Biden administration asks for comment on broken commitments on open government

WH.gov/open is still a 404.

In an email posted to a newsgroup addressed to the “open government community,” the General Services Adminstration asked for comment on which of the past commitments the United States has made to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) should be submitted for a “people’s choice award” at an international summit in December.

At a basic level, the problem with this outreach is many of the dozen listed commitments are of questionable value, or have been rescinded.

For instance, the United States withdrew from a flagship commitment when the Trump White House withdrew from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in 2017. The Institutional Review Mechanism should not have listed it.

“Amendments to the Freedom of Information Act” were not achieved through OGP: the Department of Justice lobbied against reforms, and the Obama White House did not push for reform, resulting in a weaker bill.

The Trump administration censored open climate data and pushed out climate scientists who collected and published it, instead of “promoting” it. The former president directed hatred towards a whistleblower who came forward about the president’s corruption, instead of strengthening whistleblower protections. And so on.

The fact that the IRM put these commitments forward at all places considerable doubt on whether the IRM researchers are accurate arbiters of US government performance or record. It also casts doubt on whether the Biden administration is willing or able to be an honest broker regarding what’s happened to open government initiatives or policies over the past decade. The tepid criticism in the most recent IRM report on the U.S. government’s record on open government, from 2019, did not acknowledge the Trump administration’s attacks on transparency, much less the impact on public trust that would later be so devastating in the pandemic.

At a higher level, however, the fundamental problem in September 2021 is that the Biden White House has not publicly or privately re-engaged with many of the good governance watchdogs and open government advocates that have repeatedly called on the administration to act on the reforms.

To echo an indictment of the last administration’s “opacity by obscurity,” not introducing this call for comment on open government commitments at a press conference and taking questions on it falls far short of the bare minimum we should expect of the United States government. If it’s not issued in the the Federal Register or blogged about at WhiteHouse.gov, why should Americans take it seriously?

That’s a compounding mistake. Instead of rebuilding the broken trust between US government, the people it serves, and the reformers who seek to strengthen it, the White House is not using its convening power or capacity to be publicly responsive to the legitimate concerns of watchdogs exhausted by years of devolving good governance.

There is no reason that GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan, an honorable human with a long record of public service, should not have done so, save that it would be more appropriate if it was coming from the White House. President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have had little to say or do regarding the multi-stakeholder initiative that the current administrator for U.S. Agency for International Development once called President Obama’s “signature good governance initiative.”

After the most corrupt administration in U.S. history showed the dire weaknesses in a system built upon adherence voluntary democratic norms, that has been a profound disappointment for anyone that hoped to see more than a return to the mixed record of the Obama administration. President Biden and Vice President Harris should be holding U.S. government accountable with executive action.

They should be marshaling support for legislative and regulatory reforms externally, & making it clear to faithful civil servants and allies internally that this White House is committed to cultural changes as well, after years fear and chaos, by putting officials on the record and appointing senior ethics officials.

They also should be honest about how past reforms came to pass, what came of them, and what has happened to them since. Neither Data.gov nor USASpending.gov were achieved as the “result” of OGP. White House petitions were ignored under the Trump administration and have not been brought back by this one. So why are all three listed on the GSA’s open government page?

It’s worth noting that this void in public engagement itself violates the final commitment in the most recent National Action Plan for Open Government, which was to Expand Public Participation in Developing Future U.S. National Action Plans:

“Citizen engagement and public participation area among the most important elements of the NAP co-creation process. During the development of this NAP4,everyday Americans provided some of the most thoughtful and engaging ideas. As we begin to contemplate a fifth national action plan, we will prioritize including a more geographically diverse and diffuse representation of citizen stakeholders in the development of the document.We will aim to conduct a series of consultation sessions, in-person meetings,and livestreamed discussions around the country to generate ideas, encourage public input, and engage in conversations with the most important stakeholder–the American public.”

None of that happened after the plan was released in early 2019.

An administration genuinely “committed to transparency” and good governance can and must build back better, from the Office of Management and Budget issuing guidance on the Open Government Data Act (and enforcing it) to shifting its posture on declassification and the Freedom of Information Act.

It’s time for this White House to provide much more than diplomatic cover at the State Department for the civil servants who kept both the spirit and practice of open government alive over the past four years.

There’s no shortage of good ideas, only the political will and personnel capacity dedicated to implementing them.

On Juneteenth and Independence Day, the USA celebrates freedom, liberty, and justice

Congress has designated June 19 as a national holiday, Juneteenth. President Biden will sign the bill into law today, and as a result, tomorrow will be a federal holiday for many federal workers. It is another step on a long journey towards our nation recognizing and grappling with a dark history of slavery, realism, prejudice, and enduring inequity. Someday, we will arrive together at truth, reconciliation, and restorative justice.

