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 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: 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.”


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, 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 email account was used, although presumably 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 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 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 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 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, 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


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, 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, 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 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.”


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

Image Credit: VMWare

New York City crime data shows spike in NYPD response times to 911 calls

img_2259 (1)

On December 29th, 2014, the New York Post reported that arrests by the New York Police Department had plummeted in New York City after a virtual work stoppage following the execution of two officers on December 20th.

According to the data obtained by the Post, traffic tickets and summonses for minor offenses plummeted by more than 94% in the final weeks of the year.

In January 2015, New York City’s analytics portal posted a trendline that may be more worrisome to New Yorkers: a sharp jump in the length of time it takes for the NYPD to respond to crimes in progress, including a 2 1/2 minute increase in response times to calls designated as “critical.”


The national standard for response times to 911 calls is six minutes. As the Los Angeles Times reported in its series on 911 response times in the City of Angels, rescuers routinely fail that bar. The data visualization below shows how response times vary geographically in the greater Los Angeles area.


This is only one week of data. It could be an aberration. When the average response times for the final week of 2014 are published, the public will be able to see whether this was an exception or part of the larger slowdown. If the latter is the case, public safety is being placed at greater risk and the DeBlasio administration and NYC Police Commissioner should react accordingly.

Update: On February 9, NYC Analytics updated the data. It was immensely gratifying to see that the 911 response times have improved after the spike, returning to their previous levels.


Graphic credit: New York Post

White House asks for public participation to improve draft principles for public participation


If a government commits to developing “best practices & metrics for public participation,” one way to demonstrate that commitment is to then post a draft version of those practices and metrics for public consideration and seek public comment. Today, the White House took the first step on that journey when it asked the public to help shape public participation in the 21st century in a decidedly 21st century way: by posting a blog post on and publishing a draft of a new U.S. Public Participation Playbook on Madison, an open source platform specifically built for collaboration between government and citizens:

Developing a U.S. Public Participation Playbook has been an open government priority, and was included in both the first and second U.S. Open Government National Action Plans as part of the United States effort to increase public integrity in government programs. This resource reflects the commitment of the government and civic partners to measurably improve participation programs, and is designed using the same inclusive principles that it champions.

More than 30 Federal leaders from across diverse missions in public service have collaborated on draft best practices, or “plays,” lead by the General Services Administration’s inter-agency SocialGov Community. The playbook is not limited to digital participation, and is designed to address needs from the full spectrum of public participation programs.

The plays are structured to provide best practices, tangible examples, and suggested performance metrics for government activities that already exist or are under development. Some categories included in the plays include encouraging community development and outreach, empowering participants through public/private partnerships, using data to drive decisions, and designing for inclusiveness and accessibility.

In developing this new resource, the team has been reaching out to more than a dozen civil society organizations and stakeholders, asking them to contribute as the Playbook is created. The team would like your input as well!

Many of the dynamics that have led to news sites turning off online comments apply to governments trying to crowdsource policy or laws. Given those risks, why post this relatively rough draft online now?

“In order to create the strongest public participation resource for agencies, we didn’t just want to open it for comment after the fact — we wanted collaboration and openness in the DNA of the project itself,” said Justin Herman, the social media lead at the GSA who co-authored the blog post, in an interview. “This approach empowers contributors to understand different sides of each play from their creation, and makes participation more meaningful for all.”

As noted in the White House blog post, this effort isn’t happening in a vacuum or a starting point: the White House and the community of practice at the General Services Administration (GSA) have already seeded the document with ideas and reached out to members of civil society.

Whether this newest effort at crowdsourcing a policy results in a better playbook will rest in part upon whether its owners are willing and able to engage the public regarding it. Two tweets are a start, but only that:

What happens next is much less clear: will White House officials and GSA staff participate in conversations on the document? Will conversations spiral out into partisan rancor or be diverted by online trolls, just in it of the lulz? Will a skeptical, angry and distrustful public even show up to participate? Have the feds learned anything from their mistakes in crowdsourcing comments online?

“We knew from the beginning that we wanted the U.S. Public Participation Playbook to truly reflect that engagement in government has advanced in recent years, and participation can and should result in improved services,” said Herman. “We did a lot of research at first, everything from case studies in government to feedback from experts in the field. We don’t just want a resource that people see the value in — we want a resource they can see themselves in, and our experiences in advancing public participation. We’re also approaching development very flexibly and have a team that embraces that approach, which helps immensely.”

Embracing Madison online

It’s worth noting that the collaborative drafting tool the GSA and the White House have chosen has an interesting pedigree. The tool was originally designed to crowdsource legislative markup and introduced at the first Congressional hackathon. Madison was subsequently used to crowdsource multiple bills by Congressman Darrell Issa‘s office before being spun out to be run and improved a separate Open Gov Foundation. As I noted in last week’s column on networked activism, people interested in the next generation of civic software should keep an eye on the growth of Madison, which recently received a huge grant from the Knight Foundation. While there may be a partisan gulf between Congressman Issa and the White House, the adoption of this tool and a collaborative approach to improving this draft playbook shows that there’s some congruence when it comes to adopting strategies for networked governance.

