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?

sbst_2015_annual_report_final_9_14_15_pdf

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

Civil_Society_Report_on_Implementation_of_the_Second_US_National_Action_Plan_-_NAP_2_Final_Evaluation_pdf
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. 

White House hosts “Open Government Workshop” during Sunshine Week

Yesterday, the White House hosted an “Open Government Workshop” in Washington, DC, a portion of which was livestreamed at though whitehouse.gov. The workshop was the kickoff event for planning the third United States Open Government National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership.

Archived video is embedded below, including remarks from Megan Smith, the U.S. chief technology officer, Gayle Smith, a special assistant to the President and senior director at the National Security Council, and Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. T

Some of the participants in the workshop shared pictures of the event coupled with brief observations on Twitter, but little of substance regarding the participants or the outcomes of their discussions has been released to the public to date.

Editor’s Note: Where social media falls short of sunshine

Shinning a light today on public participation in government thru social media! #opengov

A photo posted by Laura Cohen (@lauraandotis) on Mar 17, 2015 at 2:13pm PDT

Ironically, given that the event took place during Sunshine Week, the open government workshop was not open to the public or the press. While a user of the White House open government Twitter account encouraged its followers to “share ideas” and “keep the dialogue going,” the choice to use the #SunshineWeek hashtag effectively meant that the backchannel for the event was swamped with news of the White House’s decision to officially remove a regulation that subjected its Office of Administration to the Freedom of Information Act, the news of which broke on Freedom of Information Day in the United States. The administration’s legal reasoning is based upon a 2009 federal court decision that ruled the office was not subject to FOIA. In the Federal Register notice of the final rule, the administration hold that “The Office of Administration, as an entity whose sole function is to advise and assist the President of the United States, is not an agency under the Freedom of Information Act or the Privacy Act of 1974, nor does its implementation of Executive Order 13526 affect members of the public.”

The White House indicated that they will “absolutely” share more info about the workshop in the future.

UPDATE: OpenTheGovernment.org is helping to coordinate the public-facing aspect of the civil society consultation. They’re asking the public to contribute to a model National Action Plan. You can learn more and, after reading the guidelines, submit your own commitment online.

UPDATE II: In a followup post, the White House shared a link to a collaborative online document where the notes from the workshop were posted online for comment.

UCS: Progress on public access to U.S. government scientists, but serious issues remain

A new report (PDF) from the Union of Concerned Scientists found some improvements on the freedom of government scientists to speak, including their use of social media, but that significant impediments to unimpeded access also remain. The report, which included the scorecard pictured below, was published during Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of the People’s right to know what government does on their behalf. According to the report:

“Progress has continued since the 2013 report, with a majority of agency policies now including key provisions such as the right to state personal views, whistleblower provisions, and a dispute resolution process. On the social media front, where five agencies in the 2013 analysis had no social media policy at all, that number in the 2015 report has shrunk to just one.

However, most agency policies still lack important provisions such as right of last review and access to drafts and revisions. And while nearly all the agencies now have social media policies, some of those policies are still vague or incomplete. Thus, there is still significant work to do.”

csd-transparency-ggt2015-scorecard-full

The accessibility of government scientists to journalists and the public has been a significant issue in the United States in recent years (and north of the border, in Canada), particularly in the context of climate science and other environmental issues. In September 2011, Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) published an extensive feature that found that, despite high hopes, President Barack Obama’s administration had failed to make science accessible. By 2013, there was some measurable progress in the relationship between the scientific agencies and the press, at least as measured by the 2013 version of the UCS report.

UCS made several recommendations to federal agencies improve further:

Federal agency media policies need to be stronger to offer scientists clear guidance and protections against political interference. More broadly, agencies need to put free and open communication ahead of political considerations.

  • Federal agencies should develop strong media and social media policies that grant scientists the fundamental right of scientific free speech.
  • The Office of Science and Technology Policy should assess agency progress and speak forcefully on the importance of strong and effective media and social media policies.
  • Congress should hold agency heads accountable for encouraging the free flow of scientific information to the public.
  • The president should make strong and effective agency policies on media and social media a priority.
  • Journalists should call out those agencies that block the free flow of information to the public.

