Digital democracy reforms tends to advance or retreat in fits and starts, but when exigent circumstances require more from us and our governments, change can happen unexpectedly. On May 26, I requested an absentee ballot, intending to cast my vote … Continue reading
Category Archives: local government
What cities can learn from Gainesville’s experiment with radical transparency
There’s much to be learned from the experience of the city Gainesville, Florida, where a commissioners voted in 2014 to publish the public’s email correspondence with them and the mayor online.
More than five years on, the city government and its residents have are ground zero for an tumultuous experiment in hyper-transparent government in the 21st century, as Brad Harper reports for the Montgomery Advertiser.
It’s hard not to read this story and immediately see a core flaw in the design of this digital governance system: the city government is violating the public’s expectation of privacy by publishing email online.
“Smart cities” will look foolish if they adopt hyper-transparent government without first ensuring the public they serve understands whether their interactions with city government will be records and published online.
Unexpected sunshine will also dissolve public trust if there’s a big gap between the public’s expectations of privacy and the radical transparency that comes from publishing the emails residents send to agencies online.
Residents should be offered multiple digital options for interacting with governments. In addition to exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and petition on the phone, in written communications with a given government, or in person at hearing or town halls, city (and state) governments should break down three broad categories of inquiries into different channels:
Emergency Requests: Emergency calls go to 911 from all other channels. Calls to 911 are recorded but private by default. Calls should not be disclosed online without human review.
Service Requests: Non-emergency requests should go 311, through a city call center or through 311 system. Open data with 311 requests is public by default and are disclosed online in real-time.
Information Requests: People looking for information should be able to find a city website through a Web search or social media. A city.gov should use a /open page that includes open data, news, contact information for agencies and public information officers, and a virtual agent or “chat bot” to guide their search.
If proactive disclosures aren’t sufficient, then there should be way to make Freedom of Information Act requests under the law if the information people seek is not online. But public correspondence with agencies should be private by default.
Shadows and celebrations for Sunshine Week 2019
Sunshine Week 2019 may officially begin on March 10, but it’s unofficially kicking off tomorrow with the National Freedom of Information Day Conference at the Newseum in DC.
For those unfamiliar with this annual celebration of open government around the United States, Sunshine Week was founded over a decade ago by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who now support it with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Sunshine Week always falls around President James Madison’s birthday on March 16. Madison is generally regarded as the forefather of open government in the United States, as evidenced by this memorable letter in 1822:
“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” he wrote.
In 2018, the “information darkness” of the Trump administration led to ignominy, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation’ “Foilies” to the Society for Professional Journalists’ Black Hole Award to the National Security Archives’ Rosemary Awards.
In 2019, transparency and accountability have taken on additional context during the Trump administration, which has continued to be allergic to transparency, rife with conflicts of interest, and hostile to the essential role journalism plays in a democracy. When the President of the United States repeatedly calls journalists “the enemy of the people,” a disinformation virus is weakening our body politic.
Despite the enactment of a historic open government data bill, the state of open government (data) remains divided, at risk, and underfunded in the United States.
After years of delays and democratic regression, the US government released a weak open government plan for the Open Government Partnership that was not responsive to the demands of this moment. The Open Government Partnership’s researchers found backsliding in the USA, confirming what watchdogs have been highlighting daily about this administration since January 2017.
Every Sunshine Week is an opportunity to take stock of how federal, state and local governments are complying with public records, public meetings laws, and ethics statutes with disclosure requirements, from city halls to legislatures. As the National Security Archive highlighted, the state of the Freedom of Information Act is cloudy:
Representative Elijah Cummings, D-Md, and Senators Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, recently sent a stern letter to the Interior Department reprimanding the agency for its efforts to weaken its FOIA regulations and urging it to reconsider the rule change. The proposed rule changes which garnered more than 65,000 comments – include allowing the DOI to preemptively reject what it defines as “unreasonably burdensome” requests, the possibility of imposing a monthly limit to the number of either pages or requests from a single requester the agency will process, and a host of other changes that may make it more difficult to obtain fee waivers and expedited processing.
The bipartisan group of lawmakers, all seasoned FOIA champions, told the Interior Department, “We write to express significant concern with the rule recently proposed by the Department of the Interior (DOI) concerning its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) procedures. The proposed rule appears to restrict public access to DOI’s records and delay the processing of FOIA requests in violation of the letter and spirit of FOIA. The American people have the right to access information from DOI, and the proposed rule needlessly encroaches on that right.”
The context for oversight of open government at the national level for this year, however, is different. 2018 midterm elections delivered a 116th Congress that brought with it a commitment to oversight that was sorely lacking in the last session. A core element of that oversight has been public hearings that hold public officials and corporate executives accountable for their service or services.
