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.

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.

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

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

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

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

Half empty or half full? Mixed reactions to Pew research on open data and open government

Yesterday, I wrote up 15 key insights from the Pew Internet and Life Project’s new research on the American public’s attitude towards open data and open government. If you missed it, what people think about government data and the potential impact of releasing it is heavily influenced by the prevailing low trust in government and their politics.

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Media coverage of the survey reflected the skepticism of the reporters (“Most Americans don’t think government transparency matters a damn“) or of the public (“Who cares about open data” and “Americans not impressed by open government initiatives“). This photo by Pete Souza below might be an apt image for this feeling:

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Other stories pulled out individual elements of the research (“Open data on criminals and teachers is a-okay, say most US citizens” or mixed results (“People Like U.S. Open Data Initiatives, But Think Government Could Do More” and “Sorry, open data: Americans just aren’t that into you“) or general doubts about an unfamiliar topic (“Many Americans Doubt Government Open Data Efforts“). At least one editor’s headline suggested that the results were an indictment of everything government does online: (“Americans view government’s online services and public data sharing as a resounding ‘meh’.) Meh, indeed.

As usual, keep a salt shaker handy as you browse the headlines and read the original source. The research itself is more nuanced than those headlines suggest, as my interview with the lead researcher on the survey, John Horrigan, hopefully made clear.

Over at TechPresident, editor-in-chief Micah Sifry saw a glass half full:

  • Digging deeper into the Pew report, it’s interesting to find that beyond the “ardent optimists” (17% of adults) who embrace the benefit of open government data and use it often, and the “committed cynics” (20%) who use online government resources but think they aren’t improving government performance much, there’s a big group of “buoyant bystanders” (27%) who like the idea that open data can improve government’s performance but themselves aren’t using the internet much to engage with government. (Heads up Kate Krontiris, who’s been studying the “interested bystander.”)
  • It’s not clear how much of the bystander problem is also an access problem. According to a different new analysis done by the Pew Research Center, about five million American households with school-age children–nearly one in five–do not have high-speed internet access at home. This “broadband gap” is worst among households with incomes under $50,000 a year.

Reaction from foundations that have advocated, funded or otherwise supported open government data efforts went deeper. Writing for the Sunlight Foundation, communications director Gabriela Schneider saw the results from the survey in a rosy (sun)light, seeing public optimism about open government and open data.

People are optimistic that open data initiatives can make government more accountable. But, many surveyed by Pew are less sure open data will improve government performance. Relatedly, Americans have not quite engaged very deeply with government data to monitor performance, so it remains to be seen if changes in engagement will affect public attitudes.

That’s something we at Sunlight hope to positively affect, particularly as we make new inroads in setting new standards for how the federal government discloses its work online. And as Americans shift their attention away from Congress and more toward their own backyards, we know our newly expanded work as part of the What Works Cities initiative will better engage the public, make government more effective and improve people’s lives.

Jonathan Sotsky, director of strategy and assessment for the Knight Foundation, saw a trust conundrum for government in the results:

Undoubtedly, a greater focus is needed on explaining to the public how increasing the accessibility and utility of government data can drive accountability, improve government service delivery and even provide the grist for new startup businesses. The short-term conundrum government data initiatives face is that while they ultimately seek to increase government trustworthiness, they may struggle to gain structure because the present lack of trust in government undermines their perceived impact.

Steven Clift, the founder of e-democracy.org, views this survey as a wakeup call for open data advocates.

One reason I love services like CityGram, GovDelivery, etc. is that they deliver government information (often in a timely way) to the public based on their preferences/subscriptions. As someone who worked in “e-government” for the State of Minnesota, I think most people just want the “information” that matters to them and the public has no particular attachment to the idea of “open data” allowing third parties to innovate or make this data available. I view this survey as a huge wake up call to #opengov advocates on the #opendata side that the field needs to provide far more useful stuff to the general public and care a lot more about outreach and marketing to reach people with the good stuff already available.

