Updates on open government from the U.S. National Archives

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Open government endures in the nation’s capital. On November 19, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) hosted a meeting between the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, senior officials, and representatives of civil society organizations that advocate for transparency and accountable government. Ferreiro has been hosting these meetings for nine years and counting. As in the past, I shared the agenda of our discussion online on the day of the meeting.

And, as in the past, NARA told me that the information they shared with us at the meeting was public – so I’ve written up what I learned, below.

On Kavanaugh records requests

The first topic on the agenda addressed Congressional and Freedom of Information Act requests and subsequent records disclosures stemming from associate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s public service at the White House.

These records were the subject of considerable interest before his nomination and continue to be relevant to public understand of his public service and legal thinking, now that he has been confirmed to a seat on the nation’s highest court. (The White House invoked executive privilege on many of these documents.)

NARA’s chief counsel, Gary Stern, said that NARA has tried to be as transparent as possible about these records in response to requests from the U.S. Senate, highlighting the landing page for Kavanaugh’s records on Archives.gov. These requests comprise some 900,000 pages from Kavanaugh’s tenure as White House counsel in the Bush administration and 20,000 from his time on the special counsel’s team, of which 300,000 were processed by the end of October.

NARA could not process and disclose all of these records in their entirety prior to the hearing, Stern said. The remainder are pending, with another tranche of documents expected to go online in mid-December.

NARA determined that it was legally obligated to respond only to requests from the chairman of a given Senate or House Committee, citing an opinion by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Stern also noted a parallel process of review in which a private attorney, Bill Burke was involved in reviewing records for disclosure.

In answer to my question, NARA’s chief counsel confirmed that this situation was unprecedented, and said the scenario was neither addressed nor precluded by the statute.

As with the issue of requests by the minority party or the transparency of presidential libraries, NARA said that Congress would need to change the statute to address any loopholes.

Updates from the National Declassification Center (NDC)

The NDC is moving forward with declassification of more records from the Nixon presidency. It is also consolidating all classified records from the libraries of former administrations. NARA said it will announce a new National Declassification Center director this calendar year.

Separately, NDC chief operating officer William Bosanko said that NDC has sent CDs with more records from the Argentina Declassification Project to the National Security Council. NARA said that President Donald J. Trump will give the CDs to Argentine President Mauricio Macri at this week’s G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, as he did in 2017. The records on them will be disclosed to the public at the end November.

These disclosures by the State Department and US intelligence agencies are the result of actions directed by President Barack Obama in 2016, when he announced that the United States would declassify records about human rights abuses during Argentina’s dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983.

Updates from the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO)

ISOO director Mark Bradley said that the office is making slow, deliberate, ongoing progress updating a new executive order on security classification system and has found it refreshing to find support in his work across agencies on the recommendations in ISOO’s annual report to the president. He noted that ISOO is facing the challenge of declining budgets at the same time a deluge of electronic records is inbound across the federal government.

Updates on records management

Laurence Brewer, the chief records officer of the United States, said NARA is continuing to work on updating the 2005 records guidance on Web records, with a goal of getting new guidance in place before 2020. NARA is focusing on modernization and transparency, and internally discussing how technology, resources, and sustainability. The updated guidance will include not just websites, but social media, instant messaging, cloud-based collaboration software like Slack, and ephemeral apps like Snapchat.

Brewer said that there will be a follow-up “very soon” on a 2017 meeting regarding this policy with me, Gavin Baker from the American Library Association, and the former leaders of the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project. Sunlight, the American Library Association, and OpenTheGovernment subsequently sent a letter to NARA advocating that the policy include proactive public engagement, including public explanation and narration of updates, downtime, or removals to public records online. I encouraged NARA to engage more public stakeholders in future discussions, particularly the Internet Archive and the Library of Congress.

Separately, NARA is evaluating Regulations.gov as a government-wide tool for sharing proposed schedules and gathering public comment, moving beyond email. I highlighted some concerns about the impact of limitations to the Regulations.gov API on public access to public comments, and encouraged NARA to ensure bulk open data access would be an option.