That will continue next week, when, as has been the tradition in past years, the U.S. House Oversight Committee will be holding a hearing during Sunshine Week in 2019, considering the Freedom of Information Act and transparency under the Trump administration.
There will be many other Sunshine Week events around DC as well. The Department of Justice’s awards for FOIA officers. The National Archives celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Office of Government Information Services (aka the federal FOIA ombudman) during the day on March 11. That night, there will be a panel discussion on how to obtain and improve coverage of climate data at the National Press Club hosted by its Journalism Institute and Freedom of the Press Committee.
There will be a DC Open Government Summit and a forum on science in the Trump era put on by the Government Accountability Project, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project on the evening of March 12.
Despite the threats to American democracy at the federal level and ongoing challenges to open government in the states and cities, there’s still much to celebrate in 2019.
The free press, independent judiciary, and watchdog organizations have continued to provide transparency when elected officials and civil servants have tried to make decisions in secrecy, shedding light on corruption, fraud, waste, abuse and incompetence.
Their combined efforts to bring in sunshine in government across American civil society have been a bulwark against tyranny and corruption in the United States and around the world. Thank you to everyone who continues to support, defend and extend the public’s right to know in the 21st century.
Federal judge rules public officials blocking the public on Twitter violates the First Amendment
When the president or others with access to his Twitter account block American citizens from following @realDonaldTrump based upon the viewpoints they express, it violates their First Amendment rights.
In a historic decision, a federal judge ruled today that it is unconstitutional for President Donald J. Trump to block his critics on Twitter, as portions of @realDonaldTrump account constitute a public forum, which means blocking them based on their political speech violates the First Amendment:
We hold that portions of the @realDonaldTrump account — the “interactive space” where Twitter users may directly engage with the content of the President’s tweets — are properly analyzed under the “public forum” doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court, that such space is a designated public forum, and that the blocking of the plaintiffs based on their political speech constitutes viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment. In so holding, we reject the defendants’ contentions that the First Amendment does not apply in this case and that the President’s personal First Amendment interests supersede those of plaintiffs.
This is a historic win for the First Amendment and the public’s right to access official statements and participate in public discourse regarding those statements.
As I highlighted last year, tweets by @realDonaldTrump are official statements from the President, which means that the public has a right to equal access and participation around them, even when their speech is hosted on a private platform. The public interest argument was clear then:
“A president’s statements are not just made for people who voted for him or support his policies or politics.
Unfortunately, Trump is not alone: other local, state and federal politicians are also blocking their constituents on Twitter.
Doing so sends the wrong message to the public about whom they serve. Listening and responding to members of the public that they represent is a minimum expectation for public servants in any democratic state, whether those voices are raised in protest, petition, email, send letters or reply on social media. While there are practical challenges to making sense of millions of emails, tweets, call or letters, blocks are not the solution to filter failure.”
No President should block Americans from reading his official statements, replying or interacting with others here.
No other public servant should block constituents, either, from city councilors and alderman to judges, governors and mayors.
On Twitter, officials and politicians who have blocked constituents now consider policies to Mute accounts if someone is being vile or abusive, with transparency about guidelines and use. Users who abuse one another are already subject to accountability for violations of @Twitter rules, which could be reported by officials or civil society.
As the judge noted, addressing President Trump blocking people is legally tricky.
While we reject defendants’ categorical assertion that injunctive relief cannot ever be awarded against the President, we nonetheless conclude that it is unnecessary to enter that legal thicket at this time. A declaratory judgment should be sufficient, as no government official — including the President — is above the law, and all government officials are presumed to follow the law as has been declared.
President Trump should acknowledge the ruling and follow the law, unblocking everyone. Whether he’ll embrace such a change on his social platform of choice isn’r clear at all — especially given his refusal to follow security protocols for his iPhone, despite the risk of nation states spying on him.
In the wake of this ruling, the president should acknowledge the ruling in a video & tweeted post, work with Twitter to unblock everyone, and apologize for engaging in viewpoint-based discrimination and chilling the speech of his constituents, the American public.
But I doubt Trump will.
So, here’s a different idea. It would be an unprecedented move for an unprecedented presidency, but I hope Jack Dorsey and his board will seriously consider removing the Block feature from all official government accounts verified by Twitter.
If code is law and law is now encoded, one way for Twitter to embrace its DNA as a 21st century platform for free speech is to make open, public access to official statements the default, putting pressure on Facebook, Google and others to follow.
Why it’s past time for governments to fix public comments online – and how
The Bot Wars, begun they have. Over the past two years, automated social media accounts and fraudulent regulatory filings have been used by anonymous parties to obscure public opinion, distort public discourse, and corrupt the integrity of rulemaking in the … Continue reading
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.)