In 2021, we will recognize a historic moment in America’s story.

On Juneteenth, we will celebrate the emancipation of African-Americans after the Civil War.

On Independence Day, we will celebrate declaring independence from Great Britain.

On each day, our union can stand united by a common creed: all humans are created equal, with unalienable rights to life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.

We cannot say yet that we have upheld those rights for all in 2021, but that is the right standard to strive for together as states formed into a union, like equal justice before the law and freedom from hunger, fear, hatred, or want.

American young democracy remains flawed, but celebrating the end of slavery will help remind us all of who we have been and what this nation could yet become: a thriving, multiracial, pluralistic liberal democracy based upon a Constitution.

The USA remains a fragile, messy experiment in self governance, not yet even three centuries old, under threat by enemies both foreign and domestic. And yet, the arc of American’s history is still being bent towards justice by our votes and active citizenship.

May we all find common cause in preserving and defending our union for generations yet to come on Juneteenth and Independence Day, united as one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

To build back better, The Biden House should release virtual visitor logs

The steps the Biden White House has taken on transparency taken are meaningful and welcome, but insufficient. They need to keep showing their work by opening Cabinet meetings & disclosing info, and emphasize being open by default isn’t just an option, but an obligation.

To put it another way, the Biden administration’s vocal commitments to transparency, restoration of press briefings & recognition of the role of journalists are profoundly welcome, necessary steps, but remain wholly insufficient to closing the yawning public trust deficit in the US government that existed before President Obama took office and grew much worse after four years of Trump’s official lies. That’s why transparency advocates have repeatedly asked the Biden administration to to take swift action, from the Freedom of Information Act to declassification and legal secrecy.

It’s not enough to put information online or put press secretaries and senior officials in front of the press, though both of those are profoundly welcome, or to stop attacking the credibility of journalists with lies.

As I told Politico, the Biden administration is doing worse, relative to Obama, given how aggressive, risky, and unprecedented some of the things they were doing online were in January 2009 were, particularly social media, and take questions online. (Press Secretary Psaki is dabbling in it, but it’s limited.)

Though obviously Twitter, Faceook, YouTube & other social media were used to go around the press and evade adversarial questioning by both administrations — and went pretty far into official channels being used to spread misinformation and disinformation under Trump — releasing information directly to the public using these platforms does find us “where we are.”

More transparency can and will be weaponized against them, as visitor logs were against the Obama administration, but rebuilding trust will require intentional investment and leadership on the world stage and around the USA, where the President and Vice President lean into tough questions and adhere to high standards of veracity in their public statements and those of the White House.

How to invest in closing America’s “information voids” and digital divides

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(Graphic by New York Times)

In the same way that poor diets affect our physical health, America’s infodemic is being fueled by poor information diets. About 2,100 newspapers have folded since 2004, driving a ~58% decline in newsroom employment.

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Digital outlets have not replaced the jobs or journalism reporters produced and editors verified.

Now, the New York Times reports thatpink slime” outlets are filling the information voids left behind, with the emergence of pay-for-play digital outlets that launder partisan attacks for a few dollars an article and digital duopoly of Facebook and Google dominates the digital advertising markets.

None of this is new nor, in 2020, can we really say that no one saw this coming.

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Clay Shirky was brutally honest about the fate of the newspapers back in 2014, after he “thought about the unthinkable” in 2009.

In an essay that accurately predicted the ongoing trend in the industry, Shirky asked the crucial question that keeps people who believe democracies depend on a robust, independent free press to inform publics engaging in self-governance: “who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?”

His answer remains instructive:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.

There were good ideas in the Knight Commission’s report on the information needs of American democracy, but it’s hard for me to argue that the polluted social media and cable news ecosystems of today are meeting them, given the collapse documented above.

In 2020, there is still no national strategy to catalyze that journalism, despite the clear and present danger absence poses to the capacity of the American people to engage in self-governance or the shared public facts necessary for effective collective action in response to a public health threat.

Investors, philanthropists, foundations, and billionaries who care about the future of our nation needs to keep investing in experiments that rebuild trust in journalism by reporting with the communities reporters cover using the affordances of social media, not on them.

Publishers could build out new forms of service journalism based upon data that improve access to information, empower consumers, patients, and constituents to make better choices, and ask the people formerly known as the audience to help journalists investigate.

