorecard, data.gov, and an online traffic dashboard. platform, and the work of 18F, which publishes all of its work as free and open software by default.

The draft policy is more limited than it might be: as noted by Greg Otto at Fedscoop, federal agencies will be required to release 20 percent of newly developed code as open source.

As Jack Moore reports at NextGov, the policy won’t apply to software developed for national security systems, a development that might prove disappointing to members of the military open source community that has pioneered policy and deployment in this area.

The draft policy sensibly instructs federal agencies to prioritize releasing of code that could have broader use outside of government.

The federal government is now soliciting feedback to the following considerations regarding its use of open source software.

Considerations Regarding Releasing Custom Code as Open Source Software

  • To what extent is the proposed pilot an effective means to fuel innovation, lower costs, benefit the public, and meet the operational and mission needs of covered agencies?
    • Would a different minimum percentage be more or less effective in achieving the goals above?
    • Would an “open source by default” approach that required all new Federal custom code to be released as OSS, subject to exceptions for things like national security, be more or less effective in achieving the goals above?
    • Is there an alternative approach that OMB should consider?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages associated with implementing this type of pilot program? To what extent could this policy have an effect on the software development market? For example, could such a policy increase or decrease competition among vendors, dollar amounts bid on Federal contracts, or total life-cycle cost to the Federal Government? How could it impact new products developed or transparency in quality of vendor-produced code?
  • What metrics should be used to determine the impact and effectiveness of the pilot proposed in this draft policy, and of an open source policy more generally?
  • What opportunities and challenges exist in Government-wide adoption of an open source policy?
  • How broadly should an open source policy apply across the Government? Would a focus on particular agencies be more or less effective?
  • This policy addresses custom code that is created by Federal Government employees as well as custom code that is Federally-procured. To what extent would it be appropriate and desirable for aspects of this draft policy to be applied in the context of Federal grants and cooperative agreements?
  • How can the policy achieve its objectives for code that is developed with Government funds while at the same time enabling Federal agencies to select suitable software solutions on a case-by-case basis to meet the particular operational and mission needs of the agency? How should agencies consider factors such as performance, total life-cycle cost of ownership, security and privacy protections, interoperability, ability to share or reuse, resources required to later switch vendors, and availability of support?

If you have thoughts on any of these questions, you can email sourcecode@omb.eop.gov,
participate in discussions on existing issues on Github, start a new one, or make a pull request to the draft policy on Github. You can see existing pull requests here and view all comments received here.

With this policy, the White House has fulfilled one of the commitments added to the second National Action Plan for open government in the fall of 2014. While there has been limited progress (or worse) on of the dozens of other new and old commitments made in the three action plans published to date, this draft open source policy is a historic recognition of the principle that the source code for software developed by government agencies or contractors working for them can and should be released to other agencies and the general public for use or re-use.

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.

From Stickies to Wikis: White House seeks online feedback on open government

In a followup post, the White House shared a link to a collaborative online document where the notes from an open government workshop held during Sunlight Week were posted online for comment. In doing so, they moves from sticky notes to a wiki.

What will come of asking the broader public for feedback on the ideas that a workshop of advocates and policy wonks in DC suggested? Stay tuned.

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.)

mixed-hopes-open-data-improve-pew

“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.”

more-trust-gov-more-benefits-open-data

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.

internet-use-info-government-pew

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

college-grad-millennials-more-hopeful-open-data-pew

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

no-difference-trust-parties-in-online-activities

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

wealthy-comfortable-transaction-data-not-mortgages-pew

This attitude is generally true across all income levels.

people-comfortable-data-sharing-not-mortgage-pew

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.

college-grads-higher-income-monitor-performance-pew

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

ways-people-interact-government-info-pew

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

few-think-govt-data-sharing-effective-pew

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

majorities-low-trust-government-pew

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.”

quadrants-belief-open-data

tech-profiles-quadrants-open-data-pew

Instead…

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

belief-voice-matters-believe-open-data-improves-pew

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

trust-fed-govt-more-likely-to-see-benefit

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

democrats-more-likely-to-believe-open-data-pay-off-pew

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

democrats-trust-fed-govt-more

 

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.”

democrats-more-upbeat-view-open-data

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.”