When asked about the failure of the Department of Homeland Security to create adequate documentation to enable the reunification of children with their parents when it began enforcing the Trump administration’s family separation policy, NARA’s position is that DHS should have been creating records sufficient to the need. (This fall, a former adviser in DHS’ Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties said Border Patrol and Immigrations Customs Enforcement agents did not consult with the office, nor create sufficient documentation to enable the Department of Health to reunite families.) Brewer said that NARA relies upon agencies to have policies in place for a given activity, although it does require agencies to conduct training at all levels and performs oversight triggered by risk assessments of self-reported data and unauthorized dispositions.

When asked about the use of phone calls to avoid creating records, Stern said that while there is a threshold need to create adequate paper documentation of public business, it’s subject to interpretation. NARA has talked with senior staff about the issue and unauthorized dispositions and will posting updates on its dashboard.

When asked about reports that the President of the United States has a habit of ripping up public records – and that the career civil servants at the records management office tasked with taping them back together had been terminated – NARA’s chief counsel said that it has no authority regarding violations of the Presidential Records Act. Archivist David Ferriero said that he is in regular contact with the White House and has provided guidance on presidential and federal records.

What the 2018 midterm elections mean for transparency and accountability in DC: Oversight

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The day after a historic midterm election night brought historic changes to the composition of Congress, state and local governments that more closely reflect the extraordinary diversity of the union, the United States remains a partisan, polarized nation.

Despite references to bipartisanship by U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and President Donald J. Trump in press conferences today, the prospects for productive camaraderie between a White House that demonizes its political opponents, the press, and immigrants and a House of Representatives that is investigating corruption, fraud, waste, and maladministration in the institution are dim this afternoon.

That is not, however, the weather forecast for sunshine in Washington.

The public should expect the 116th Congress to obtain the president’s tax returns, which he said again today that he would not disclose. (Under the law, the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee & the Joint Committee on Taxation “can obtain any of the president’s returns from the IRS without his consent.”) Expect genuine oversight of federal agencies and Investigations of the president’s conflicts of interest and abuses of power. Depending upon what the special counsel reports to Congress, articles of impeachment. And maybe even anti-corruption and ethics reform, in its wake.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, shared the grave concerns I expressed before the committee in 2017 about corruption, transparency, and ethics in this administration. Nearly every one has come to pass, and worse. In 2019, the new chairman of the oversight committee will be in a position to hold the Trump administration and the president accountable in a way he has not been before. Cummings issued a statement today that makes his commitment to doing his constitutionally mandated job clear:

“I thank the voters of Maryland’s seventh district for showing their faith in me and electing me to represent them in Congress.

The American people voted to give the House of Representatives a mandate—to conduct credible, independent, robust, and responsible oversight of the Trump Administration.

I have served as the top ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee for nearly eight years. I have served with both Republican and Democratic Chairmen, and with Republican and Democratic Presidents. I have seen oversight work well, and I have seen it work poorly. For the past two years, it has been virtually nonexistent.

Meanwhile, President Trump has been eroding the foundations of our democracy. He has been degrading the vision of our Founding Fathers—from attacking the right to vote to undermining the freedom of the press.

Yesterday, the American people voted to change that. They voted for transparency and accountability. They voted to make sure our government works effectively and efficiently for the American people. And they voted to bring integrity back to government.

As part of that mandate, I plan to shine a light on waste, fraud, and abuse in the Trump Administration. I want to probe senior Administration officials across the government who have abused their positions of power and wasted taxpayer money, as well as President Trump’s decisions to act in his own financial self-interest rather than the best interests of the American people. I also want to focus on uplifting the American people and improving their day-to-day lives, from lowering prescription drug prices to ensuring access to affordable and quality healthcare to expanding funding for the opioid epidemic.