The importance of media and public access to government scientists will only grow in the years ahead as more government data is released online. It’s crucial for the press and the public to be able to contact the people who create, maintain and understand these databases when they create acts of journalism based upon them.

What Hillary Clinton’s private email account tells us about secrecy, security and transparency

In 2009, a confirmed secretary of state enters the office on the first day and is offered a State Department email address. Why in the world would Hillary Clinton not use it, given the context of millions of emails gone missing from the previous administration?

Or, if she chose to intentionally follow the practice of former Secretary of State Colin Powell in using a personal email address for government business and registered clintonmail.com, would she not ensure that all email related to government business was forwarded and preserved? Using Occam’s Razor, it’s hard not to conclude that Secretary Clinton was intentionally not complying with the Federal Records Act, as the headline by New York Times suggests

It goes without saying that the Secretary of State of the United States conducts some of the most sensitive diplomatic communications imaginable, although one would presume that the most sensitive of those would not flow over email. Security is an issue. And it’s worth noting that Clinton’s use of a personal email account was known in 2013. What the public didn’t know that no state.gov email account was used, although presumably hdr22@clintonemail.com ended up in a few diplomats inboxes.

Window_and_Hillary_Clinton_Not_Alone_in_Using_Private_Emails_to_Govern_-_Tech_-_GovExec_comWhile the former Secretary of State may have the highest profile, Hillary Clinton is not alone among federal workers in using a private email account:

“A new survey of high-level agency executives from Government Executive Media Group’s research arm shows that the practice appears relatively common, even though it likely violates the 1950 Federal Records Act, as updated to reflect the digital age.

Thirty-three percent of 412 respondents to the mid-February online survey by the Government Business Council confirmed that personnel in their agency use personal email for government business at least sometimes, 15 percent said employees use it always or often and 48 percent said colleagues use it rarely or never.”

This isn’t a partisan issue, though it will be made into one in the days and, presumably, campaign ahead. It’s worth noting at this point the use of personal email accounts or mobile devices to avoid public records retention is an issue at all levels of government, in both major parties in the USA and beyond. Comments about other politicians doing this don’t excuse the practice.

At minimum, not ensuring that the email archived would seem to display a basic lack of respect for preserving the record of business done on the public’s behalf. At worst, it’s deliberate avoidance of discoverability of communications with foreign world leaders and private entities from Freedom of Information Act requests and Congressional investigations. Update: On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that using this personal email account led to thwarted public records requests, with an additional detail: the State Department had no access to Secretary Clinton’s emails. There is no question, in other words, that not preserving the emails on state.gov servers under the Federal Records Act led to less accountability.

Was it illegal? On the one hand, the presidential records law Congress passed and President Obama signed didn’t come into force until after Secretary Clinton left office. On the other,  Laura Diachenko, a spokesperson for the National Archives and Records Administration, told the New York Times that federal regulations have stated since 2009 that “agencies that allow employees to send and receive official electronic mail messages using a system not operated by the agency must ensure that federal records sent or received on such systems are preserved in the appropriate agency record-keeping system.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest also said that “when there are situations where personal email accounts are used, it is important for those records to be preserved consistent with the Federal Records Act.”

There’s at least five more questions that deserve answers.

All that said, I find it hard to fathom how her staff, the rest of the State Department, and White House officials did not raise red flags about the use of this email address or ask about how the messages were being preserved.

While there may be good reasons not to archive every email, call, note, txt, tweet, Whatsapp or Snapchat sent by a government official, I find it difficult not to argue that the primary email account used by a Secretary of State to conduct business should not be archived in its entirety for the historic record.

One solution to “transparency theater:” If the deliberations or diplomacy shared electronically or otherwise are sufficiently sensitive to raise concerns, let them be held for 5 or 10 or 20 or even 50 years before they are released in un-redacted form. Personal notes, jokes and mundane messages will also offer insight for the historic record.