Mark Headd, former chief data officer for the City of Philadelphia and current developer evangelist for Accela software, saw the results as a huge opportunity to win hearts and minds:

The modern open data and civic hacking movements were largely born out of the experience of cities. Washington DC, New York City and Chicago were among the first governments to actively recruit outside software developers to build solutions on top of their open data. And the first governments to partner with Code for America – and the majority over the life of the organization’s history – have been cities.

How do school closings impact individual neighborhoods? How do construction permit approvals change the character of communities? How is green space distributed across neighborhoods in a city? Where are vacant properties in a neighborhood – who owns them and are there opportunities for reuse?

These are all the kinds of questions we need people living and working in neighborhoods to help us answer. And we need more open data from local governments to do this.

If you see other blog posts or media coverage that’s not linked above, please let me know. I storified some reactions on Twitter but I’m certain that I missed conversations or opinions.

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There are two additional insights from Pew that I didn’t write about yesterday that are worth keeping in mind with respect to how how Americans are thinking about the release of public data back to the public. First, it’s unclear whether the public realizes they’re using apps and services built upon government data, despite sizable majorities doing so.

Second, John Horrigan told me that survey respondents universally are not simply asking for governments to make the data easier to understand so that they can figure out what I want to figure out: what people really want is intermediaries to help them make sense of the data.

“We saw a fair number of people pleading in comments for better apps to make the data make sense,” said Horrigan. “When they went online, they couldn’t get budget data to work. When the found traffic data, couldn’t make it work. There were comments on both sides of the ledger. Those that think government did an ok job wish they did this. Those that thin government is doing a horrible job also wish they did this.”

This is the opportunity that Headd referred to, and the reason that data journalism is the critical capacity that democratic governments which genuinely want to see returns on accountability and transparency must ensure can flourish in civil society.

If a Republican is elected as the next President of the United States, we’ll see if public views shift on other fronts.

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

Today, a new survey released by the Pew Research Internet and Life Project provided one of the most comprehensive snapshots into the attitudes of the American public towards open data and open government to date. In general, more people surveyed are guardedly optimistic about the outcomes and release of open data, although that belief does vary with their political views, trust in government, and specific areas.  (Full disclosure: I was consulted by Pew researchers regarding useful survey questions to pose.)

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“Trust in government is the reference that people bring to their answers on open government and open data,” said John Horrigan, the principal researcher on the survey, in an interview. “That’s the frame of reference people bring. A lot of people still aren’t familiar with the notion, and because they don’t have a framework about open data, trust dominates, and you get the response that we got.”

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While majorities of the American public use applications and services that use government data, from GPS to weather to transit to health apps, relatively few are aware that data produced and released by government drives them.

“The challenge for activists or advocates in this space will be to try to make the link between government data and service delivery outcomes,” said Horrigan. “If the goals are to make government perform better and maybe reverse the historic tide of lowered trust, then the goal is to make improvements real in delivery. If this is framed just as argument over data quality, it would go into an irresolvable back and forth into the quality of government data collection. If you can cast it beyond whether unemployment statistics are correct or not but instead of how government services improve or saved money, you have a chance of speaking to wether government data makes things better.”

The public knowledge gap regarding this connection is one of the most important points that proponents, advocates, journalists and publishers who wish to see funding for open data initiatives be maintained or Freedom of Information Act reforms pass.

“I think a key implication of the findings is that – if advocates of government data initiatives hope that data will improve people’s views about government’s efficacy – efforts by intermediaries or governments to tie the open data/open government to the government’s collection of data may be worthwhile,” said Horrigan. “Such public awareness efforts might introduce a new “mental model” for the public about what these initiatives are all about. Right now, at least as the data for this report suggests, people do not have a clear sense of government data initiatives. And that means the context for how they think about them has a lot to do with their baseline level of trust in the government – particularly the federal government.”