We must now accept this mandate and fulfill our solemn duties under the Constitution. I call on all of my Republican and Democratic colleagues to join us in this effort.”

Contrary to the hypocritical contention of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, oversight is not “presidential harassment.” While threatening to investigate Members of Congress of the opposition party for holding him to account was an abuse of public power by President Trump, there is no doubt that Congressional Democrats would be fulfilling their constitutional duty.

Congressional oversight of the executive branch has occurred throughout US history under the Constitution. Unfortunately, despite warnings from watchdogs concerned about corruption, there has been an embarrassing void of meaningful oversight in first two years of the Trump administration, despite warning signs in the presidential transition and then copious examples of ethics violations and corruption.

The 115th Congress was marked by an abdication of leadership on ethics and open government, in which Speaker of the House Paul Ryan simply abdicated his Constitutional role to check and balance a president with no experience in public service who has proceeded to brazenly mix public business with private interests in the most unethical presidency in modern U.S. history.

The public should expect more from our representatives. In 2019, we are likely to be more informed about the corruption, venality, and maladministration that has marked over the past two years in “Trump Town,” all of which Congress tolerated and even enabled through deregulation and lax oversight. In order to begin to restore public trust in federal government, those revelations will need to be accompanied by accountability and ethics reforms that an angry, active citizenry demand. Our union will only be as strong as we make it, together.

White House silent about missing United States open government plan

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Silence speaks volumes when it comes to public engagement and announcements about transparency initiatives. That’s a gross understatement in the White House of 2018, but true around the world.

As Tajha Chappellet-Lanier reports, an August 31 deadline has come and gone – but there is still no fourth National Action Plan for Open Government for the Open Government Partnership, three months after the United States government re-opened public comments for new commitments to the global, multi-stakeholder initiative.

When asked for comment, the White House had no response to Chappellet-Lanier.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve repeatedly asked the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the Press Secretary for comment and received no response. If I do, I’ll update this post.

After receiving and documenting assurances from White House officials and civil servants in June that workshops and this public consultation were being held in good faith, the Trump White House has once again simply gone dark, as it did after the Office of Management and Budget abruptly delayed a publishing new plan on October 31, 2017.

What to make of this?

It is one of the two likely scenarios that I outlined in an explanatory analysis I contributed to Federal Computer Week in August:

As in other nations, if the White House submits a plan, look for it to position existing digital government initiatives and emerging technology programs – like those outlined in the Presidential Management Agenda – in a handful of commitments in a new open government plan. (That’s a maneuver that has been aptly described as “openwashing” in the past.) It’s also possible that the administration will keep delaying and drawing the consultation process out, given the absence of meaningful consequences for doing so in the court of public opinion, particularly at a historic moment when the presidency itself typified by crisis.

The latter scenario is where the process stands today.

Will this silence matter? It’s unlikely, given the context of the chaotic, corrupt presidency in which regression from good governance has been the norm.

In September 2018, the consequences for delaying a national plan for the Open Government Partnership again are negligible for the United States government if watchdogs don’t cry foul, Congress doesn’t hold hearings, and media outlets that the White House and President Trump cares about don’t cover it.

That doesn’t mean that those constituencies shouldn’t be paying attention, only that public attention is both deeply fractured, polarized, and focused on other issues.

The Partnership itself isn’t commenting, beyond noting that its steering committee will review the issue in January 2019, long after a different sort of verdict has been rendered upon this Congress and administration in the midterm election.

USA to pursue co-creation of new national action plan on open government during Trump era

On May 29, senior officials from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the State Department confirmed that the United States will develop a new National Action Plan for Open Government for the Open Government Partnership this spring and summer, hosting two “co-creation” events in June and re-opening an online forum for public comments on Github. The State Department announced that the U.S. would be restarting the consultation process for building a new plan two weeks ago, at a separate event.

