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.

District of Columbia to experiment with collaborative lawmaking online

Residents of the District of Columbia now have a new way to comment on proposed legislation before the City Council, MadisonDC. Today, David Grosso, a DC Councilman-at-Large, introduced the new initiative to collaboratively draft laws online in a release and video on YouTube.

“As we encourage more public engagement in the legislative process, I hope D.C. residents will take a moment to log onto the Madison project,” said Councilmember Grosso. “I look forward to seeing the public input on my proposed bills.”

MadisonDC has its roots in the first Congressional hackathon, back in 2011. The event spawned a beta version of the Madison Project, an online platform to where lawmakers could crowdsource legislative markup. It was deployed first by the office of Representative Darrell Issa, crowdsourcing comments on several bills. The code was subsequently open sourced and now has been deployed by the OpenGov Foundation as a way to publish municipal codes online, along with other uses.

“We are excited to support Councilmember Grosso’s unprecedented efforts to welcome residents – and their ideas – directly into the local lawmaking process,” said Seamus Kraft, co-founder & executive director of The OpenGov Foundation, on the nonprofit organization’s blog. “But what really matters is that we’re going to produce better City Council bills, with fewer frustrations and unintended consequences. These three bills are only a start. The ultimate goal of MadisonDC is transforming D.C.’s entire policymaking machine for the Internet Age, creating an end-to-end, on-demand collaboration ecosystem for both citizens and city officials. The possibilities are limitless.”

The first three bills on MadisonDC are the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014, the Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Act of 2013, and the Open Primary Elections Amendment Act of 2014.

The DC Open Government Office at the city’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, commended the effort with a tweet:

Councilman Grosso further engaged the public on Twitter this afternoon, inviting public comment on his proposed legislation.

This post has been updated to include more statements and social media updates.

Applause for the passage of the DATA Act in the Senate

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Over on Storify, I’ve collected applause for the passage of the DATA Act in the Senate. More to come on this landmark open government bill soon.

Update: Over at TechRepublic, I published a column asserting that the passage of the DATA Act is a major event in the age of data transparency.

Update: To date, the White House Office of Management and Budget has expressed support for Congressional attention to open government, if not the bill itself.

“We share Senator Warner’s commitment to transparency and government accountability, support the Senator and his efforts to pass the DATA Act, and appreciate his focus on the issue,” said OMB spokesman Frank Benanati.

More to come on this landmark open government bill soon.

Representative Quigley introduces updated Transparency in Government Act (TGA)

Earlier today, Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced a comprehensive open government transparency bill on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. The aptly titled “Transparency in Government Act” (PDF) (summary) coincides with Sunshine Week, the annual effort to stimulate a national dialogue about the iopen government and freedom of information.

“The public’s trust in government has reached historic lows, causing many Americans to simply give up on Washington,” said Representative Quigley. “But the mission of government matters, and we can’t lead in the face of this deficit of trust. The Transparency in Government Act shines a light on every branch of the federal government, strengthening our democracy and promoting an efficient, effective and open government.”

As it has in its previous two iterations, the transparency bill has received strong support from most of the major government watchdog and transparency groups in Washington, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the Sunlight Foundation, Data Transparency Coalition, the Center for Responsive Politics, the Center for Effective Government, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

As Matt Rumsey noted at the Sunlight Foundation blog, this iteration of TGA is the third version to be introduced since 2010:

As we noted at the time, the original bill was inspired in part by model transparency legislation put together on PublicMarkup.org, a project of the Sunlight Foundation.

The 2014 version of the TGA includes a number of Sunlight Foundation priorities including, but not limited to, enhanced access to the work of congressional committees and Congressional Research Service reportsimprovements to the current lobbying disclosure regime as well as increased transparency in federal contracting, grants and loans.

The prospects for TGA to pass through the entire House don’t appear to be much better than the prior two versions. That said, as CREW policy director Daniel Schuman wrote today, the bill is a deep reservoir of transparency ideas that Congress can draw upon to amend other legislation or introduce as stand-alone bills:

