U.S. House passes historic open government bill, sending it on to the White House

us-capitol-dome-sun

This afternoon, the United States House of Representatives passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA) of 2013, voting to send S.994, the bill that enjoyed unanimous support in the U.S. Senate earlier this month, on to the president’s desk.

The DATA Act is the most significant open government legislation enacted by Congress in generations, going back to the Freedom of Information Act in 1966. An administration official at the White House Office of Management and Budget confirmed that President Barack Obama will sign the bill into law.

The DATA Act establishes financial open data standards for agencies in the federal government, requires compliance with those standards, and that the data will then be published online.  The bipartisan bill was sponsored in the Senate by Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), and in the House by Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD).

Representative Issa, who first introduced the transparency legislation in 2011, spoke about the bill on the House floor this afternoon and tweeted out a long list of beneficial outcomes his office expects to result from its passage.

The Senators who drafted and co-sponsored the version of the bill that the House passed today quickly hailed its passage.

“In the digital age, we should be able to search online to see how every grant, contract and disbursement is spent in a more connected and transparent way through the federal government,” said Senator Warner, in a statement. “Independent watchdogs and transparency advocates have endorsed the DATA Act’s move toward greater transparency and open data. Our taxpayers deserve to see clear, accessible information about government spending, and this accountability will highlight and help us eliminate waste and fraud.”

“During a time of record $17 trillion debt, our bipartisan bill will help identify and eliminate waste by better tracking federal spending,” said Senator Portman, in a statement. “I’m pleased that our bill to empower taxpayers to see how their money is spent and improve federal financial transparency has unanimously passed both chambers of Congress and is now headed to the President’s desk for signature.”

“The DATA Act is a transformational piece of legislation that has the potential to permanently transform how the Federal government operates,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in a statement. “For the first time ever, the American people will have open, standardized access to how the federal government spends their money. Washington has an abundance of information that is often bogged down by federal bureaucracy and is inaccessible to our nation’s innovators, developers and citizens. The standardization and publication of federal spending information in an open format will empower innovative citizens to tackle many of our nation’s challenges on their own. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people should be open to the people.”

The DATA Act earned support from a broad coalition of open government advocates and industry groups. Its passage in Congress was hailed today by open government advocates and trade groups alike.

“The central idea behind the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act is simple: disclose to the public what the federal government spends,” “>said Daniel Schuman, policy council for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“The means necessary to accomplish this purpose—increased agency reporting, the use of modern technology, implementation of government-wide standards, regular quality assurance on the data—will require government to systematically address how it stovepipes federal spending information. This is no small task, and one that is long overdue. The effort to reform transparency around federal spending arose in large part because members of both political parties concluded that their ability to govern effectively depends on making sure federal spending data is comprehensive, accessible, reliable, and timely. Currently, it is not. The leaders of the reform efforts in the Senate are Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), Rob Portman (R-OH), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Tom Coburn (R-OK), and the leaders in the House are Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD), although they are joined by many others. We welcome and applaud the House of Representative’s passage of the DATA Act. It is a remarkable bill that, if properly implemented, will empower elected officials and everyday citizens alike to follow how the federal government spends money.”

“Sunlight has been advocating for the DATA Act for some time, and are thrilled to see it emerge from Congress,” said Matt Rumsey, a policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation. “As I wrote while describing the history of the bill after it passed through the Senate, ‘Congress has taken a big step by passing the DATA Act. The challenge now will be ensuring that it is implemented effectively.’ We hope that the President swiftly signs the bill and we look forward to working with his administration to shed more light on federal spending.

“With this legislation, big data is finally coming of age in the federal government,” said Daniel Castro, Director of the Center for Data Innovation, in a statement. “The DATA Act promises to usher in a new era of data-driven transparency, accountability, and innovation in federal financial information. This is a big win for taxpayers, innovators, and journalists.”

“After three years of debate and negotiation over the DATA Act, Congress has issued a clear and unified mandate for open, reliable federal spending data,” said Hudson Hollister, the Executive Director of the Data Transparency Coalition. Hollister helped to draft the first version of the DATA Act in 2011, when he was on Representative Issa’s staff. “Our Coalition now calls on President Obama to put his open data policies into action by signing the DATA Act and committing his Office of Management and Budget to pursue robust data standards throughout federal financial, budget, grant, and contract reporting.”

“The Administration shares Senator Warner’s commitment to government transparency and accountability, and appreciates his leadership in Congress on this issue,” said Steve Posner, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget. “The Administration supports the objectives of the DATA Act and looks forward to working with Congress on implementing the new data standards and reporting requirements within the realities of the current constrained budget environment and agency financial systems.”