Obama names top Facebook engineer director of White House IT, creates Presidential IT Committee

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In its search for technology talent, the White House has been recruiting heavily from Google of late, including U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith. Today, President Barack Obama showed that his administration also likes Facebook, announcing that engineer David Recordon would upgrade the White House’s technology infrastructure. The news was first reported by Yahoo.

“In our continued efforts to serve our citizens better, we’re bringing in top tech leaders to support our teams across the federal government,” said President Obama, in a statement. “Today, I’m pleased to welcome David Recordon as the Director of White House Information Technology. His considerable private sector experience and ability to deploy the latest collaborative and communication technologies will be a great asset to our work on behalf of the American people.”

On the one hand, it’s terrific to see The White House attract top tech talent. Getting David Recordon into public service should be a win for the American people. Based upon a somewhat cryptic hint he posted on Facebook last August, it appeared that he was involved in helping to fix Heathcare.gov and another unnamed important project. The blog post that went up at WhiteHouse.gov confirmed that Recordon was “one of those engineers.” Bringing the best engineers the administration can find into the U.S. Digital Service will help the nation avoid more IT catastrophes, and Recordon, a notable open standard advocate who helped develop OpenID, is clearly one of them.  That’s good news.

On the other hand, while being the first “Director of White House Information Technology” is clearly great copy for the tech press, working to “ensure that the technology utilized by the White House is efficient, effective, and secure” sounds more or less what the White House chief information officer should be — and has been – doing for years.

Just look at the responsibilities for the Office of the CIOPer Federal News Radio, the White House CIO for the past two years, Karen Britton, stepped down in January 2015, without any announced replacement since. Michael Hornsby, the director of engineering and operations within OCIO, served as acting CIO. This all leads me to hypothesize that Recordon has effectively been named the new White House CIO but doesn’t have that title.

Regardless, here’s hoping Recordon’s considerable expertise leads to improvements in an information technology infrastructure that has come a long way since 2009 (read this) but still lags the private sector.

President Obama signed an official presidential memorandum today creating the role and establishing an “Executive Committee for Presidential Information Technology” made up of the “Assistant to the president for Management and Administration, the Executive Secretary of the National Security Council, the Director of the Office of Administration, the Director of the United States Secret Service, and the Director of the White House Military Office.”

According to the memorandum, which is embedded beneath and reproduced in plaintext below (it’s not online at WhiteHouse.gov yet), this committee will “shall advise and make policy recommendations to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and the Director with respect to operational and procurement decisions necessary to achieve secure, seamless, reliable, and integrated information resources and information systems for the President, Vice President, and EOP.”

In other words, these folks will advise the director on how to by, build and run tech for the White House.

Presidential Memorandum White House IT:

https://www.scribd.com/embeds/259313174/content?start_page=1&view_mode=scroll&show_recommendations=true

[Photo Credit: Brian Solis]

THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 19, 2015
March 19, 2015
MEMORANDUM FOR THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
THE SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY
THE DIRECTOR OF THE OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND
BUDGET
THE NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR
THE DIRECTOR OF THE OFFICE OF ADMINISTRATION
SUBJECT: Establishing the Director of White House
Information Technology and the Executive
Committee for Presidential Information Technology
By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution
and the laws of the United States of America, and in order to
improve the information resources and information systems
provided to the President, Vice President, and Executive Office
of the President (EOP), I hereby direct the following:
Section 1. Policy. The purposes of this memorandum are to
ensure that the information resources and information systems
provided to the President, Vice President, and EOP are
efficient, secure, and resilient; establish a model for
Government information technology management efforts; reduce
operating costs through the elimination of duplication and
overlapping services; and accomplish the goal of converging
disparate information resources and information systems for the
EOP.
This memorandum is intended to maintain the President’s
exclusive control of the information resources and information
systems provided to the President, Vice President, and EOP.
High-quality, efficient, interoperable, and safe information
systems and information resources are required in order for the
President to discharge the duties of his office with the support
of those who advise and assist him, and with the additional
assistance of all EOP components. The responsibilities that
this memorandum vests in the Director of White House Information
Technology, as described below, have been performed historically
within the EOP, and it is the intent of this memorandum to
continue this practice.
The Director of White House Information Technology, on
behalf of the President, shall have the primary authority to
establish and coordinate the necessary policies and procedures
for operating and maintaining the information resources and
information systems provided to the President, Vice President,
and EOP. Nothing in this memorandum may be construed to
delegate the ownership, or any rights associated with ownership, 2
of any information resources or information systems, nor of any
record, to any entity outside of the EOP.
Sec. 2. Director of White House Information Technology.
(a) There is hereby established the Director of White House
Information Technology (Director). The Director shall be the
senior officer responsible for the information resources and
information systems provided to the President, Vice President,
and EOP by the Presidential Information Technology Community
(Community). The Director shall:
(i) be designated by the President;
(ii) have the rank and status of a commissioned
officer in the White House Office; and
(iii) have sufficient seniority, education, training,
and expertise to provide the necessary advice,
coordination, and guidance to the Community.
(b) The Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations shall provide
the Director with necessary direction and supervision.
(c) The Director shall ensure the effective use of
information resources and information systems provided to the
President, Vice President, and EOP in order to improve mission
performance, and shall have the appropriate authority to
promulgate all necessary procedures and rules governing these
resources and systems. The Director shall provide policy
coordination and guidance for, and periodically review, all
activities relating to the information resources and information
systems provided to the President, Vice President, and EOP by
the Community, including expenditures for, and procurement of,
information resources and information systems by the Community.
Such activities shall be subject to the Director’s coordination,
guidance, and review in order to ensure consistency with the
Director’s strategy and to strengthen the quality of the
Community’s decisions through integrated analysis, planning,
budgeting, and evaluation processes.
(d) The Director may advise and confer with appropriate
executive departments and agencies, individuals, and other
entities as necessary to perform the Director’s duties under
this memorandum.
Sec. 3. Executive Committee for Presidential Information
Technology. There is hereby established an Executive Committee
for Presidential Information Technology (Committee). The
Committee consists of the following officials or their
designees: the Assistant to the President for Management and
Administration; the Executive Secretary of the National Security
Council; the Director of the Office of Administration; the
Director of the United States Secret Service; and the Director
of the White House Military Office.
Sec. 4. Administration. (a) The President or the Deputy
Chief of Staff for Operations may assign the Director and the
Committee any additional functions necessary to advance the
mission set forth in this memorandum.
(b) The Committee shall advise and make policy
recommendations to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and
the Director with respect to operational and procurement 3
decisions necessary to achieve secure, seamless, reliable, and
integrated information resources and information systems for the
President, Vice President, and EOP. The Director shall update
the Committee on both strategy and execution, as requested,
including collaboration efforts with the Federal Chief
Information Officer, with other government agencies, and by
participating in the Chief Information Officers Council.
(c) The Secretary of Defense shall designate or appoint a
White House Technology Liaison for the White House
Communications Agency and the Secretary of Homeland Security
shall designate or appoint a White House Technology Liaison for
the United States Secret Service. Any entity that becomes a
part of the Community after the issuance of this memorandum
shall designate or appoint a White House Technology Liaison for
that entity. The designation or appointment of a White House
Technology Liaison is subject to the review of, and shall be
made in consultation with, the President or his designee. The
Chief Information Officer of the Office of Administration and
the Chief Information Officer of the National Security Council,
and their successors in function, are designated as White House
Technology Liaisons for their respective components. In
coordination with the Director, the White House Technology
Liaisons shall ensure that the day-to-day operation of and
long-term strategy for information resources and information
systems provided to the President, Vice President, and EOP are
interoperable and effectively function as a single, modern, and
high-quality enterprise that reduces duplication, inefficiency,
and waste.
(d) The President or his designee shall retain the
authority to specify the application of operating policies and
procedures, including security measures, which are used in the
construction, operation, and maintenance of any information
resources or information system provided to the President, Vice
President, and EOP.
(e) Presidential Information Technology Community entities
shall:
(i) assist and provide information to the Deputy
Chief of Staff for Operations and the Director,
consistent with applicable law, as may be necessary to
implement this memorandum; and
(ii) as soon as practicable after the issuance of
this memorandum, enter into any memoranda of
understanding as necessary to give effect to the
provisions of this memorandum.
(f) As soon as practicable after the issuance of this
memorandum, EOP components shall take all necessary steps,
either individually or collectively, to ensure the proper
creation, storage, and transmission of EOP information on any
information systems and information resources provided to the
President, Vice President, and EOP.
Sec. 5. Definitions. As used in this memorandum:
(a) “Information resources,” “information systems,”
and “information technology” have the meanings assigned by
section 3502 of title 44, United States Code.4
(b) “Presidential Information Technology Community” means
the entities that provide information resources and information
systems to the President, Vice President, and EOP, including:
(i) the National Security Council;
(ii) the Office of Administration;
(iii) the United States Secret Service;
(iv) the White House Military Office; and
(v) the White House Communications Agency.
(c) “Executive Office of the President” means:
(i) each component of the EOP as is or may
hereafter be established;
(ii) any successor in function to an EOP component
that has been abolished and of which the function is
retained in the EOP; and
(iii) the President’s Commission on White House
Fellowships, the President’s Intelligence Advisory
Board, the Residence of the Vice President, and such
other entities as the President from time to time may
determine.
Sec. 6. General Provisions. (a) Nothing in this
memorandum shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:
(i) the authority granted by law to an executive
department, agency, entity, office, or the head
thereof; or
(ii) the functions of the Director of the Office of
Management and Budget relating to budgetary,
administrative, or legislative proposals.
(b) This memorandum shall be implemented consistent with
applicable law and appropriate protections for privacy and civil
liberties, and subject to the availability of appropriations.
(c) This memorandum is not intended to, and does not,
create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural,
enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the
United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its
officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.
BARACK OBAMA
# # #