  • Greater congressional accountability through improved disclosure of foreign travel reports, gift reports, how members of Congress spend their official budgets, and greater disclosure of personal financial information.
  • Greater congressional transparency through improved access to the work of committees (including meeting schedules and transcripts) and greater contextualization of floor votes.
  • Empowering public understanding of congressional work through public access to Congressional Research Service reports.
  • Better tracking of lobbying by broadening the definition of lobbyist, improving the tracking of lobbying activity (in part through the use of unique entity identifiers), and more frequent disclosures by lobbyists of political contributions; improved access to information on lobbying on behalf of foreign entities; and public access to statements by grantees and contractors certifying that they have not used money awarded by the federal government to lobby (the SF-LLLs).
  • Enhancing transparency for contracts, grants, and loans through improved data quality, better disclosure (including electronic) and improved compliance.
  • Making the executive branch more transparent by requiring online access to White House and executive branch agency visitor logs, providing centralized access to agency budget justifications, and allowing the public to see how the Office of Management and Budget OIRA changes draft agency regulations.
  • Improving transparency of non-profit organizations by requiring non-profit tax forms (990s) to be available online in a central location (replacing the current ad hoc disclosure system).
  • Improving the Freedom of Information Act by publishing completed requests online in a searchable database and requiring notice of efforts to carve out exemptions to FOIA. (Ourrecommendations go even further.)
  • Opening up federal courts by requiring live audio of Supreme Court hearings, publishing federal judicial financial disclosures online, requiring a Government Accountability Office study on the impact of live video-streaming Supreme Court proceedings, and requiring a GAO audit of PACER.
  • Require annual openness audits by GAO that look at whether data made available by the government meets the eight open data principles.

In aggregate, this is a bright beam of sunshine from Congress that everyone should stand behind, from citizens to legislators to advocates. The Project for Government Oversight is strongly supportive of its provisions, writing that “there is a lot to like in this bill, including more transparency for Congress, lobbying, the executive branch, and federal spending on contractors and grantees.”

Taken one by one, the individual provisions in the bill are well worth considering, one by one, from bringing the Supreme Court into the 21st century to FOIA reform.

If Representative Quigley’s bill can attract the attention of Congressional leaders and legislators across the aisle who have professed support for open government and transparency, maybe some more of these provisions will move forward to enter the Senate, though that body has shown little appetite for moving legislation forward in the 113th Congress to date.

Federal government agencies receive .91 GPA in FOIA compliance from Center for Effective Government

Today, the Center for Effective Government released a scorecard for access to information from the 15 United States federal government agencies that received the most Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, focusing upon an analysis of their performance in 2013.

The results of the report (PDF) for the agencies weren’t pretty: if you computed a grade point average from this open government report card (and I did) the federal government would receive a D for its performance. 7 agencies outright failed, with the State Department receiving the worst grade (37%).

The grades were based upon:

  1. How well agencies processed FOIA requests, including the rate of disclosure, fullness of information provided, and timeliness of the response
  2. How well the agencies established rules of information access, including the effectiveness of agency polices on withholding information and communications with requestors
  3. Creating user-friendly websites, including features that facilitate the flow of information to citizens, associated online services, and up-to-date reading rooms

The report is released at an interesting historic moment for the United States, with Sunshine Week just around the corner. The United States House of Representatives just unanimously passed a FOIA Reform Act that is substantially modeled upon the Obama administration’s proposals for FOIA reforms, advanced as part of the second National Open Government Action Plan. If the Senate takes up that bill and passes it, it would be one of the most important, substantive achievements in institutionalizing open government beyond this administration.

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington have disputed the accuracy of this scorecard, based upon the high rating for the Department of Justice. CREW counsel Anne Weismann:

It is appropriate and fair to recognize agencies that are fulfilling their obligations under the FOIA. But CEG’s latest report does a huge disservice to all requesters by falsely inflating DOJ’s performance, and ignoring the myriad ways in which that agency — a supposed leader on the FOIA front — ignores, if not flouts, its obligations under the statute.

Last Friday, I spoke with Sean Moulton, the director of open government policy at the Center for Effective Government, about the contents of the report and the state of FOIA in the federal government, from the status quo to what needs to be done. Our interview, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows.

What was the methodology behind the report?

Moulton: Our goal was to keep this very quantifiable, very exact, and to try and lay out some specifics. We thought about what the components were necessary for a successful FOIA program. The processing numbers that come out each year are a very rich area for data. They’re extremely important: if you’re not processing quickly and releasing information, you can’t be successful, regardless of other components.

We did think that there are two other areas that are important. First, online services. Let’s face it, the majority of us live online in a big way. It’s a requirement now for agencies to be living there as well. Then, the rules. They’re explained to the agencies and the public, in how they’re going to do things when they get a request. A lot of the agencies have outdated rules. Their current practices may be different, and they may be doing things that the rules don’t say they have to, but without them, they may stop. Consistent rules are essential for consistent long term performance.