Horrigan suggested thinking about this using a metaphor familiar to anyone who’s attended a middle school dance.

“Because people do engage with the government online, just through services, it’s like getting them on a big dance floor,” he suggested. “They’re on the floor, where you want them, but they’re on the other part of it. They don’t know that there’s another part of the dance that they’d like to see or be drawn to that they’d want to be in. There’s an opportunity to draw them. The good news that they’re on the dance floor, the bad news is they don’t know about all of it. Someone might want to go over and talk to them an explain that if you go over here you might have a better experience.”

Following are 13 more key insights about the public’s views regarding the Internet, open data and government. For more, make sure to read the full report on open government data, which is full of useful discussion of its findings.

One additional worth noting before you dive in: this survey is representative of American adults, not just the attitudes of people who are online. “The Americans Trends Panel was recruited to be nationally representative, and is weighted in such a way (as nearly all surveys are) to ensure responses reflect the general population,” said Horrigan. “The overall rate of internet use is a bit higher than we typically record, but within the margin of error. So we are comfortable that the sample is representative of the general population.”

Growing number of Americans adults are using the Internet to get information and data

While Pew cautions that the questions posed in this survey are different from another conducted in 2010, the trend is clear: the way citizens communicate with government now includes the Internet, and the way government communicates with citizens increasingly includes digital channels. That use now includes getting information or data about federal, state and local government.

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

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

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

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This attitude is generally true across all income levels.

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College graduates, millennials and higher-income adults are more likely to use data to monitor government performance

About a third of college grads, young people and wealthy Americans have checked out performance data or government contracting data, or about 50% more than other age groups, lower income or non-college grads.

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

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

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

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In fact, increasing individual use of data isn’t necessarily correlated with belief in positive outcomes:

Pew grouped the 3,212 respondents into four quadrants, seen below, with a vertical axis ranging from optimism to skepticism and a horizontal axis that described use. Notably, more use of data doesn’t correlate to more belief in positive outcomes.

“In my mind, you have to get to the part of the story where you show government ran better as a result,” said Horrigan. “You have to get to a position where these stories are being told. Then, at least, while you’re opening up new possibilities for cynicism or skepticism, you’re at least focused on the data as opposed to trust in government.”

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Instead…

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

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

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

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

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Political party has an impact upon the view of open data in the federal government

One challenge is that if President Barack Obama says “open data” again, he may further associate the release of government data with Democratic policies, despite bipartisan support for open government data in Congress. If a Republican is elected President in November 2016, however, this particular attitude may well shift.

“That’s definitely the historic pattern, tracked over time, dating to 1958,” said Horrigan, citing a Pew study. “If if holds and a Republican wins the White House, you’d expect it to flip. Let’s say that we get a Republican president and he continues some of these initiatives to make government perform better, which I expect to be the case. The Bush administration invested in e-government, and used the tools available to them at the time. The Obama administration picked it up, used the new tools available, and got better. President [X] could say this stuff works.”

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The unresolved question that we won’t know the answer to until well into 2017, if then, is whether today’s era of hyper-partisanship will change this historic pattern.

There’s bipartisan agreement on the need to use government data better in government. Democratss want to improve efficiency and effectiveness, Republicans want to do the same, but often in the context of demonstrating that programs or policies are ineffective and thereby shrink government. If the country can rise about partisan politics to innovate government, awareness of the utility of releases will grow, along with support for open data will grow.

“Many Americans are not much attuned to government data initiatives, which is why they think about them (in the attitudinal questions) through the lens of whether they trust government,” said Horrigan. “Even the positive part of the attitudinal questions (i.e., the data initiatives can improve accountability) has a dollop of concern, in that even the positive findings can be seen as people saying: ‘These government data initiatives might be good because they will shine more light on government – which really needs it because government doesn’t perform well enough.’ That is an opportunity of course – especially for intermediaries that might, through use of data, help the public understand how/whether government is being accountable to citizens.”