On security

Putting adherence to public records laws and open government aside, the integrity of these communications bears scrutiny of its own. “The focus here really needs to be on the information-security piece,” said Chris Soghoian, principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union, told National Journal.

“It’s irresponsible to use a private email account when you are the head of an agency that is going to be targeted by foreign intelligence services.”

How safe were Clinton’s emails? The short answer is that we don’t know yet.

Update: The Associated Press reported on March 5 that clintonemail.com was hosted and run in Mrs. Clinton’s home in Chappaqua, New York. If so, choice would have positive and negative consequences for security:

Operating her own server would have afforded Clinton additional legal opportunities to block government or private subpoenas in criminal, administrative or civil cases because her lawyers could object in court before being forced to turn over any emails. And since the Secret Service was guarding Clinton’s home, an email server there would have been well protected from theft or a physical hacking.

But homemade email servers are generally not as reliable, secure from hackers or protected from fires or floods as those in commercial data centers. Those professional facilities provide monitoring for viruses or hacking attempts, regulated temperatures, off-site backups, generators in case of power outages, fire-suppression systems and redundant communications lines.

According to the AP, Clinton’s private email account was reconfigured in November 2012 to use Google’s servers as a backup, and then reconfigured again to use MX Logic until July 2013.

The New York Times repeated the same assertion in a followup story, reporting that “In earlier years, Mrs. Clinton’s account at clintonemail.com was connected to a server registered to the Clintons’ Chappaqua home in the name of Eric P. Hothem.”

Update: David Gewirtz, however, argued that Clinton probably did not have an email server in her basement. His hypothesis is that the AP and the New York Times somehow mistook the address in related to the clintoenmail.com domain registry for the physical location of the server and then reported it as a “homebrew” server.

Today, “Clinton is clearly using two cloud services for at least some of her email management: Google and MX Logic,” wrote Gewirtz. “A physical server associated with her MX records is being operated by a managed services firm. Therefore, the premise that she’s trying to lock down all her email, protected physically inside her own house so posterity can’t get to it, seems unlikely.”

As Gewirtz noted in a followup post on “EmailGate,” that would create a myth that “Clinton was running her private email account on equipment in her home in New York” which will live on, particularly as it is repeated in subsequent media accounts.

Update: While a statement subsequently released by Clinton’s office after a press conference regarding her email practices only confirmed that it was on her property, an anonymous source identified as a “Clinton ally” who was “familiar with her e-mail practices” confirmed to the Washington Post that she “used a server housed at her private home in Chappaqua, N.Y.”

The State Department told Vice Media that it has “no indication that [Clinton’s] emails were compromised,” and added that, in past interviews, Clinton “referenced an awareness of security protocols for her email use.”

“We have no indication that Secretary Clinton used her personal email account for anything but unclassified purposes,” a State Department representative told Jason Koebler. “While Secretary Clinton did not have a classified email system, she did have multiple other ways of communicating in a classified manner (assistants printing documents for her, secure phone calls, secure video conferences).

We don’t know that much about the security behind clintonemail.com, other than the apparent involvement of MX Logic, a managed email provider, or whether the former secretary of state used encryption.

Clay Johnson suggested that the private account may well have been more secure than the State Department’s system for unclassified email, which has been compromised for an unclear length of time.

According to a Stanford computer science researcher Jonathan Mayer, however, “this personal address couldn’t securely receive email,” and neither could a State Department address:

Why this stuff matters, however, isn’t hard to understand:

“If the personal communications of heads of state weren’t interesting, then governments wouldn’t monitor them,” said Soghoian. “This is the easiest thing for the intelligence services to target.”

Update: According to a security expert consulted by Bloomberg News, Clinton’s personal email system appeared to use a commercial encryption product from Fortinet, but “when examined it used a default encryption certificate instead of one purchased specifically for Clinton’s service.” it’s worth keeping that this examination is occurring now, not from 2009-2012, when she was Secretary of State.