A few months back, we released a report that laid out what we felt were best practices for FOIA regulations. We went through a review of dozens of agencies, in terms of their FOIA regulations, and identified key issues, such as communicating with the requester, how you manage confidential business information, how you handle appeals, and how you handle timelines. Then we found inside existing regulations the best ways this was being handled. It really helped us here, when we got to the rules. We used that as our roadmap. We knew agencies were already doing these things, and making that commitment. The main thing we measured under the rules were the items from that best practices report that were common already. If things were universal, we didn’t want to call a best practice, but a normal practice.

Is FOIA compliance better under the Obama administration, more than 4 years after the Open Government Directive?

Moulton: In general, I think FOIA is improving in this administration. Certainly, the administration itself is investing a great deal of energy and resources in trying to make greater improvements in FOIA, but it’s challenging. None of this has penetrated into national security issues.

I think it’s more of a challenge than the administration thought it would be. It’s different from other things, like open data or better websites. The FOIA process has become entrenched. The biggest open government wins were in areas where they were breaking new ground. There wasn’t a culture or way of doing this or problems that were inherited. They were building from the beginning. With FOIA, there was a long history. Some agencies may see FOIA as some sort of burden, and not part of their mission. They may think of it as a distraction from their mission, in fact. When the Department of Transportation puts out information, it usually gets used in the service of their mission. Many agencies haven’t internalized that.

There’s also the issue of backlogs, bureaucracy, lack of technology or technology that doesn’t work that well — but they’re locked into it.

What about redaction issues? Can you be FOIA compliant without actually honoring the intent of the request?

Moulton: We’re very aware of this as well. The data is just not there to evaluate that. We wish it was. The most you get right now is “fully granted” or “partly granted.” That’s incredibly vague. You can redact 99% or 1% and claim it’s partially redacted, either way. We have no indicator and no data on how much is being released. It’s frustrating, because something like that would help us get a better sense on whether agencies would benefit would new policies

We do know that the percentage of full grants has dropped every year, for 12 years, from the Clinton administration all the way through the Bush administration to today. It’s such a gray area. It’s hard to say whether it’s a terrible thing or a modest change.

Has the Obama administration’s focus on open government made any difference?

Moulton: I think it has. There were a couple of agencies that got together on FOIA reform. The EPA led the team, with the U.S. National Archives and the Commerce Department, to build a new FOIA tool. The outward-facing part of the tool enables a user to go to a single spot, request and track it. Other people could come and search FOIA’ed documents. Behind the scenes, federal workers could use the tool to forward requests back and forth. This fits into what the administration has been trying to do, using technology better in government

Another example, again at the EPA, is where they’ve put together a proactive disclosure website. They got a lot of requests, like if there are inquiries about properties, environmental history, like leaks and spills, and set up a site where you could look up real estate. They did this because they went to FOIA requests and see what people wanted. That has cut down their requests to a certain percentage.

Has there been increasing FOIA demand in recent years, affecting compliance?

Moulton: I do think FOIA requests have been increasing. We’ll see what this next year of data shows. We have seen a pretty significant increase, after a significant decrease in the Bush administration. That may be because this administration keeps speaking about open government, which leads to more hopeful requestors. We fully expect that in 2013, there will be more requests than the prior year.

DHS gets the biggest number of all, but that’s not surprising when we look at the size of it. It’s second biggest agency, after Defense, and the biggest domestic facing agency. when you start talking about things like immigration and FEMA, which go deep into communities and people’s lives, in ways that have a lot impact, that makes sense.

What about the Department of Justice’s record?

Moulton: Well, DoJ got the second highest rating, but we know they have a mixed record. There are things you can’t measure and quantify, in terms of culture and attitude. I do know there were concerns about the online portal, in terms of the turf war between agencies. There were concerns about whether the tech was flexible, in terms of meeting all agency needs. If you want to build a government-wide tool, it needs to have real flexibility. The portal changed the dialogue entirely

Is FOIA performance a sufficient metric to analyze any administration’s performance on open government?

Moulton: We should step back further and look at the broader picture, if we’re going to talk about open government. This administration has done things, outside of FOIA, to try to open up records and data. They’ve built better online tools for people to get information. You have to consider all of those things.

Does that include efforts like the Intelligence Community Tumblr?

Moulton: That’s a good example. One thing this administration did early on is to identify social media outlets. We should be going there. We can’t make citizens come to us. We should go to where people are. The administration pushed early on that agencies should be able to use Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook and Flickr and so on.

Is this social media use “propaganda,” as some members of the media have suggested?