17 million tax transcripts downloaded through IRS website, reducing offline requests by 40%

irs-transcriptAccording to a post on the White House blog, 17 million tax transcripts have been downloaded over the Internet since the feature launched in January 2014. The interesting outcome is that, according to the post, offline requests are down by 40%.

There was no clear return on the investment provided on what providing this online service saved taxpayers, but if we assume there are processing costs involved with sending transcripts through the mail and that, once online, the Internet service scales, that’s a good result, as is enabling instant electronic access to something that used to take 5-10 business days to arrive in print form.

Of note: it looks like Americans can expect more online services from the IRS in the near future, according to the the authors of the White House blog post, U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Nick Sinai and Rajive Mathur, director of Online Services at the Internal Revenue Service:

“Building on the initial success of Get Transcript, there are more exciting improvements to IRS services in the pipeline. For instance, millions of taxpayers contact the IRS every year to ask about their tax status, whether their filing was received, if their refund was processed, or if their payment posted. In the future, taxpayers will be able to answer these types of questions independently by signing in to a mobile-friendly, personalized online account to conduct transactions and see all of their tax information in one place. Users will be able to view account history and balance, make payments or see payment status, or even authorize their tax preparer to view or make changes to their tax return. This will also include the ability to download personal tax information in an easy to use and machine-readable format so that taxpayers can share with trusted recipients if desired.”

Promising. I hope that the leadership of the IRS explores how the agency could act as a platform to enable more, much-needed innovation around personal data access and digital services in the years to come, enabling a modern ecosystem of tax software based on a standardized application programming interface.

Improving online self-service could have an enormous impact upon every single American taxpayer, from saving tax dollars on the government side to saving time and gray hairs year round in offices and kitchen tables. Per Sinai and Mathur, the IRS currently receives over 80 million phone calls per year, sends out almost 200 million paper notices every year, receives over 50 million unique visitors to its website each month during filing season.

More context and FAQ on how to download your tax transcript here.