It’s worth noting that Bloomberg Business erred on the headline regarding Hillary Clinton’s personal email system, although the details regarding encryption are interesting. Insecure email is by definition not private, certainly when you’re talking about the capabilities intelligence services of nation states.

Gawker also published the opinions of several IT security experts regarding the safety of Clinton’s email, based upon the current state of the systems.

Mexico’s commitment to open government questioned by civil society

CommitmenttoAction

The ability of the government of Mexico to lead the Open Government Partnership is now being questioned by multiple parties, leading to one of the most serious challenges for the international multilateral initiative since its historic launch in 2011. In January, civil society organizations demanded that the scope of the Open Government Partnership be expanded in Mexico. This week, a series of statements further heightened the tension.

On February 17th, the civil society organizations that participate in the Open Government Partnership in Mexico issued a serious warning regarding possible regressions on access to information:

In the upcoming days, the Mexican Senate is scheduled to vote for a General Transparency Law initiative that has been co-constructed in an unprecedented act of open parliament, where the voice of Civil Society was actively heard and incorporated.

However, this best practice of co-creation is being hindered by petition of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government; the modifications it proposes, above all, are contrary to the recent Constitutional Reform.

There are three main concerns with these modifications to the initiative. First and foremost, they will produce a great regression in what Mexico has gained regarding transparency and access to information; gains that the Civil Society and relevant stakeholders have pro-actively defended for the past twelve years.

Second, they blatantly weaken the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information and Data Protection (IFAI) by constraining its independence and authority.

Third, there are a series of small adjustments that limit the right of access to information and transparency, the obligations towards transparency and accountability of public servants, and broaden the number of criteria to withdraw information from the public and the number of years it must remain undisclosed.

Should this initiative pass with these modifications, the most likely scenario will be one where public servants will be able to act with no accountability, and with an extraordinary ease to wash their hands of any omission on their part.

On February 19th, Ana Cristina Rueles made an even stronger statement in an editorial at FreedomInfo.org, writing that “The government’s rhetoric is all about transparency and co-creation but in their offices they are pushing us backward, to opacity and zero accountability.” She also warned of the risks of regression on open government:

If these changes are approved they can lead us where we were on 2006 — before the recognition of the RTI principles in the Constitution and the Supreme Court criteria we have gained throughout these years — neutralizing the effects of the last Constitutional reform.

Therefore, I wonder how Mexico can still be the leader of the OGP if there is no willingness from the President’s Office to make a change and effectively guarantee RTI to all their citizens. I know OGP is not only about transparency and access to information and that it is supposed to solve particular problems. But no Action Plan can be completed with this limited legal framework. Mexican civil society organizations have sent a letter to the OGP protesting the government’s proposed changes (CSO letter in English and Spanish.)

The transparency and openness the government preaches is clearly just a display. In the past year, Mexico was involved in serious corruption issues related to the white house of the President’s wife and security issues for the forced disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa. The President responded by saying that transparency and openness would outline government actions from there on. However, there is plenty of difference between this momentum and the position of his legal advisor and his party who fight for regression.

These weeks are crucial for the General Law final approval. Senators are still negotiating changes and suppose to bring a final draft before the end of the month but timing is still unclear.

On February 21, the civil society co-chairs of the Open Government Partnership issued a statement responding to the serious concerns that have been raised.

Suneeta Kaimal and Alejandro González Arreola praised the recent record of the Mexican government on transparency, listing various advances since 2002, ending with the advancement of the reform law that has led to this moment.

“One of the most compelling features of these constitutional reforms is that they embraced an unprecedented process of open parliament,” they wrote. “Congress and civil society collaborated closely and the IFAI Commissioners were appointed in an open and public process. This same spirit of co-creation guided the elaboration of the General Transparency Law that regulates the application of the constitutional reform. The robust bill that was presented in December 2014 represented broad consensus among all key stakeholders.”