Moulton: That’s really hard to decide. I think it can result in that. It has the potential to be misused to sidestep the media, and not have good interaction with the media, which is another important outlet. People get a lot of their information from the media. Government needs to have good relationship.

I don’t think that’s the intention, though, just as under Clinton, when they started setting up websites for the first time. That’s what the Internet is for: sharing information. That’s what social media can be used for, so let’s use what’s there.

U.S. House unanimously votes in favor of FOIA reform and a more open government

Earlier tonight, The United States House of Representatives voted 410-0 to pass the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act. If the FOIA Act passes through the Senate, the bill would represent the most important update to United States access to information laws in generations.

“Transparency in government is a critical part of restoring trust and the House will continue to work to make government more transparent and accessible to all Americans,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VI). “By expanding the FOIA process online, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act creates greater transparency and continues our open government efforts in the House.”

The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (FOIA), ‪‎H.R.1211‬, is one of the best opportunities to institutionalize open government in the 113th Congress, along with the DATA Act, which passed the House of Representatives 388-1 last November.

The FOIA reform bill now moves to the Senate, which passed unanimous FOIA reform legislation in the last Congress.

As Nate Jones detailed at the National Security Archive, the Senate’s own legislative effort to reform FOIA, the so-called the “Faster FOIA Act” (S.627S. 1466), was not picked up by the House: the open government bill was hijacked in service of a 2011 budget deal, where the FOIA provisions in it ultimately met an untimely end. Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA.), Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), and Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL) chose to draft their own bill instead of taking that bill up again.

Open government advocates applauded the unanimous passage of the FOIA Act, although there are some caveats about its provisions for the Senate to consider.

“This vote shows strong congressional support for government transparency and the Freedom of Information Act,” said Sean Moulton, Director of Open Government Policy at the Center for Effective Government, in a statement:

Since its original passage nearly 50 years ago, FOIA has been a cornerstone of the public’s right to know. By modernizing FOIA, H.R. 1211 would improve Americans’ ability to access public information and strengthen our democracy.

We thank the chair and ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who worked with the open government community to develop this legislation in a bipartisan fashion. We urge the Senate to advance legislation addressing these issues and other pressing FOIA reforms, including the need to rein in secrecy claims under Exemption 5, which restrict access to important information about government operations.

Access to public information is crucial to our democracy and the government’s effectiveness. It allows Americans to actively engage in policymaking in a thoughtful, informed manner and to hold public officials accountable for decisions that impact us all.

The bill represents important incremental, improvements to the FOIA process, but “it doesn’t address some fundamental shortfalls in the way that the FOIA is implemented and viewed within the Federal government,” wrote Matt Rumsey, policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation:

… A “presumption of openness” and improved online infrastructure are important, but the bigger challenge will be getting agencies to change their posture away from one of non-disclosure and often aggressive litigation that is opposed to openness. … It clearly shows that ensuring public access to government information is not a partisan issue, or even one that should divide the branches of government. We hope to see the Senate take up legislation in the near future so that both chambers can work together to send a strong FOIA reform bill to President Obama’s desk for him to sign.

Passage of the House bill is a good first step but only a first step, wrote Anne Weismann, chief counsel of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington:

Without a doubt these are needed reforms. As CREW has long advocated, however, meaningful FOIA reform must include changes in the FOIA’s exemptions to make the statute work as Congress intended.  All too often agencies hide behind Exemption 5 and its protection for privileged material to bar public access to documents that would reveal the rationale behind key government decisions.  For example, the Department of Justice denies every request for a legal opinion issued by DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel that determines what a law means and what conduct it permits, claiming to reveal these opinions would harm the agency’s deliberative process.  This has led to the creation of a body of secret law — precisely what Congress sought to prevent when it enacted the FOIA.

To address this serious problem, CREW has advocated adding a balancing test to Exemption 5 that would require the agency and any reviewing court to balance the government’s claimed need for secrecy against the public interest in disclosure.  Other needed reforms include a requirement that agencies post online all documents disclosed under the FOIA.  The House bill, however, does not incorporate any of these reforms.

This post has been updated with additional statements over time.

FOIA bill in the U.S. House is one of the best opportunities to institutionalize open government

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U.S. House unanimously voted 410-0 in favor of FOIA reform.

Unless the Congress passes legislation to codify reforms and policies proposed or promulgated under a given administration, the next President of the United States can simply revoke the executive orders and memoranda passed by his or her predecessor.