“The goal was to make this process as inclusive as possible and using a platform like Madison is just one way that we’re welcoming the civil society groups like the OpenGov Foundation to participate,” said Herman. “It’s an example of how we’re not just writing about more responsive services, we’re making the development itself a responsive process. We also are accepting contributions through Google Doc, Word, and in-person meetings, so there are multiple paths to participation.”

Madison is just shy of 3 years old, according to Seamus Kraft, the executive director of the Open Government Foundation, but it’s already been completely rewritten. It now has and Annotator built into the tool itself and uses the Laravel framework. After originally launching in a closed form, Madison is now open source software.

“It’s grown in a pretty steady line, particularly as we’ve started linking up with partner cities and really understanding what our mission principle means when we say inside and outside of government,” he said, in a phone interview today. “Where are our users today? Where are we starting from? When we were on the Hill, it had to happen and happen fast. We were building for ourselves inside government, and we were already connected to the outside users shut out of the process. Now we’re unpacking that, as we’re understanding what has to happen on the backend for drafting or internal collaboration to happen.”

Over the past 2 years, Kraft said that his team has learned about huge potential upside for helping governments at all levels to address inefficiencies in how government manages its documents on the inside, which the public never sees.

“By making that more streamlined, more efficient, with data formats and schemas to accompany it, we will make government more collaborative,” he said. “Where Madison gets really powerful and really cool is when it’s connected to a presentation environment, like the State Decoded, or to a drafting environment.”

When asked about the challenges of managing or moderating public conversations online, particularly given an increasingly politically polarized electorate and Congress, Kraft was diplomatic.

On the one hand, he said that the utility of crowdsourced contributions by and large increases with more identity information provided. (Madison uses OAuth to enable people to choose what identities to use.) When asked how governments should use Madison to encourage meaningful participation online, avoiding gaming and astroturfing, Kraft immediately allowed that doesn’t have any exact answers, but he has ideas.

“There are a number of ways municipal participation has happened,” he said. “There are different types, different flavors, and different data sets in which incentives differ significantly. What we’ve found, what we’ve learned, is that what drives the most meaningful participation is when the people that we’ve elected or appointed, in our cities, country, states or federal government, take a step by opening themselves up for collaborative opportunities like this. That first step is a cultural shift, which is the coin of the realm towards driving participation. When tested it, we found the best, most meaningful participation was on a draft bill. If you remember the OPEN Act, putting “draft” on it signaled a cultural change, a change in how legislation presented to the public. By doing that, Congressmen and Senators took a step towards their constituents. By
keeping it up for a month for feedback and saying we’re not moving forward until we get your input, they changed the conversation. You can see it here with GSA: that cultural shift is the most meaningful thing, in terms of encouraging meaningful participation.”

That’s a cultural shift embodied by Herman, who is a constant presence online and a driving force involved in various efforts to get federal government staffers to use social media to listen, collaborate and engage, not just broadcast press releases optimized for new media. When we talked, he specifically connects effective public participation and civic engagement with the mission of public servants.

“Engagement, responsiveness, inclusiveness: these are foundations of the public services so many of us proudly work to build every day,” he said. “They are not talking points, as when we look at emergency management, education services, veterans programs and more, we see how public participation can directly lead to improvement in the lives of people. It’s not just important that we help agencies do this better, it’s our responsibility. We hope that organizations from across fields and backgrounds take a look and see what they can contribute, and that all citizens may use this to better understand the importance of their informed participation.”

[Photo Credit: Pete Souza, White House on Flickr]

This post has been updated with additional comments.

FEC hires innovative startup to help bring U.S. Senate into 21st Century

IMG_1992.JPG In a win for democracy & open government, the Federal Election Commission has signed a contract with Captricity to convert paper campaign contribution disclosure filings by U.S. Senators into data.

Alert readers may recall my story on the startup two years ago, when they launched a better way of converting forms into data using Amazon Mechanical Turk, machine learning, and an innovative use of crowdsourcing.

More recently, they were involved in the OpenFDA project.

Great news.

Update: Derek Willis, one of the best data-driven campaign finance reporters around, did not agree with the headline of this post:

We’ll have to choose to disagree on this count. Converting these paper records has the potential to put more pressure on Senators to upgrade from paper disclosures and to demonstrate the value of digitizing campaign finance data, in terms of more access to insights, analysis and increased velocity of analyses.

It’s true that the Senate itself hasn’t been magically upgraded, reformed or shifted, but in my view making this aspect of funding more open will lead to more media and members of the public becoming aware and understanding how money is being spent, by whom, and given to whom, which could in turn create more accountability.

I don’t expect this kind of transparency to disinfect the Senate, per se, but it could lead to some discomfort as data-driven bleach seeps into some cracks.