That opportunity is cause for hope.

“Whether it is ‘traditional’ online access for doing transactions/info searches with respect to government, or using mobile apps that rely on government data, people engage with government online, “said Horrigan. “That creates the opportunity for advocates of government data initiatives to draw citizens further down the path of understanding (and perhaps better appreciating) the possible impacts of such initiatives.”

USASpending.gov addresses some data issues, adds Github issues tracker for feedback

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On April 1st, some reporters, open government advocates and people in industry may have hoped that a new redesign of USASpending.gov, the flagship financial transparency website of the United States government, was just a poorly conceived April Fool’s joke. Unfortunately, an official statement about the USASpending.gov redesign at the U.S. Treasury’s blog confirmed that the redesign was real. Analysts, media and businesses that rely on the contracting data on the site were loudly decried the decreased functionality of USASpending.gov.

A week later, there’s a still no evidence of deliberate intent on the part of Treasury not to publish accurate spending data or break the tool, despite headlines about rolling back transparency. Rather, it looks more likely that there were been a number of mistakes or even unavoidable errors made in the transitioning the site and data from a bankrupt federal contractor. There was certainly poor communication with the business community and advocates who use the site, a reality that Luke Fretwell helpfully suggested at Govfresh that other government agencies work to avoid next time.

Today, as Fretwell first reported, the federal government launched a new repository for tracking issues on USASpending.gov on Github, the social coding site that’s become an increasingly important platform for 18F, which committed to developing free and open source software by default last year.

In an email to the White House’s open government Google Group, Corinna Zarek, the senior advisor for open government in the Obama administration, followed up on earlier concerns about the redesign:

The USAspending team has been working to improve the usability of the site and has made some great strides to make it easier for average citizens to navigate information. But at the same time, we all understand that some of our expert users (like a lot of you) seek more technical information and the team is striving to meet your needs as well.

This is definitely a work in progress so please keep working with the team as it iterates on the best ways to improve function of the site while maintaining the content you seek. Your initial comments have been really helpful and the USAspending team is already working to address some of them.

Zarek also said that several of the problems with data that people have reported been addressed, including the capacity to download larger data sets and define specific dates in search, and asked for more feedback.

Specifically, this week the team addressed data export issues to allow the ability to specify date ranges to download data, added the bulk file format API, and modified the download capability so larger datasets can be downloaded. Additionally, data archives are being added continually. This week, they loaded the 2014 and 2015 delta files that show the new transactions in the last month. You can keep track of the ongoing improvements on the “What’s new” page.

Please keep sharing your feedback and continue working with the USAspending team as it makes improvements to the site. You can do this through the site’s contact page or on the new Github page where you can report issues and track them in the open.

If you find bugs, let the feds know about them on Github so that everyone can see the issues and how they’re addressed. As Mollie Walker reported for FierceGovernmentIT, there’s still missing functionality yet to be restored.

[Image Credit: Govfresh, via USASpending.gov]

In a step towards sunlight, United States begins to publish a national data inventory

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Last year, a successful Freedom of Information request for the United States enterprise data inventory by the Sunlight Foundation was a big win for open government, nudging Uncle Sam towards a better information policy through some creative legal arguments. Today, the federal government started releasing its enterprise indices at data.gov. You can browse the data for individual agencies, like the feed for the Office for Personnel Management, using a JSON viewer like this one.

“Access to this data will empower journalists, government officials, civic technologists, innovators and the public to better hold government accountable,” said Sunlight Foundation president Chris Gates, in a statement. “Previously, it was next to impossible to know what and how much data the government has, and this is an unprecedented window into its internal workings. Transparency is a bedrock principle for democracy, and the federal government’s response to Sunlight’s Freedom of Information request shows a strong commitment to open data. We expect to see each of these agencies continue to proactively release their data inventories.”