Today, in an email sent to the open government and civil society working group email listserv, GSA analyst Alycia Yozzi shared noted about the remarks delivered by the three officials, who were

  • Matt Lira, special assistant to the president for innovation policy and initiatives in the White House Office of American Innovation
  • Matt Bailey, acting policy unit chief, Office of the U.S. Chief Information Office, White House Office of Management and Budget
  • Chanan Weissman, special advisor in the Department of State

I’ve published the notes in full, below:

From: Alycia (Piazza) Yozzi
Date: Wed, May 30, 2018 at 5:20 PM
Subject: Save the Date & Notes from the 5/29 Inter-Agency Open Government Working Group Meeting
To: US Open Government <us-open-government@googlegroups.com>, OpenGov@listserv.gsa.gov

Hello OpenGov Community,

Yesterday morning, we convened the public U.S. inter-agency Open Government Working Group meeting with civil society in the offices of General Services Administration (GSA) and launched the process to develop and ultimately publish the Fourth Open Government Partnership (OGP) U.S. National Action Plan.

Thank you to those who joined us by phone and in-person. If you could not make it we’ve captured notes and I’m including them below.

SAVE THE DATE(s) – We will be hosting 2 Co-Creation Sessions to develop the 4th U.S. National Action Plan (NAP 4) and would love to have you join us. Space is limited so please register in advance. Passcode: OpenGov2018

You can register for either:

Thursday, June 14 from 9:00 am – 12:00pm

Thursday, June 21, from 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/nap-4-working-session-registration-46585789350  Passcode:OpenGov2018

RESOURCES – Here are links to a few of the key resources mentioned at the meeting:

OpenGov Civil Society Meeting Minutes – 5/29/18

  • Matt Lira – Special Assistant in the White House Office of American Innovation
    • This Administration is committed to open government in the United States. Today we are here to renew the process of drafting and publishing the Fourth National Action Plan.
    • Empowering American citizens to hold their government accountable is a core function of any democracy and a priority for this Administration. A core objective is to ensure that our government is efficient, effective, and accountable to the American people.
    • We view this as a whole-of-team effort. The U.S. government will have a number of offices within the State Department, the GSA, and other agencies working on the fourth OGP National Action Plan.
    • We want to hear from you – citizen engagement and public participation is a critical part of this process. To help focus these discussions, the President’s Management Agenda will serve as a guiding document for our commitments. In particular, we will look forward to your input on the following areas of interest:
      • Modernizing Government Technology to Increase Productivity and Security
      • Leveraging Data as a Strategic Asset
      • Developing a Workforce for the 21st Century
    • Consistent with OGP’s feedback to all of its participants, we expect the fourth National Action Plan to include fewer – but more impactful – commitments relative to previous years.
  • Matt Bailey – Acting Policy Unit Chief, OFCIO, OMB
    • Highlighted that the OpenGov team really wants to get agencies and civil society together for the co-creation events, especially those that are able to make commitments for the new NAP.
    • We want to be able to have frank, open discussions with the public and the agencies that will be able to implement the recommendations.
    • Save the date for 6/14 and 6/21 for the co creation events. More information coming soon. [Note that 6/14 and 6/21 are now the confirmed dates.]
    • Cross-agency priority goals constitute the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) which, along with previous public input will serve as the starting point for this process
  • Chanan Weissman, Special Advisor, Department of State
    • Chanan provided a very brief overview of the soon-to-be released Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) Report on the Third U.S. National Action Plan and the status of the upcoming OGP Global Summit.
    • He thanked open gov representatives throughout the inter-agency for their feedback on the pre-publication version of the Report. Agencies provided 60 plus distinct comments, edits, clarifications, etc. back to OGP IRM researchers.
    • IRM cited three noteworthy highlights:
      • Modernization of access to information
      • Open science
      • Police open data
    • IRM Report’s five main recommendations included:
      • collaboration with the public,
      • fewer and more transformative commitments,
      • ethics reform,
      • service delivery and infrastructure, and
      • legislation branch involvement.
    • IRM Report information can be found online and out for release soon.
    • The OGP Global Summit in Tbilisi, Georgia on July 17-19. The last one was in Paris, France in December 2016. This year, they are streamlining the number of attendees (1000-1500 versus ~3,000 in years’ past) and limiting the number of panel discussion themes to three: anti-corruption, public service delivery, and civic participation.