Update: Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) signed the DATA Act on April 30, before sending it on to President Obama’s desk.

Digital Communications Director

“From publishing legislative data in XML to live-streaming hearings and floor debates, our majority has introduced a number of innovations to make the legislative process more open and accessible,” he said, in a statement touting open government progress in the House. “With the DATA Act, which I signed today, we’re bringing this spirit of transparency to the rest of the federal government.  For years, we’ve been able to track the status of our packages, but to this day there is no one website where you can see how all of your tax dollars are being spent.  Once the president signs this bill, that will start to change.  There is always more to be done when it comes to opening government and putting power back in the hands of the people, and the House will be there to lead the way.” 

UPDATE: On May 9th, 2014, President Barack Obama signed The DATA Act into law.

Statement by Press Secretary Jay Carney:

On Friday, May 9, 2014, the President signed into law:

S. 994, the “Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014” or the “DATA Act,” which amends the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 to make publicly available specific classes of Federal agency spending data, with more specificity and at a deeper level than is currently reported; require agencies to report this data on USASpending.gov; create Government-wide standards for financial data; apply to all agencies various accounting approaches developed by the Recovery Act’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board; and streamline agency reporting requirements.

Rep. Darrell Issa issued the following statement in response:

“The enactment of the DATA Act marks a transformation in government transparency by shedding light on runaway federal spending,” said Chairman Issa. “The reforms of this bipartisan legislation not only move the federal bureaucracy into the digital era, but they improve accountability to taxpayers and provide tools to allow lawmakers and citizen watchdogs to root out waste and abuse. Government-wide structured data requirements may sound like technical jargon, but the real impact of this legislation on our lives will be more open, more effective government.”

Esri’s new ArcGIS feature is live. Will terabytes of new open data follow?

esri-open-data

Back in February, I reported that Esri would enable governments to open their data to the public.Today, the geographic information systems (GIS) software giant pushed ArcGIS Open Data live, instantly enabling thousands of its local, state and federal government users to open up the public data in their systems to the public, in just a few minutes.

open-data-esri

“Starting today any ArcGIS Online organization can enable open data, specify open data groups and create and publicize their open data through a simple, hosted and best practices web application,” wrote Andrew Turner, chief technology officer of Esri’s Research and Development Center in D.C., in a blog post about the public beta of Open Data ArcGIS. “Originally previewed at FedGIS ArcGIS Open Data is now public beta where we will be working with the community on feedback, ideas, improvements and integrations to ensure that it exemplifies the opportunity of true open sharing of data.”

Turner highlighted what this would mean for both sides of the open data equation: supply and demand.

Data providers can create open data groups within their organizations, designating data to be open for download and re-use, hosting the data on the ArcGIS site. They can also create public microsites for the public to explore. (Example below.) Turner also highlighted the code for Esri’s open-source GeoPortal Server on Github as a means to add metadata to data sets.

Data users, from media to developers to nonprofits to schools to businesses to other government entities, will be able to download data in common open formats, including KML, Spreadsheet (CSV), Shapefile, GeoJSON and GeoServices.

“As the US Open Data Institute recently noted, [imagine] the impact to opening government data if software had ‘Export as JSON’ by default,” wrote Turner.

“That’s what you now have. Users can also subscribe to the RSS feed of updates and comments about any dataset in order to keep up with new releases or relevant supporting information. As many of you are likely aware, the reality of these two perspectives are not far apart. It is often easiest for organizations to collaborate with one another by sharing data to the public. In government, making data openly available means departments within the organization can also easily find and access this data just as much as public users can.”

EmploymentLaborForces_B230251

Turner highlighted what an open data site would look like in the wild:

Data Driven Detroit a great example of organizations sharing data. They were able to leverage their existing data to quickly publish open data such as censuseducation or housing. As someone who lived near Detroit, I can attest to the particular local love and passion the people have for their city and state – and how open data empowers citizens and businesses to be part of the solution to local issues.

In sum, this feature could, as I noted in February, could mean a lot more data is suddenly available for re-use. When considered in concert with Esri’s involvement in the White House’s Climate Data initiative, 2014 looks set to be a historic year for the mapping giant.

It also could be a banner year for open data in general, if governments follow through on their promises to release more of it in reusable forms. By making it easy to upload data, hosting it for free and publishing it in the open formats developers commonly use in 2014, Esri is removing three major roadblocks governments face after a mandate to “open up” come from a legislature, city council, or executive order from the governor or mayor’s office.