Today, almost a year after its introduction, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (FOIA), H.R. 1211, will go before the U.S. House for a vote. If enacted*, it would commit the reforms to the Freedom of Information Act that the Obama administration has proposed but go further, placing the burden on agencies to justify withholding information from requestors, codifying the creation of a pilot to enable requestors to submit requests in one place, creating a FOIA Council, and directing federal agencies to automatically publish records responsive to requests online.

While these actions were proposed by the administration in its National Open Government Action Plan, Congressional action would make them permanent.

If it passed both houses of Congress and is signed into law, the FOIA Reform Act would carry into law the spirit of President Barack Obama’s Open Government Memorandum of January 21, 2009 and subsequent Open Government Directive, along with Attorney General Eric Holder’s FOIA memorandum: “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”

The bipartisan bill, cosponsored by House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA.), Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), and Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL), has received support from every major open government advocacy group in Washington, DC. The released a letter to Congress this week urging the passage of the FOIA Reform Act. The Sunshine in Government and Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council also published letters in support of the bill. It has not, however, picked up a sponsor in the Senate yet.

Currently, 97% of POPVOX users support HR1211. While the bill may not be perfect, very few pieces of legislation are.

“Requests through the Freedom of Information Act remain the principal vehicle through which the American people can access information generated by their government,” said Issa, in a statement last March. “The draft bill is designed to strengthen transparency by ensuring that legislative and executive action to improve FOIA over the past two decades is fully implemented by federal agencies.”

“This bill strengthens FOIA, our most important open government law, and makes clear that the government should operate with a presumption of openness and not one of secrecy,” said Cummings, in a statement.

Given the continued importance of the Freedom of Information Act to journalists and its relevance to holding the federal government accountable, I would urge any readers to find your Representative in Congress and urge him or her to vote for passage of the bill. Improving open government oversight through FOIA reform has been a long time coming, but change should come.

[Image Credit: CREW]

AskThem.io launches to enable citizens to ask public officials anything

badgeToday, the Participatory Politics Foundation launched AskThem.io, a new online tool focused upon structured questions and answers with elected officials.

As David Moore, founder of PPF, put it, AskThem is like a version of the White House’s “We The People” petition platform, but for over 142,000 elected officials nationwide.” 

The platform is an evolution from earlier attempts to ask questions of candidates for public office, like “10 Questions” from Personal Democracy Media, or the myriad online town halls that governors and the White House have been holding for years. 

AskThem enables anyone to pose a question to any elected official or Verified Twitter account. Notably, the cleanly designed Web app uses geolocation to enable users to learn who represents them, in of itself a valuable service.

As with e-petitions, AskThem users can then sign questions they support, voting them up and sharing the questions with their social networks. When a given question hits a preset threshold, the platform delivers the questions to to the public figure and “encourages a public response.”

That last bit is key: there’s no requirement for someone to respond, for the response itself to be substantive, nor for the public figure to act. There’s only the network effect of public pressure to make any of that happen.

After a year of development, Moore was excited to see the platform go live today, noting a number of precedents set in the process.

“I believe we’re the first open-source web app to support geolocation of elected officials, down to the municipal level, from street address,” he said, via email. “And I believe we’re the first to offer access to over 142,000 elected officials through our combined data sources. And I believe we’re the first to incorporate open government data for informed questions of elected officials at every level of government.”

Moore referred to AskThem’s use of the Google Civic Information API, which provides the data for the platform.

AskThem goes online just in time for tomorrow’s day of action against mass surveillance, where over 5,000 websites will try to activate their users to contact their elected representatives in Washington. Whether it gets much use or not will depend on awareness of the new tool.

That could come through use by high-profile early adopters like Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes), of MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes,” or OK Go, the popular band.

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At launch,  66 elected officials nationwide have signed on to participate, though more may join if it catches on. In the meantime, you can use AskThem’s handy map to find local elected officials and see a listing of all of the questions to date across the USA — or pose your own.

 

Lawmakers release proposed draft to codify US CTO role, create U.S. Digital Government Office (DGO)

After months of discussion regarding how the government can avoid another healthcare.gov debacle, legislative proposals are starting to emerge in Washington. Last year, FITARA gathered steam before running into a legislative impasse. Today, a new draft bill introduced for discussion in the United House of Representatives proposes specific reforms that substantially parallel those made by the United Kingdom after a similar technology debacle in its National Health Service.

The draft bill is embedded below.

The subtext for the ‘Reforming Federal Procurement of Information Technology Act’ (RFP-IT), is the newfound awareness in Congress and the nation at large driven by the issues with Healthcare.gov that something is profoundly amiss in the way that the federal government buys, builds and maintains technology.