Questions/Feedback

Q: There is a Google Group to share information and a Github account. Unfortunately, Github is not accessible to everyone. Can the group be sure to use the google group to share?

Yes. We will be sure to leverage the Google group to include the majority of people.

Q: Can you talk more about the OGP co-creation events?

We’d love to hear feedback on how to structure that process most effectively. We are still developing the structure but want it to be productive. Both events will be at GSA, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We are considering ways to include folks who cannot be present in person

Regrettably, I could not attend nor participate in this public meeting due to illness, or I would have asked several questions.  Thanks to the GSA for taking these notes and circulating them online.

Whether the United States government actually follows through engaging the public almost a year later in an open process that involves that “collaboration of citizens, civil society, political and official champions and other stakeholders” is an open question that will be answered over the next month — but there’s ample reason to be skeptical, given political polarization, partisan rancor and low trust in government.

After historic regressions on open government, the Trump administration committed to continued participation in the partnership last fall, only to delay building a new plan after short, flawed public consultation.

Almost a decade ago, we saw what the Obama administration at least attempted to do with Change.gov and then the Open Government Initiative. Two government-hosted events in DC and a Github forum next month are not going to meet the more robust standards for public participation and co-creation that OGP has promulgated after years of weak consultations. The U.S. government can and must do better for this to be taken seriously by the public, press and politicians.

The Open Government Partnership was designed to be a platform that would give civil society an equal seat at the table. That means not just people voting on a pre-existing management agenda on a website or pre-populated commitments from closed workshops at agencies that require passwords to register, but getting commitments that are responsive to the great challenges that face American democracy into the plan, including ethics reforms.

In the Trump era, until we start seeing seeing federal agencies, Cabinet members, and the White House itself using social media, mobile devices, radio, and TV appearances to not only inform and engage the public but to incorporate public feedback into meaningful government reform proposals — including sitting down with journalists for interviews about the effort and its goals — unfortunately there’s little reason to trust that this newfound commitment to open government is serious.

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.

President Obama’s media critique is missing self-reflection

President Barack Obama​ commented on the state of journalism this week, speaking at the Toner Prize ceremony.

It’s a thoughtful analysis from a voracious, long-time consumer and, it seems, critic of the news that’s worth reading or watching if you’re interested in the role of a free press in a democracy.

As I said a few weeks ago, some may be more to blame than others for the current climate, but all of us are responsible for reversing it.

I say this not because of some vague notion of “political correctness,” which seems to be increasingly an excuse to just say offensive things or lie out loud. I say this not out of nostalgia, because politics in America has always been tough. Anybody who doubts that should take a look at what Adams and Jefferson and some of our other Founders said about each other. I say this because what we’re seeing right now does corrode our democracy and our society. And I’m not one who’s faint of heart. I come from Chicago. Harold Washington once explained that “politics ain’t beanbag.” It’s always been rough and tumble.

But when our elected officials and our political campaign become entirely untethered to reason and facts and analysis, when it doesn’t matter what’s true and what’s not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make good decisions on behalf of future generations. It threatens the values of respect and tolerance that we teach our children and that are the source of America’s strength. It frays the habits of the heart that underpin any civilized society — because how we operate is not just based on laws, it’s based on habits and customs and restraint and respect. It creates this vacuum where baseless assertions go unchallenged, and evidence is optional. And as we’re seeing, it allows hostility in one corner of our politics to infect our broader society. And that, in turn, tarnishes the American brand.

That said, the irony in President Obama asking journalists to hold power to account, pushing for answers and access, was not lost on the journalists he praised, including Alec MacGillis, the recipient of this year’s Toner Prize.