Understanding what data an organization holds is a critical first step in deciding how it should be stored, analyzed or published, shifting towards thinking about data as an asset. That’s why President Barack Obama’s executive order requiring federal agencies to catalog the data they have was a big deal. When that organization is a democratic government and the data in question was created using taxpayer funds, releasing the inventory of the data sets that it holds is a basic expression of open and accountable government.

With hours of sunshine left, passage of FOIA reform in the U.S. House hangs in the balance

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Update: The House Majority Leader didn’t put S.2520 on Thursday’s legislative calendar (PDF). Per Congress.gov, it was “held at the desk.” We can’t pronounce it dead until 3:30 PM, as the Speaker of the House could bring the bill up by unanimous consent, but FOIA reform in this Congress likely just expired at midnight.

Imagine if an important reform to public access to government information hung in the balance in the United States Congress and the editorial boards of the country’s major newspapers ignored it. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what has happened. Only a few weeks ago, it looked this ‘do nothing Congress’ was actually set to do something: pass much-needed reforms to the Freedom of Information Act. Over the weekend, an unexpected hold in the Senate by Senator Jay Rockefeller put months of bipartisan collaboration in jeopardy. If the U.S. House of Representatives doesn’t schedule a vote tomorrow on the Freedom of Information Improvement Act that passed the Senate on Monday, however, FOIA reform will quietly expire.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is urging the House to pass the bill before the 113th Congress ends.

“This legislation is all about government transparency. If House Republicans want this administration to be more accountable, then they must put it on the suspension calendar without delay. Let’s get it done,” Leahy said. “With the sun about to set on this congressional session, the House should not leave this sunshine bill undone, on the table.  Time is quickly running out, and the House must act without further delay.

Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Ranking Member Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) have also called on the House to pass the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Improvement Act and send it to President Barack Obama after its unanimous passage in the Senate.

“The FOIA Improvement Act will strengthen FOIA, the cornerstone open government law,” Issa and Cummings said, in a joint statement.  “The House unanimously passed companion legislation, H.R. 1211, earlier this year.  The FOIA Improvement Act is a bipartisan bill that, after last night’s passage by the Senate, deserves to be taken up by the House and sent to the President.”

Given that FOIA reform passed the U.S. House unanimously 410-0 in February, why aren’t Speaker of the House John Boehner and Minority Leader Representative Nancy Pelosi bringing S.2520 to a vote? One source tells me that banks have sent lobbyists to the offices of House Financial Services members to oppose the FOIA reform and have told staff there that proprietary regulatory information could be released under the bill. FreedomInfo.org is also reporting that banking lobbyists are opposing the FOIA reform bill. This rumored pressure is in addition to the pressure of the same federal agencies that lobbied against the bill in the Senate.

A similar argument was made in the Senate, and it’s by all accounts a bogus one: Exemption 8 of the FOIA provides protection against such disclosure and the “foreseeable harm” standard embraced by this reform would not result in the release of such regulatory records,  given that there would be a clear foreseeable harm in their release. As FreedomOfInfo.org notes, “the Senate committee report includes lengthy language underscoring the importance of protecting financial information”:

 The paragraph secured support for the bill by the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. Tom Johnson (D-SD), sources said. The relevant section of the report begins with a caution: “Extreme care should be taken with respect to disclosure under Exemption 8 which protects matters that are “contained in or related to examination, operating, or condition reports prepared by, on behalf of, or for the use of an agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of financial institutions.” The quote is from the FOIA.