“Trust in government is the reference that people bring to their answers on open government and open data,” said John Horrigan, the principal researcher on the survey, in an interview. “That’s the frame of reference people bring. A lot of people still aren’t familiar with the notion, and because they don’t have a framework about open data, trust dominates, and you get the response that we got.”
While majorities of the American public use applications and services that use government data, from GPS to weather to transit to health apps, relatively few are aware that data produced and released by government drives them.
“The challenge for activists or advocates in this space will be to try to make the link between government data and service delivery outcomes,” said Horrigan. “If the goals are to make government perform better and maybe reverse the historic tide of lowered trust, then the goal is to make improvements real in delivery. If this is framed just as argument over data quality, it would go into an irresolvable back and forth into the quality of government data collection. If you can cast it beyond whether unemployment statistics are correct or not but instead of how government services improve or saved money, you have a chance of speaking to wether government data makes things better.”
The public knowledge gap regarding this connection is one of the most important points that proponents, advocates, journalists and publishers who wish to see funding for open data initiatives be maintained or Freedom of Information Act reforms pass.
“I think a key implication of the findings is that – if advocates of government data initiatives hope that data will improve people’s views about government’s efficacy – efforts by intermediaries or governments to tie the open data/open government to the government’s collection of data may be worthwhile,” said Horrigan. “Such public awareness efforts might introduce a new “mental model” for the public about what these initiatives are all about. Right now, at least as the data for this report suggests, people do not have a clear sense of government data initiatives. And that means the context for how they think about them has a lot to do with their baseline level of trust in the government – particularly the federal government.”
Horrigan suggested thinking about this using a metaphor familiar to anyone who’s attended a middle school dance.
“Because people do engage with the government online, just through services, it’s like getting them on a big dance floor,” he suggested. “They’re on the floor, where you want them, but they’re on the other part of it. They don’t know that there’s another part of the dance that they’d like to see or be drawn to that they’d want to be in. There’s an opportunity to draw them. The good news that they’re on the dance floor, the bad news is they don’t know about all of it. Someone might want to go over and talk to them an explain that if you go over here you might have a better experience.”
Following are 13 more key insights about the public’s views regarding the Internet, open data and government. For more, make sure to read the full report on open government data, which is full of useful discussion of its findings.
One additional worth noting before you dive in: this survey is representative of American adults, not just the attitudes of people who are online. “The Americans Trends Panel was recruited to be nationally representative, and is weighted in such a way (as nearly all surveys are) to ensure responses reflect the general population,” said Horrigan. “The overall rate of internet use is a bit higher than we typically record, but within the margin of error. So we are comfortable that the sample is representative of the general population.”
Growing number of Americans adults are using the Internet to get information and data
While Pew cautions that the questions posed in this survey are different from another conducted in 2010, the trend is clear: the way citizens communicate with government now includes the Internet, and the way government communicates with citizens increasingly includes digital channels. That use now includes getting information or data about federal, state and local government.
College-educated Americans and millennials are more hopeful about open data releases
Despite disparities in trust and belief in outcomes, there is no difference in online activities between members of political parties
Wealthier Americans are comfortable with open data about real estate transactions but not individual mortgages
This attitude is generally true across all income levels.
College graduates, millennials and higher-income adults are more likely to use data to monitor government performance
About a third of college grads, young people and wealthy Americans have checked out performance data or government contracting data, or about 50% more than other age groups, lower income or non-college grads.
The ways American adults interact with government services and data digitally are expanding
But very few American adults think government data sharing is currently very effective:
A small minority of Americans, however, have a great deal of trust in federal government at all:
In fact, increasing individual use of data isn’t necessarily correlated with belief in positive outcomes:
Pew grouped the 3,212 respondents into four quadrants, seen below, with a vertical axis ranging from optimism to skepticism and a horizontal axis that described use. Notably, more use of data doesn’t correlate to more belief in positive outcomes.
“In my mind, you have to get to the part of the story where you show government ran better as a result,” said Horrigan. “You have to get to a position where these stories are being told. Then, at least, while you’re opening up new possibilities for cynicism or skepticism, you’re at least focused on the data as opposed to trust in government.”
Belief in positive outcomes from the release of open data is correlated with a belief that your voice matters in this republic:
If you trust the federal government, you’re more likely to see the benefit in open data:
But belief in positive outcomes from the release of open data is related to political party affiliation:
Put simply, Democrats trust the federal government more, and that relates to how people feel about open data released by that government.