More than a few people have highlighted why the president is a flawed messenger for any critique of journalism, given his administration’s record on press freedom.

“Obama’s own track record shows that if anyone isn’t being held accountable for the promises he’s made, it’s Obama himself – at least when it comes to the deep-diving investigative journalism he professes to want more of,” writes Sara Morrison in the Guardian.

“On the one hand, it’s a good thing that the President has been more open to new media than any of his predecessors, using Twitter and Instagram and Facebook to connect directly with Americans,” writes Mathew Ingram in Fortune. “But journalists who have been frozen out by the Obama administration complain that this feel-good strategy also acts as an end-run around the traditional media, and this strategy has insulated the government from direct questioning.”

“What makes Obama’s speech so unstomachable is the way he praises reporters at an award ceremony by calling their work “indispensable,” “incredible,” “worth honoring” and essential to democracy while simultaneously blocking honest press queries with all the formidable energies of his office,” wrote Jack Shafer in Politico.

As readers of this blog know, these criticisms have merit.

From flawed compliance with the Freedom of Information Act to limiting access to scientists or photographers or using the Espionage Act to prosecute media or cracking down on whisteblowers, the Obama administration’s record on press freedom is deeply problematic.

I wish the President had shown more introspection about his tenure in office, particularly with respect to acknowledging not only failing to support making the Freedom of Information Act policy and reforms he proposed but the fact that agencies actively lobbied against them.

If President Obama had done so, and publicly laid out how he would work to address those failures and the unmet promise of his administration’s commitments to open government in his last year in office, perhaps his remarks would have been received differently by the journalists he praised and criticized.

Do nudges and civic apps help or hinder public policy reform?

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The New York Times published a thoughtful exploration of societal probems, behavioral economics and government policy today. The intended big takeaway is clear enough: systemic issues, from poverty to retirement savings, need bigger policy intercessions than “nudges” to address the underlying issues.

To the extent that nudging distracts or delays broader change, the thinking goes, they may even be negative. You can tell that’s the intention because Eduardo Porter, the author, and the editor gives the “kicker quote” — the last word — to this expert:

“The single biggest contribution of behavioral economics to public policy is taking this flawed approach to retirement savings and making it a little bit more viable,” Mr. Loewenstein told me. “The downside is that if we make it just sufficiently viable, people won’t recognize how bankrupt the concept is.”

To his credit, Porter did acknowledge *why* the Obama administration has embraced applying behavioral economics in public policy — “Washington’s political paralysis.” In the face of a Republican-controlled Congress, the White House has had little reason to expect to enact any large social reforms since 2010, which means taking other approaches to improving social outcomes became more attractive. This is relevant to the Democratic presidential campaign as well, but that’s a subject for a separate piece.

As it happens, this is an argument that I’ve run into before, albeit in another context.

In 2013, voluble tech critic Evgeny Morozov made a similar observation about food stamp apps that help people keep benefits:

When I asked him why alerting the poor via a mobile device that their food stamps are expiring (versus a densely worded mailed printed document) is not an achievement, he responded that it “perpetuates a neoliberal regime where paperwork equals precarity equals a barrier to decent life.”

When I responded that, barring a political revolution, this system is the one the poor must negotiate, Morozov suggested that I take my pragmatic attitude somewhere else: a food stamp app is “a perfect example of tech that makes already ugly regimes more efficient.”

In my view, then and now, is that if “paperwork equals precocity,” improving the capacity of poor to access & retain benefits looks like a social good.

Morozov responded that “social goods come in different kinds, and that “the one you advocate is woefully unambitious.”

“Keep pretending that making ugly programs more efficient is apolitical or is in fact a social good,” he suggested.

Morozov asked if I had ever heard of a basic income, arriving at the significant social reform he presumably supports, providing the poor with an automatic benefit instead of one that they must register for and maintain. (The answer, then and now, was yes.)