Kaimal and Arrelo ended the statement, however, by acknowledging the “expressions of deep concern” from Mexican civil society and the commissioners (PDF) of the Federal Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection (IFAI), an independent constitutional body in Mexico.

“As Civil Society Co-chairs of the Open Government Partnership, we share these concerns. We encourage the Mexican Government and Congress to seize this opportunity to re-confirm their proven record and commitment towards transparency, access to information and co-creation processes with civil society, as appropriate to their leadership of the OGP.”

What happens next is up to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. While he and his administration has wholeheartedly embraced the aspects of government that relate to digital government, open data and innovation, now they must demonstrate the commitment to social justice, press freedom and constitutional reform that the moment demands in order to retain credibility as the leader of this international initiative.

The words that President Peña delivered at the United Nations must now be matched by action.

White House names VMWare CIO Tony Scott new United States Chief Information Officer

tony-scottPer Federal News Radio, the White House will name Tony Scott to be the next chief information officer (CIO) of the United States of America. Scott, currently the CIO of VMware, is a veteran of the enterprise information technology industry with over thirty years of experience. Prior to joining VMWare, he was the CIO of Microsoft, the CIO of the Walt Disney Company and the chief technology officer at General Motors.

Scott takes over from Lisa Schlosser, the interim US CIO, who stepped in when former US CIO Steven VanRoekel stepped down last year. In a post on the White House blog and CIO.gov, Shaun Donovan, the Director at the White House Office of Management and Budget, and Beth Cobert, the Deputy Director for Management at the White House Office of Management and Budget, officially confirmed the choice:

The President’s announcement today of Tony Scott as the next United States Chief Information Officer is an important opportunity for our Nation. With the radical evolution of information technology (IT), the Federal Government has unprecedented opportunity to enhance how we deliver services to the American people and spark greater innovation in the digital age. Over the past six years, this Administration has embarked on a comprehensive approach to fundamentally improve the way Government delivers results and technology services to the public. From adopting game-changing technologies such as cloud solutions, optimizing IT investments to save taxpayers nearly $3 billion, standing up the United States Digital Service to transform government’s ability to deliver critical services like healthcare and veterans benefits, to opening government assets to foster economic growth. This tremendous progress is a result of a President who recognizes the opportunity to harness advances in technology to make government work better for the American people. That is why we are pleased the President announced Tony Scott as the next U.S. CIO and Administrator of OMB’s Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology. Under Tony’s leadership, we will continue to build on the remarkable work done by the Nation’s first CIOs Vivek Kundra and Steve VanRoekel in changing the way the Federal government manages IT. Tony will bring will over 35 years of global leadership and management experience to build upon our progress and drive continued success. Tony is the right person to drive the Administration’s Smarter IT Delivery Agenda and the core objectives across the Federal IT portfolio – (1) driving value in Federal IT investments, (2) delivering world-class digital services, and (3) protecting Federal IT assets and information.

The White House Open Government Initiative Twitter account celebrated the news, tweeting: “Excited for new US CIO Tony Scott to join us in continuing to advance digital service delivery and openness efforts!”

“In selecting Tony Scott, the White House has decided that a Washington outsider is the best choice to lead this demanding job,” said Michael Krigsman, analyst and founder of CXO-Talk, in an email. Krigsman had previously said that the next US CIO needed to be a DC insider to succeed.