The report language (minus footnotes) continues:

Currently, financial regulators rely on Exemption 8, and other relevant exemptions in Section 552(b), to protect sensitive information received from regulated entities, or prepared in connection with the regulation of such entities, in fulfilling their goals of ensuring safety and soundness of the financial system, compliance with federal consumer financial law, and promoting fair, orderly, and efficient financial markets. Exemption 8 was intended by Congress, and has been interpreted by the courts, to be very broadly construed to ensure the security of financial institutions and to safeguard the relationship between the banks and their supervising agencies. The D.C. Circuit has gone so far as to state that in Exemption 8 Congress has provided “absolute protection regardless of the circumstances underlying the regulatory agency’s receipt or preparation of examination, operating or condition reports.” Nothing in this legislation shall be interpreted to compromise the stability of any financial institution or the financial system, disrupt the operation of financial markets or undermine consumer protection efforts due to the release of confidential information about individuals or information that a financial institution may have, or encourage the release of confidential information about individuals. This legislation is not intended to lessen the protection under Exemption 8 created by Congress and traditionally afforded by the courts.

There’s a lot at stake here, and almost no time on the legislative clock. It is, as Sean Vitka wrote for the Sunlight Foundation wrote today, literally do-or-die time for FOIA reform. It’s crunch time. It’s now or (almost) never: if Speaker of the House John Boehner doesn’t bring the bill up for a vote by unanimous consent today, the process begins again in the next Congress, but without key sponsors of the FOIA reforms in the House and Senate occupying the chairs of committees.

“For all of his talk about the desire of House Republicans to hold the Obama Administration accountable, we are shocked and angered that Speaker Boehner would decide to allow a bill that strengthens and reforms the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) die without a vote,” said Danielle Brian, chair of OpenTheGovernment.org and executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, in a statement. “S.2520 is a critical bill that strengthens the FOIA watchdog, the Office of Government Information Services, and would force agencies to finally deliver the levels of transparency that the Administration promised on their first day in office in 2009. We call on Speaker Boehner to do the right thing for the American public and call for a vote on S.2520 before the House leaves for the year.”

Update: On Thursday morning, when he was asked about FOIA reform at a press conference, Speaker Boehner said that “I have no knowledge of what the plan is for that bill.”

“We are particularly concerned that Speaker Boehner has now said that he has ‘no knowledge of the plan’ to pass the bipartisan, bicameral FOIA reform bill,” said Brian, in response. “If accountability and making the federal government answer to the public is really a priority for the Republican Caucus, passing this bill should be a priority. The House passed the House companion bill 410 – 0. The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent after the open government community waged an all-out war against a last second attempt by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other independent agencies that are supposed to be on the public’s side to stop the bill. It’s up to Speaker Boehner to put this bill to a vote and create the levels of open government the public needs.”

If the people’s right to know what their government does in their name matters to you, please let your Member of Congress know that FOIA reform matters to you, and let the Speaker of the House know. You can email the Speaker directly through OpenCongress, call him up at (202) 225-6205 and tweet him @SpeakerBoehner. Even if the press won’t represent itself and the people by asking Congress to support the free flow of government information, you can.

Update: FOIA reform failed to pass in the 113th Congress. As Newsweek reported, in an opaque move, Speaker Boehner tabled the government transparency bill. It was never brought up for a vote in the House. Unless the Speaker reconvenes the House, the FOIA bill is likely dead.

“…the fact that the bill was very close and was tabled because of the influence of lobbyists that found a problem in the legislation that didn’t even exist is frustrating not only for those who wanted the bill to pass but for those who want the American democratic process to be a shining light for the world – not an embarrassment,” wrote Scott A. Hodes, at the FOIA Blog.

“For all of his talk about his desire to hold the Obama Administration accountable, we find it unfathomable that that Speaker John Boehner would allow a bill that strengthens and reforms the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to die without a vote,” said Danielle Brian.

In reaction, Senator Leahy made the following statement:

“I am deeply disappointed that last night the House failed to pass the FOIA Improvement Act. This bipartisan bill was reported unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, and it was the product of months of hard work by Senator Cornyn and me. Our bill is supported by more than 70 public interest groups that advocate for government transparency and it passed out of the Senate unanimously. I would think that members of the House Republican leadership, who have spent so much time on oversight of the Obama administration, would support the goal of making government more accountable and transparent. But instead of supporting this bill, they have chosen secrecy over sunlight.