It is extraordinarily unlikely, however, that the 114th Congress of United States of America will enact such a reform this year or next.

In that context, I’m not sure that food stamps — subsidies for families to buy food — are “ugly.” Removing a social program families depend on and letting our fellow citizens and their children go hungry to try galvanize political reforms would be ugly.

I do think that the way that they are currently delivered and administrated is ugly and must be improved. The software people must use to register for food stamps should be just as user-friendly as ordering a car through Uber.

I also think that applying behavioral economics to existing government programs makes sense, along with better designed digital services, as long as policy makers are transparent about how they are using nudges and disclose evidence to justify the defaults that they establish.

If you share Morozov’s view or have other arguments, please link and share them in the comments.

P.S. I think there was something of a strawman embedded in the Times article: Have President Barack Obama, Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein or any other public official or researcher ever claimed that “nudges” alone would be enough to lift people out of poverty or develop additional income needed to save enough for retirement? I couldn’t find such an assertion. (If you do, please let us know.)

[FIGURE CREDIT: Re-enrollment rate changes for military service members after the introduction of a prompt, as detailed in the 2015 annual report of White House Social and Behavioral Sciences team]

REPORT: Limited White House Progress On Open Government Commitments

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Today, OpenTheGovernment.org released a report of experts who evaluated how well the Obama administration has met its commitments to the Open Government Partnership in its second National Action Plan for Open Government. As you can see in the chart above, the researchers found only one commitment is fully met. Others, not so much.
What’s behind the hold up ? Here’s what the researchers suggested:
The possible explanations for why government agencies were unable to complete the initiatives varied across the evaluations. For example, the evaluation on the commitment to “Modernize the Freedom of  Information Act,” attributed the limited progress on this commitment to the lack of a strong mandate, absence of political will, and need for greater leadership. The evaluation of the commitment on transparency for legal entities noted “corporate opposition” as an apparent roadblock to that potentially transformative commitment. On the commitment to increase transparency of foreign intelligence surveillance activities, the lack of progress was discussed as possibly being a result of the complex challenges stemming from a deeply engrained culture of secrecy.
The lack of benchmarks and specific language is another commonly noted problem that emerges from this report. OGP guidance notes that governments should develop specific commitments and, where commitments have multiple sub-commitments, they should be broken into “clear, measurable milestones.” While the Civil Society Model Plan for the NAP 2 included detailed benchmarks and timelines for achieving measurable sub-commitments, these are generally not included in the U.S. NAPs.
Keep all of this in mind as The White House and federal agencies talk about new open government commitments.
I was asked to examine the administration’s progress meeting a commitment on the Freedom of Information Act — but failed to submit my own comments. As noted above, while the Obama administration made some progress on a new FOIA website, the Justice Department has so far failed to deliver better FOIA software — or, even better, an API for FOIA software vendors to build on. More problematically, the White House has been completely silent on Freedom of Information Act reform in Congress, despite language that mirrored the information policy that President Barack Obama and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder promulgated.
Those issues aside, the lack of progress on the potentially transformative commitments offers an opportunity for the Obama administration in its final year, as well as a set of idea that the presidential candidates could take up on the trail. Pushing even one of these through to completion by next January would be meaningful.
P.S. If you are a reporter covering the campaigns, please consider asking the candidates these  open government-related questions drafted by OpenTheGovernment.org and the American Society of News Editors (ASNE).
 
 
 

FOIA reform faces higher odds in 114th Congress

Federal financial regulators and the industry that they regulate are fretting over Freedom of Informatiom Act reform in Congress, per The Hill.

At least the concerns about sensitive info are being aired in public this time, albeit not on the record: the regulators aren’t commenting, and neither is industry. (It was their lobbying that scuttled FOIA reform become law last December, despite bills passing both houses of Congress unanimously.) 

Behind this story is a deeper one about how power and influence are used. The odds against strong FOIA reform being passed in the 114th Congress look longer today.