Political party has an impact upon the view of open data in the federal government
One challenge is that if President Barack Obama says “open data” again, he may further associate the release of government data with Democratic policies, despite bipartisan support for open government data in Congress. If a Republican is elected President in November 2016, however, this particular attitude may well shift.
“That’s definitely the historic pattern, tracked over time, dating to 1958,” said Horrigan, citing a Pew study. “If if holds and a Republican wins the White House, you’d expect it to flip. Let’s say that we get a Republican president and he continues some of these initiatives to make government perform better, which I expect to be the case. The Bush administration invested in e-government, and used the tools available to them at the time. The Obama administration picked it up, used the new tools available, and got better. President [X] could say this stuff works.”
The unresolved question that we won’t know the answer to until well into 2017, if then, is whether today’s era of hyper-partisanship will change this historic pattern.
There’s bipartisan agreement on the need to use government data better in government. Democratss want to improve efficiency and effectiveness, Republicans want to do the same, but often in the context of demonstrating that programs or policies are ineffective and thereby shrink government. If the country can rise about partisan politics to innovate government, awareness of the utility of releases will grow, along with support for open data will grow.
“Many Americans are not much attuned to government data initiatives, which is why they think about them (in the attitudinal questions) through the lens of whether they trust government,” said Horrigan. “Even the positive part of the attitudinal questions (i.e., the data initiatives can improve accountability) has a dollop of concern, in that even the positive findings can be seen as people saying: ‘These government data initiatives might be good because they will shine more light on government – which really needs it because government doesn’t perform well enough.’ That is an opportunity of course – especially for intermediaries that might, through use of data, help the public understand how/whether government is being accountable to citizens.”
That opportunity is cause for hope.
“Whether it is ‘traditional’ online access for doing transactions/info searches with respect to government, or using mobile apps that rely on government data, people engage with government online, “said Horrigan. “That creates the opportunity for advocates of government data initiatives to draw citizens further down the path of understanding (and perhaps better appreciating) the possible impacts of such initiatives.”
Open government advocates: terms and conditions mean DC open data is fauxpen data
Earlier 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.
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.
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.
Dear @murielbowser & @DavidCataniaDC: if elected, how would your administration approach open data in #DC? http://t.co/erog8aHaxA #opengov
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) September 10, 2014
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.
@digiphile @OpenGovHub New terms and conditions coming shortly.
— DC.Gov (@DCGovWeb) September 17, 2014
Data journalism and the changing landscape for policy making in the age of networked transparency
This morning, I gave a short talk on data journalism and the changing landscape for policy making in the age of networked transparency at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC, hosted by the Commons Lab.
At @TheWilsonCenter to give a talk on research on data journalism http://t.co/u0peMY5bnS Humbling personal milestone. pic.twitter.com/Aum103upr2
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) July 30, 2014
Video from the event is online at the Wilson Center website. Unfortunately, I found that I didn’t edit my presentation down enough for my allotted time. I made it to slide 84 of 98 in 20 minutes and had to skip the 14 predictions and recommendations section. While many of the themes I describe in those 14 slides came out during the roundtable question and answer period, they’re worth resharing here, in the presentation I’ve embedded below:
[REPORT] On data journalism, democracy, open government and press freedom
On May 30, I gave a keynote talk on my research on the art and science of data journalism at the first Tow Center research conference at Columbia Journalism School in New York City. I’ve embedded the video below:
My presentation is embedded below, if you want to follow along or visit the sites and services I described.
Here’s an observation drawn from an extensive section on open government that should be of interest to readers of this blog:
“Proactive, selective open data initiatives by government focused on services that are not balanced by support for press freedoms and improved access can fairly be criticized as “openwashing” or “fauxpen government.”
Data journalists who are frequently faced with heavily redacted document releases or reams of blurry PDFs are particularly well placed to make those critiques.”
My contribution was only one part of the proceedings for “Quantifying Journalism: Metrics, Data and Computation,” which you can catch up through the Tow Center’s live blog or TechPresident’s coverage of measuring the impact of journalism.
When practicing data journalism, always remember xkcd. #towtalk pic.twitter.com/2mFnsvXgfD
— Michael Keller (@mhkeller) May 30, 2014
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:
DCs #OpenGov office commends @cmdgrosso @FoundOpenGov 4 launch of #MadisonDC-free tool 4 citizen participation in gov http://t.co/5ISqx0LFMW
— DCOPENGOV (@DCOPENGOV) May 16, 2014
Councilman Grosso further engaged the public on Twitter this afternoon, inviting public comment on his proposed legislation.
@maarston Here's the link, please add these comments to the bill directly! http://t.co/zDel2fYQSk Thanks for your interest! #opengov
— David Grosso (@cmdgrosso) May 16, 2014
This post has been updated to include more statements and social media updates.