Thoughts on the future of the US CIO, from capabilities to goals

vanroekel

This weekend, ZDNet columnist Mike Krigsman asked me what I thought of the tenure of United States chief information officer Steven VanRoekel and, more broadly, what I thought of the role and meaning of the position in general. Here’s VanRoekel’s statement to the press via Federal News Radio:

“When taking the job of U.S. chief information officer, my goal was to help move federal IT forward into the 21st Century and to bring technology and innovation to bear to improve IT effectiveness and efficiency. I am proud of the work and the legacy we will leave behind, from launching PortfolioStat to drive a new approach to IT management, the government’s landmark open data policy to drive economic value, the work we did to shape the mobile ecosystem and cloud computing, and the culmination of our work in the launch of the new Digital Service, we have made incredible strides that will benefit Americans today and into the future,” VanRoekel said in a statement. “So it is with that same spirit of bringing innovation and technology to bear to solve our most difficult problems, that I am excited to join USAID’s leadership to help stop the Ebola outbreak. Technology is not the solution to this extremely difficult task but it will be a part of the solution and I look forward to partnering with our federal agencies, non-profit organizations and private sector tech communities to help accelerate this effort.”

Here’s the part of what I told Krigsman that ended up being published, with added hyperlinks for context:

As US CIO, Steven VanRoekel was a champion of many initiatives that improved how technology supports the mission of the United States government. He launched an ambitious digital government strategy that moved further towards making open data the default in government, the launch of the U.S. Digital Service, 18F, and the successful Presidential Innovation Fellows program, and improved management of some $80 billion dollars in annual federal technology spending through PortfolioStat.

As was true for his predecessor, he was unable to create fundamental changes in the system he inherited. Individual agencies still have accountability for how money is spent and how projects are managed. The nation continues to see too many government IT projects that are over-budget, don’t work well, and use contractors with a core competency in getting contracts rather than building what is needed.

The U.S. has been unable or unwilling to reorganize and fundamentally reform how the federal government supports its missions using technology, including its relationship to incumbent vendors who fall short of efficient delivery using cutting-edge tech. The 113th Congress has had opportunities to craft legislative vehicles to improve procurement and the power of agency CIOs but has yet to pass FITARA or RFP-IT. In addition, too many projects still look like traditional enterprise software rather than consumer-facing tools, so we have a long way to go to achieve the objectives of the digital playbook VanRoekel introduced.

There are great projects, public servants and pockets of innovation through the federal government, but culture, hiring, procurement, and human resources remain serious barriers that continue to result in IT failures. The next U.S. CIO must be a leader in all respects, leading by example, inspiring, and having political skill. It’s a difficult job and one for which it is hard to attract world-class talent.

We need a fundamental shift in the system rather than significant tweaks, in areas such as open source and using the new Digital Service as a tool to drive change. The next US CIO must have experience managing multi-billion dollar budgets and be willing to pull the plug on wasteful or mismanaged projects that serve the needs of three years ago, not the future.

In a win for open government advocacy, DC removes flaws in its municipal open data policy

Update:

dcgov_logoIt’s a good day for open government in the District of Columbia. Today, DC’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) has updated the Terms and Conditions for DC.gov and the city’s new open data platform, addressing some of the concerns that the Sunlight Foundation and Code for DC expressed about the new open data policy introduced in July. The updated terms and conditions rolling out onto the city’s digital civic architecture this afternoon. “Today’s changes are really focused on aligning DC.Gov’s Terms and Conditions of Use with the new open data and transparency policy released this summer,” explained Mike Rupert, the communications director for OCTO,” in an interview. “The site’s T&C hadn’t been updated in many years,” according to Rupert. The new T&C will apply to DC.gov, the open data platform and other city websites. “It is encouraging that DC is taking steps toward considering feedback and improving its Terms and Conditions, but there is still room for improvement in the broader scope of DC’s policies,”said Alisha Green, a policy associate with Sunlight Foundation’s local policy team.  “We hope those implementing DC’s new open data policy will actively seek stakeholder input to improve upon what the policy requires. The strength of the policy will be in its implementation, and we hope DC will take every opportunity to make that process as open, collaborative and impactful as possible.” So, OCTO both heard and welcomed the feedback from open government advocates regarding the policy and agreed that the policy implications of the terms and conditions were problematic. Certain elements of the previous Terms and Conditions of Use (Indemnity, Limitation of Liability) could have chilled the understanding of the public’s right to access and have been eliminated,” said Rupert. Those were the sections that prompted civic hacker Josh Tauberer to wonder whether he needed a lawyer to hack in DC are simply gone, specifically that Indemnity and Liability Section. Other sections, however, still remain. The revised policy I obtained before the updated terms and conditions went online differs in a couple of ways from the one that just that went online. First, the Registration section remains, as does the Conduct section, although DC eliminated the 11 specific examples. That said, it’s better, and that’s a win. District officials remain cautious about how and where reuse might occur, they’re going to at least let the data flow without a deeply flawed policy prescription. “While we want to be mindful of and address the potential for harm to or misuse of District government information and data, the Terms and Conditions of Use should promote the new open data and transparency philosophy in a more positive manner,” said Rupert. Sharp-eyed readers of the new policy, however, will note that DC’s open data and online information has now been released to the public under a Creative Commons license, specifically Attribution 3.0 United States. That means that anyone who uses DC’s open data is welcome to “Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material — for any purpose, even commercially,” as long as they provide “Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.” When asked about the CC license choice, Rupert said that “The new copyright language from Creative Commons – which as you is know is becoming the international standard – better states the overriding principle of the public’s right to web content and data. ” That did not sit entirely well with open government advocates who hold that making open data license free is a best practice. Asked for comment, Tauberer emailed the following statement in a response to the draft of the revision, welcoming the District’s responsiveness but questioning the premise of the District of Columbia having any “terms and conditions” for the public using open government data at all.

The new terms drop the most egregious problems, but these terms still don’t count as “open.” Should I expect a lawsuit if I don’t tip my hat and credit the mayor every time I use the data we taxpayers paid to create? Until the attribution requirement is dropped, I will recommend that District residents get District data through Freedom of Information Act requests. It might take longer, but it will be on the people’s terms, not the mayor’s. It’s not that the District shouldn’t get credit, but the District shouldn’t demand it and hold civil and possibly criminal penalties over our heads to get it. For instance, yesterday Data.gov turned their attribution requirement into a suggestion. That’s the right way to encourage innovation. All that said, I appreciate their responsiveness to our feedback. Tim from DC GIS spent time at Code for DC to talk about it a few weeks ago, and I appreciated that. It is a step in the right direction, albeit one deaf to our repeated explanation that “open” does not mean “terms of use.

The good news is that DC’s OCTO is listening and has committed to being responsive to future concerns about how it’s handling DC’s online presences and policies. “Several of your questions allude to the overall open data policy and we will definitely be reaching out to you and all other interested stakeholders as we begin implement various elements of that policy,” said Rupert.

Update: On October 29th, DC updated its Terms and Conditions again, further improving them. Tauberer commented on the changes to the open data policy on his blog. In his view, the update represents a step forward and a step back:

In a new update to the terms posted today, which followed additional conversations with OCTO, there were two more great improvements. These terms were finally dropped:

  • agreeing to follow all “rules”, a very ambiguous term
  • the requirement to attribute the data to the District in all uses of the data (it’s now merely a suggestion)

The removal of these two requirements, in combination with the two removed in September, makes this a very important step forward.

One of my original concerns remains, however, and that is that the District has not granted anyone a copyright license to use District datasets. Data per se isn’t protected by copyright law, but the way a dataset is presented may be. The District has claimed copyright over its things before, and it remains risky to use District datasets without a copyright license. Both the September update and today’s update attempted to address this concern but each created more confusion that there was before.

Although today’s update mentions the CC0 public domain dedication, which would be the correct way to make the District data available, it also explicitly says that the District retains copyright:

  • The terms say, at the top, that they “apply only to . . . non-copyrightable information.” The whole point is that we need a license to use the aspects of the datasets that are copyrighted by the District.
  • Later on, the terms read: “Any copyrighted or trademarked content included on these Sites retains that copyright or trademark protection.” Again, this says that the District retains copyright.
  • And: “You must secure permission for reuse of copyrighted … content,” which, as written (but probably not intended), seems to say that to the extent the District datasets are copyrighted, data users must seek permission to use it first. (Among other problems, like side-stepping “fair use” in copyright law.)