“With CIO roles at Microsoft and VMware under his belt, Scott certainly understands the nuances of managing tech inside a large organization. Despite this experience, Scott faces the difficult challenge of starting work during the last two years of this presidency. The political learning curve cannot be overstated. As a result, Scott will face a difficult battle to accomplish anything substantive in the next two years. I hope Scott will reach out quickly to innovative CIOs in government, such as David Bray at the FCC and Sonny Hashmi at the GSA, to establish strong partnerships. In addition, let’s see Scott get on Twitter to engage directly with his constituency. The White House has made a considered effort to engage Silicon Valley. Now it’s time to see how those Silicon Valley choices can manage within the huge federal bureaucracy.”
As I told Krigsman when he asked last year, every US CIO faces difficult problems:
The U.S. has been unable or unwilling to reorganize and fundamentally reform how the federal government supports its missions using technology, including its relationship to incumbent vendors who fall short of efficient delivery using cutting-edge tech. The 113th Congress has had opportunities to craft legislative vehicles to improve procurement and the power of agency CIOs but has yet to pass FITARA or RFP-IT. In addition, too many projects still look like traditional enterprise software rather than consumer-facing tools, so we have a long way to go to achieve the objectives of the digital playbook VanRoekel introduced.
There are great projects, public servants and pockets of innovation through the federal government, but culture, hiring, procurement, and human resources remain serious barriers that continue to result in IT failures. The next U.S. CIO must be a leader in all respects, leading by example, inspiring, and having political skill. It’s a difficult job and one for which it is hard to attract world-class talent. We need a fundamental shift in the system rather than significant tweaks, in areas such as open source and using the new Digital Service as a tool to drive change. The CIO must have experience managing multi-billion dollar budgets and be willing to pull the plug on wasteful or mismanaged projects that serve the needs of three years ago, not the future.

Scott’s experience working in some of the world’s largest enterprises should stand him – and the nation he would serve – in good stead as he moves into the White Office of Management Budget to oversee some $80 billion dollars in annual federal IT spending. He’ll inherit many headaches from the previous US CIOs, including legacy IT systems that enormous and obscure federal agencies have built over the decades. Scott’s recent experience with virtualization and cloud computing at VMWare, however, bodes well for federal workers who have been transitioning to cloud computing and mobile environments at unprecedented speed and scale over the past decade. ”

We’re entering a new era of business, where models that once seemed solid and permanent are becoming more liquid,” Scott said, in a VMWare corporate interview on information technology in 2015 last month. “You need to be liquid to be disruptive in this day and age. That means agile and flexible. Able to spin up new services in weeks not months or years. Poised to leverage mobile-cloud architecture to create new business models, revenue streams and means to create stronger connections with customers and partners.”

Scott is well-experienced, respected and connected across multiple industries that make up the core of the modern American economy, from entertainment to software to advanced manufacturing, all of which will serve the Obama administration well as it navigates a complex environment for both policy and deployment over the next two years. Along with the challenges of his predecessors, Scott will also inherit powerful new tools and an organizational capability that Vivek Kundra, the first US CIO, & VanRoekel did not have: the United States Digital Service, which has now grown to dozens of staff and plans to hire up to two hundred more.

In answer to questions, VanRoekel tweeted that the “huge opportunity is incredible [with OMB’s] #EGOV & @USDS teams – they are best in GOV & proudest part of my legacy.” Scott will have the “wind [at his] back with @USDS @18F, a government “good at cyber,” with federal workers expecting more #innovation. The new US CIO will also have a Playbook, TechFAR, open data, and, in VanRoekel’s view, a working cloud.

He said that the challenges Scott will face include “legacy systems & thinking, balancing reactive (cyber) with proactive (innovation),” and a federal bureaucratic that “still favors … contracts, systems, vendors. Need is to #failfast versus #failbig – open & modular replaces monolithic on all fronts”

Update: On Friday afternoon, Scott published a blog post entitled “From Transforming the Enterprise to Serving the Nation” at VMWare.com. Here’s an excerpt that outlines his vision for the role:

In recent weeks, I have been working part-time on a Federal Task Force to shape government policy around the role of technology in economic growth and driving the creation of jobs, as well as expanding opportunities for veterans and women. My new role will allow me to focus full-time on improving IT for our citizens.

In his recent State of the Union message, President Obama emphasized the importance of technology as a means of accelerating economic growth, innovation and increased job opportunities. He also articulated the need to take action in specific areas such as cybersecurity, net neutrality, e-health, and expanding both the access and speed of the Internet. I will contribute in these areas and will bring what I have learned in my career to this role.”

Update:

This post has been repeatedly updated with additional quotes, links and commentary.

Image Credit: VMWare