We need to find more sustainable business models that produce investigative journalism that don’t depend on grants from foundations and public broadcasting corporations, though those funds will continue be part of the revenue mix.

As Shirky said, “nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.”

Finally, state governments need to subsidize public access to publications and the Internet through libraries, schools, and wireless networks, aiming to deploy gigabit speeds to every home through whatever combination of technologies gets the job done.

The FCC, states and cities should invest in restorative information justice. How can a national government that spend hundreds of billions on weapon systems somehow have failed to provide a laptop for each child and broadband Internet access to every home?

It is unconscionable that our governments have allowed existing social inequities to be widened in 2020, as children are left behind by remote learning, excluded from the access to the information, telehealth, unemployment benefits, and family that will help them and their families make it through this pandemic.

Information deprivation should not be any more acceptable in the politics of the world’s remaining hyperpower than poisoning children with lead through a city water supply.

If disinformation is a public health risk, put lies into epistemic quarantine

trump lies

Informing the public during a pandemic has always been a challenge for public health officials, but the information landscape of 2020 has been polluted by the the Trump administration’s history of lying in ways that make response to the coronavirus much more difficult.

As University of California law professor David Kaye wrote this past weekend, “government disinformation about public health is itself a public health risk.

Put bluntly: if publishers and producers don’t change how they report on Trump’s disinformation viruses, public health will be put at even more risk. Consider the messenger: Kaye, the current United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, is no friend of censorship or laws that curb speech. Instead, he’s asking politicians, pundits, the public and, most of all, journalists to be responsible about what we say or pass on in this crisis.

If spreading Trump’s disinformation damages public health, as it as with coronavirus, then officials, tech companies and media all face a common challenge in 2020: how to prevent harm by putting the lies of a President of the United States into epistemic quarantine, whether he bellows them from a bully pulpit at a rally or tweets them from the White House.

News organizations are a host for his disinformation viruses. (In the case of ideologically aligned networks, they are a willing one.) Partisans, the public, and bad actors spread them, too.

While we can and should try to inoculate publics with knowledge about influence campaigns, it’s hard to vaccinate someone against a disinformation virus in a polarized, low-trust media environment. It is especially hard when the sickness comes from inside of a White House.

Perversely, putting sunlight on disinformation may not “disinfect” it, but instead infect a far greater population through calling public attention to it.

Getting disinformation into wider discourse is precisely the goal of the people making intentionally misleading statements, otherwise known as lies, or “malinformation,” which is “information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country.”

We’re in novel territory, given the scale and velocity of modern communications across social media platforms and public access through connected devices, but we’ve been living through an increasingly toxic, polluted information ecosystem for enough years to undertsand and make adjustments.

Unfortunately, newsrooms still haven’t adjusted to the reality that folks “flooding the zone” with disinformation is a feature, not a bug, of this administration.

Remember, Steve Bannon, chairman of the Trump campaign and then White House advisor, said that “the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

If your democracy is in an epistemic crisis, and viral disinformation poses an ongoing public health risk, then newsroom leaders need to change their practices.

Focusing on fighting viral disinformation as a public health issue, as opposed to information warfare, may be a useful frame.

For instance, while it’s publishing amazing journalism, the New York Times is still failing:

Editors need to change how they’re reporting on Trump, or he’ll keep hacking the standards and practices developed in the professionalization of “objective journalism” (we report what POTUS says/you decide) to infect the public with disinformation viruses. Try Lakoff’s approach:

Publishers, platforms and the public should deny lies the “oyxgen of amplification and put disinformation viruses in “epistemic quarantine.”

Derek Thompson describes this as “a combination of selective abstinence (being cautious about giving over headlines, tweets, and news segments to the president’s rhetoric, particularly when he’s spreading fictitious hate speech) and aggressive contextualization (consistently bracketing his direct quotes with the relevant truth).”

Television producers need to change too, particularly on broadcast and cable news shows. A Meet the Press special on disinformation this winter grappled with these issues, but ultimately fell far short of what was required to inform the public, warn us of the public health threat that Trumpian BS posed, and adjust its own editorial practices.

A President who spreads disinformation viruses during a pandemic is a wicked problem. Journalism professor Jay Rosen diagnosed the structural problem media outlets have years ago and listed approaches newsrooms could take:

News media should adopt and adapt Rosen’s ideas. Experiment. Share what they learn, and pool resources. But today, they should stop putting lies in headlines and chyrons.

If government disinformation about public health is itself a public health risk, then journalists must stop spreading it, now.

The stakes will only get higher if our nation is drawn into a war, misleads the public about a conflict, or starts one under false pretenses.