“The FOIA Improvement Act would codify what the President laid out in his historic executive order in 2009 by requiring Federal agencies to adopt a ‘Presumption of Openness’ when considering the release of government information under FOIA. This bill would require agencies to find a foreseeable harm if they want to withhold information from the public. Prioritizing the people’s interest in what their government is doing, our bill will reduce the overuse of exemptions to withhold information. Federal agencies have been required to apply this standard since 2009. They also used this same standard during President Clinton’s terms in office. It was only during President George W. Bush’s term of secrecy that this standard was rolled back. It appears the House leadership wants to return to that era. It should not matter who is in the White House, information about what their government is doing belongs to the people.

“In a political climate as divided as this, I had hoped that we could come together in favor of something as fundamental to our democracy as the public’s right to know. That government transparency and openness would not just be the standard applied to the Obama Administration but what is applied to every future administration. The FOIA Improvement Act would have done just that.”

Postscript: Writing for the Sunlight Foundation, Matt Rumsey published a sunny post about the death of FOIA reform.

Sunlight has been strongly supportive of the FOIA Improvement Act because it addresses real world problems faced by requesters every day, specifically targeting overly broad exemptions and limiting unnecessary fees. Just like Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., one of its strongest champions, we aredisappointed that it did not become law.

And yet, we are hopeful for the future.

Most laws never make it out of committee even after repeated attempts spread over multiple years. The FOIA Improvement Act came tantalizingly close to becoming law its first time around.

Rest assured that the FOIA Improvement Act will be reintroduced in the 114th Congress and that the Sunlight Foundation and its allies will be fighting harder than ever for its passage. We want to say a hearty thank you to Leahy, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and everyone else that worked so hard during the 113th Congress to make these needed reforms possible. We’ll see you next year!

The Washington Post, to its credit, did a post-mortem on how this popular government transparency bill died in Congress. The reason the FOIA reform stalled in the House may not simply have been lobbying by the financial industry, however, as had been previously reported.

According to House aides, some lawmakers balked at the legislation because several agencies, including the Justice Department, warned that those making information requests would use the “forseeable harm” requirement as the basis for frequent lawsuits.

This detail led Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, to argue that it was the Justice Department that secretly tried to stop FOIA reform, despite the text of the legislation being almost word-for-word the poilcy that the agency itself embraced in 2009.

The “foreseeable harm” section referred to by the Post would force federal agencies to justify withholding information if they wished to do so. Essentially, they would have to show the information would cause “foreseeable harm” if released. Not exactly a tall order. But what makes the Justice Department’s objection so shocking is that this “foreseeable harm” provision would not deviate at all from the Justice Department’s own policy. In fact, it was based on it.

In a March 19, 2009 memo to all federal agencies, Attorney General Eric Holder himself wrote that the Justice Department would carry out Obama’s aforementioned transparency order by rescinding the Bush DOJ’s more restrictive FOIA rules and designating new ones. From that moment on, Holder declared:

[T]he Department of Justice will defend a denial of a FOIA request only if (1) the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of the statutory exemptions, or (2) disclosure is prohibited by law.

Now read the full text of the provision in the just-killed FOIA reform bill that the Justice Department allegedly objected to:

An agency shall withhold information under this section only if a) the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption described in subsection or other provision of law; or b) disclosure is prohibited by law.

As you can see, the two passages are virtually identical. How does the Justice Department think this provision will lead to more lawsuits it would have to defend if they’re not supposed to be defending those lawsuits in the first place?

The Justice Department is objecting to making its own supposed policy the law, and confirms what many have long believed: the agency does not want to—or have to—comply with its own FOIA rules.