“Studies show that 94 percent of major government IT projects between 2003 and 2012 came in over budget, behind schedule, or failed completely, said Representative Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA), ranking member of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, and co-sponsor of RFP-IT, in a statement. “In an $80 billion sector of our federal government’s budget, this is an absolutely unacceptable waste of taxpayer dollars. Furthermore, thousands of pages of procurement regulations discourage small innovative businesses from even attempting to navigate the rules. Our draft bill puts proven best practices to work by instituting a White House office of IT procurement and gives all American innovators a fair shake at competing for valuable federal IT contracts by lowering the burden of entry.”

Specifically, RFP-IT would:

  • Make the position of the U.S. chief technology officer and Presidential Innovation Fellows program permanent
  • Create a U.S. Digital Government Office (DGO) that would not only govern the country’s mammoth federal information technology project portfolio more effectively but actively build and maintain aspects of it
  • Increase the size of a contract for IT services allowable under the Small Business Act from $100,000 to $500,000
  • Create a U.S. DGO fund supported by 5% of the fees collected by executive agencies for various types of contracts

“In the 21st century, effective governance is inextricably linked with how well government leverages technology to serve its citizens,” said Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA), ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee, and co-sponsor of RFP-IT, in a statement. “Despite incremental improvements in federal IT management over the years, the bottom line is that large-scale federal IT program failures continue to waste taxpayers’ dollars, while jeopardizing our Nation’s ability to carry out fundamental constitutional responsibilities, from conducting a census to securing our borders. Our RFP-IT discussion draft recognizes that transforming how the federal government procures critical IT assets will likely require bolstering ongoing efforts to comprehensively strengthen general federal IT management practices with targeted enhancements that promote innovative and bold procurement strategies from the White House on down.”

The legislative proposal earned qualified praise from Clay Johnson, former Presidential Innovation Fellow and CEO of the Department for Better Technology, whose advocacy for reforming government IT procurement and fixing the issues behind Healthcare.gov seemed to be on every cable news channel and editorial page last fall and winter.

“This, I think, really works well alongside FITARA, which calls for increased agency CIO authority,” wrote Johnson. “What will hopefully end up happening if both bills pass, is that good talent can get inside of government, and agencies that perform well can operate independently, and agencies that don’t can be pulled back in and reformed, while still having operational continuity (meaning: while that reform is happening, IT projects can still be done well, and run by the DGO).”

In 2014, digital government supports open government. What’s unclear is whether this proposal from two Democratic lawmakers can gain a Republican co-sponsor in the GOP-controlled legislative body or if a federal IT reform-minded Senator like Mr. Carper or Mr. Booker will take it up in the Senate.

This is singular bill isn’t a panacea, however, Johnson emphasized, pointing to the need to fix SAM.gov, the error-prone website for contractors to register with the federal government, and reforms to registration for “set-aside” business.

“We’re not sure how Congress writes a ‘stop throwing errors when a user clicks submit on sam.gov’ law,” wrote Johnson. “That’s going to take hearings, and most likely, a digital government office to fix. And we think this is a bill that complements Issa’s FITARA. Since this bill is at the discussion draft stage, perhaps soon we’ll see some Republicans jump on board.

UPDATE:
On July 30, RFP-IT was officially introduced. (Full text of the bill, via Rep. Eshoo’s office): “The Reforming Federal Procurement of Information Technology (RFP-IT) Act, introduced by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), Ranking Member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Ranking Member of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee, Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), Chairman of the Small Business Subcommittee on Contracting and Workforce, and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Ranking Member of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Energy Subcommittee, and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.)”

Here’s the quick summary of revised RFP-IT Act:

1) It would officially establish a Digital Government Office within the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), with the U.S. CIO at its head as a Senate-confirmed presidential appointee, reporting to the head of the OMB, shifting from “electronic government” to “digital government.”
2) It would codify the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.
3) It would expand competition for federal IT contracting under a simplified process that would ease the regulatory and compliance burden upon smaller companies bidding, bumping the threshold for information tech projects up to $500,000.
4) Establish a digital service pilot program
5) Direct the General Services Administrator to conduct an in-depth analysis of IT Schedule 70.
6) Direct the Comptroller General of the United States to produce three reports to Congress within 2 years of the law passing, on 1) the effectiveness of the 18F program of the General Services Administration, 2) IT Schedule 70, and 3) “challenges and barriers to entry for small business technology firms.”