US House hearing on transparency misses the open government forest for the FOIA trees

When sunshine is applied to government, what’s revealed can be determined by the eye of the beholder. After the 115th Congress neglected oversight of open government, the U.S. House Oversight Committee held a hearing on the Freedom of Information Act … Continue reading

Shadows and celebrations for Sunshine Week 2019

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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:

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“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

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.

Open Government Partnership IRM finds backsliding in the USA

This White House’s decision to continue U.S. government participation in the Open Government Partnership was far from certain, given the demonstrated distaste of the Trump administration for international agreements and institutions. In that context, The Trump administration’s commitment to participating … Continue reading

After years of delays and democratic regression, USA releases weak open government plan

If the American public wants to see meaningful progress on transparency, accountability or ethics in U.S. government, it should call on Congress to act, not the Trump White House. With little fanfare or notice, the United States of America has … Continue reading

The state of open government (data) remains divided, at risk, and underfunded

What’s next for open data in the United States? That was the open question posed at the Center for Data Innovation (CDI) last week, where a panel of industry analysts and experts gathered to discuss the historic open government data … Continue reading

Open government data complements FOI laws, but it cannot replace them

In March 2018, three public policy scholars posted a provocative question: could the open government movement shut the door on freedom of information? At the time, I let it flow without refuting it from the Sunlight Foundation’s platform, but it’s … Continue reading

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

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

Open Government Partnership researchers find flaws and growing regression on open government in the USA

researchers from the Open Government Partnership’s Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) shared a new end of term report that detailed both progress and regression in meeting the commitments in the third United States National Action Plan for Open Government between October 2015 and May 2017. To be charitable, the researchers found a mixed record on open government during that time period, with poor public engagement, limited government feedback, and lack of civil society setting the agenda or participating in an iterative dialog with government. Continue reading

United States Releases Draft National Open Source Software Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Considerations Regarding Releasing Custom Code as Open Source Software

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

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

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

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.