With respect to the copyright question, the new terms document is a step backward because it may confuse data users into thinking the datasets have been dedicated to the public domain when in fact they haven’t been.

This post has been updated with comments from Tauberer and the Sunlight Foundation.

Open government advocates: terms and conditions mean DC open data is fauxpen data

500px-WilsonbldgEarlier this summer, this blog covered the launch of District of Columbia’s executive order on open government, open data policy, open data platform and online FOIA portal. Last week, the Sunlight Foundation laid out what DC should have done differently with its open data policy.

“The evolution of open data policies since 2006 provides a chance for stakeholders to learn from and build on what’s been accomplished so far,” wrote policy associate Alisha Green. “This summer, a new executive directive from Mayor Vincent Gray’s office could have taken advantage of that opportunity for growth, It fell far short, however. The scope, level of detail, and enforceability of the policy seem to reveal a lack of seriousness about making a significant improvement on DC’s 2006 memorandum.”

Green says that DC’s robust legal, technology and advocacy community’s input should have helped shape more of the policy and that “the policy should have been passed through the legislative, not executive, process.” Opportunities, missed.

Yesterday, civic hacker and Govtrack.us founder Joshua Tauberer took the critique one step further, crying foul over the terms of use in the DC data catalog.

“The specter of a lawsuit hanging over the heads of civic hackers has a chilling effect on the creation of projects to benefit the public, even though they make use of public data released for that express purpose,” he wrote. “How does this happen? Through terms of service, terms of use, and copyright law.”

The bottom line, in Tauberer’s analysis, is that the District oF Columbia’s open data isn’t truly open. To put it another way, it’s fauxpen data.

“Giving up the right to take legal action and being required to follow extremely vague rules in order to use public data are not hallmarks of an open society,” writes Tauberer. “These terms are a threat that there will be a lawsuit, or even criminal prosecution, if civic hackers build apps that the District doesn’t approve of. It has been a long-standing tenant that open government data must be license-free in order to truly be open to use by the public. If there are capricious rules around the reuse of it, it’s not open government data. Period. Code for DC noted this specifically in our comments to the mayor last year. Data subject to terms of use isn’t open. The Mayor should update his order to direct that the city’s “open data” be made available a) without restriction and b) with an explicit dedication to the public domain.”

In the wake of these strong, constructive critiques, I posted an update in an online open government community wondering what the chances ar that DC public advocates, technologists, lawyers, wonks, librarians and citizens will go log on to the DC government’s open government platform, where the order is hosted, and suggest changes to the problematic policy? So far, few have.

The issue also hasn’t become a serious issue for the outgoing administration of Mayor Vincent Gray, or in the mayoral campaign between Muriel Bowser and David Catania, who both sit on the DC Council.

The issues section of Bowser’s website contains a positive but short, vague commitment to “improved government”: “DC needs a government that works for the people and is open to the people,” it reads. “Muriel will open our government so that DC residents have the ability to discuss their concerns and make suggestions of what we can do better.”

By way of contrast, Catania published a 128 page platform online that includes sections on “democracy for the District” and “accountable government.”(Open data advocates, take note: the document was published on Scribd, not as plaintext or HTML.) The platform includes paragraphs on improving access to government information, presenting information in user-friendly formats, eradicating corruption and rooting out wasteful spending.

Those are all worthy goals, but I wonder whether Catania knows that the city’s current policy and the executive order undermines the ability and incentives for journalists, NGOs, entrepreneurs and the District’s residents to apply the information he advocates disclosing for the purposes intended.

Last week, I asked Bowser and Catania how their administrations would approach open data in the District.

To date, I’ve heard no reply. I’ve also reached out to DC’s Office of Open Government. If I hear from any party, I’ll update this post.

Update: In answer to a question I posed, the Twitter account for DC.gov, which manages DC’s online presence and the open data platform in question as part of the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, indicated that “new terms and conditions [were] coming shortly.” No further details were offered.