The DOJ has repeatedly been criticized for failing to enforce, and downright ignoring its own FOIA guidance for years, and their stance on transparency in general has been incredibly hypocritical. For example, Holder has claimed hewanted the torture report to be public as soon as possible, meanwhile fighting in court to prevent the release of any documents on its own torture investigation. Likewise, he’s claimed the Justice Department supports a federal shield law so reporters can protect their sources, while at the same time destroying the already-existing reporter’s privilege in the Fourth Circuit.

Writing for the National Security Archive, Nate Jones looked for lessons from the death of the unanimously supported FOIA bill and decried “Janus-faced support for open government.”  Here was his key takeaway:

Many people –in Congress, in the agencies, in the White House, in the media– proclaim they believe in open government, but don’t really.  To me, that’s the only plausible reason a FOIA bill could garner unanimous approval (thrice in the Senate over the past seven years!) and still die; that’s the only plausible reason agencies whisper that instructions about FOIA currently on the books will ruin the federal government as we know it; that’s the reason for White House silence on the benefits the FOIA Ombuds office not being forced to run its reports though the Department of Justice so they can be “rosified;” that’s the reason the New York Times wins Pulitzers for its FOIA-based reporting, but doesn’t assign a Congressional beat reporter to cover the bill’s death.

How do we overcome these FOIA Januses?  First, we must avoid being stalled out.  We should force Speaker Boehner to act on his pledge that he “look[s] forward to working to resolve this issue [FOIA reform] early in the new Congress.”  FOIA champions Senators Leahy, Cornyn, and Grassley remain in the Senate Judiciary Committee; these senators have an impressive history of defending and working to reform FOIA, no matter which party is in the majorly.  Replacing Representative Issa on the House Oversight Committee is Jason Chaffetz (R-Ut); Democratic FOIA champion Elijah Cummings remains.  Encouragingly, Chaffetz has said he “wants to address the Freedom of Information Act and the difficulties many have in getting the executive branch to comply with FOIA requests.”  Both houses should immediately reintroduce the FOIA bill.  More than 440 members who voted for FOIA reform remain in Congress.

On Saturday, December 20, the New York Times editorial board called for the 114th Congress to revisit the freedom to see government records. In doing so, it made no mention of the reporting on the cause of death by this blog, Vice News, the Washington Post, the Hill, Roll Call or Politico, nor lobbying by banks or federal agencies, nor silence by the White House while most of the press looked the other way.

2014 Open Knowledge Index shows global growth of open data, but low overall openness

Today, Open Knowledge released its global 2014 Open Data Index, refreshing its annual measure of the accessibility and availability of government releases of data online. When compared year over year, these indices have shown not only the relatives openness of data between countries but also the slow growth in the number of open data sets. Overall, however, the nonprofit found that the percentage of open datasets across all 97 surveyed countries (up from 63 in 2013) remained low, at only 11%.

“Opening up government data drives democracy, accountability and innovation,” said Rufus Pollock, the founder and president of Open Knowledge, in a statement. “It enables citizens to know and exercise their rights, and it brings benefits across society: from transport, to education and health. There has been a welcome increase in support for open data from governments in the last few years, but this year’s Index shows that real progress on the ground is too often lagging behind the rhetoric.”

The map below can be explored in interactive form at the Open Knowledge website.

Open_government_data_around_the_world__right_now____Global_Open_Data_Index_by_Open_Knowledge

Open Knowledge also published a refreshed ranking of countries. The United Kingdom remains atop the list, followed by Denmark and France, which moved up from number 12 in 2013. India moved into the top 10, from #27, after the relaunch of its open data platform.

Place_overview___Global_Open_Data_Index_by_Open_Knowledge

Despite the rhetoric emanating from Washington, the United States is ranked at number 8, primarily due to deficiencies in open data on government spending and an open register of companies. Implementation of the DATA Act may help, as would the adoption of an open corporate identified by the U.S. Treasury.

Below, in an interview from 2012, Pollock talks more about the relationship between open data and open government.

More details and discussion are available at the Open Knowledge blog.

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.