“The processes in use to publish open data are unreasonably complicated,” said Waldo Jacquith, director of the U.S. Open Data Institute, in an email. 

“As technologist Dave Guarino recently wrote, basically inherent to the process of opening data is ETL: “extract-transform-load” operations. This means creating a lot of fragile, custom code, and the prospect of doing that for every dataset housed by every federal agency, 50 states, and 90,000 local governments is wildly impractical.

Esri is blazing the trail to the sustainable way to open data, which is to open it up where it’s already housed as closed data. When opening data is as simple as toggling an “open/closed” selector, there’s going to be a lot more of it. (To be fair, there are many types of data that contain personally identifiable information, sensitive information, etc. The mere flipping of a switch doesn’t address those problems.)

Esri is a gold mine of geodata, and the prospect of even a small percentage of that being released as open data is very exciting.”

Code for DC launches OurDCSchools.org, an open government platform for proposed school policy

ourdcschools

Parents, students and other members of the public can now easily see the effect of a href=”http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-releases-proposed-school-boundaries-and-far-reaching-student-assignment-policies/2014/04/05/368521e0-bc46-11e3-96ae-f2c36d2b1245_story.html”>new proposals for elementary school boundaries and far-reaching student assignment policies in the District of Columbia using a civic app called Our DC Schools.
The new website, built by volunteers at from Code for DC, a local open government group, makes it easier for the public to understand how important changes to the boundaries of DC school districts would affect a given address, rate the assignment policies proposed by the DC government, and forward that feedback to the Deputy Mayor for Education.

According to Code for DC, their team will published all responses collected, after the street addresses are excluded, on OpenDataDC, “a public catalog of civic data built by and for the people of Washington.”  The group will continue to collect responses until mid-May 2014, sharing them with the Boundary Review Advisory Committee, the relevant government entity entrusted with working on the proposals. You can find more a bit more context about the app and the issues at WAMU.org.

Our DC Schools builds upon the data behind the Washington Post’s interactive news app, which also enables people to perform a similar geographic search, and then goes one step further than the newspaper, giving people tools to rate proposed changes and send it on to local government.

 

code-for-dc-logoAccording to Code for DC, the idea for the civic app came from Chris Given, when he saw how much data was available regarding the issue

“I attended a public working group meeting at Dunbar High School and while I was impressed by the dedication of the Deputy Mayor for Education and DC Public Schools staff, I was just bowled over by the scale of the challenge of getting meaningful feedback from everyone these policies affect,” said Given, in a statement. “I wanted to create an on-ramp for engaging with a really complex issue.”

In personalizing and visualizing the school district changes, unpacking these proposals for assignment and connecting feedback concerned citizens affected by the proposals to policy makers at local government, these volunteers are demonstrating how open government data and the World Wide Web can inform residents and stimulate citizen engagement in matters of great public interest.

Notably, the civic app came to life through a collaboration between Code for DC and the office of the district’s Deputy Mayor for Education (DME). It’s an effort to use modern technology to better engage the people of DC in their government.

“The Our Schools DC app is an example of what can be achieved when government collaborates with citizens to find solutions to common problems. In addition to providing valuable information, it’s a means of public engagement that will help city leaders better meet the educational needs of communities throughout the district,” said Traci L. Hughes, Director of the District of Columbia Office of Open Government, in a statement.

 

Sunlight Foundation highlights benefits of open data beyond the business case

Given the considerable attention that the economic outcomes of open data releases has received over the past year, with trillions of dollars in potential value flowing across headlines, it’s worth reminding everyone of the impacts of open data beyond the bottom line. Thankfully, Emily Shaw, the national policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation, did exactly that in a blog post today, including a handy briefing document that I have embedded below. She credited her colleagues for the brief:

“Democratic governance improves when people have data that helps them see how officials are doing relative to past or promised performance,” she wrote.

As Shaw highlighted in her post, open data can increase the transparency of governments, corporations, journalism or academia. Its release and analysis can and does hold those same entities accountable. Open data can enable efficiencies in information search, access and retrieval, supporting the case of those looking for the return on investment in these kinds of open government initiatives. And open data can support and enhance civic engagement and participation between the people and their government.

Liberté, Egalité, Transparencé? France joins Open Government Partnership.

data-carte

France has seen its share of revolutions, governments and leaders, from Gallic chieftains to Frankish kings, emperors to presidents, monarchy to people’s assembly, fascism to republic. Now, France will be the 64th country to join the historic Open Government Partnership that launched in September 2011.

Last week, in the 55th item in a joint statement, French president François Hollande and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto announced that France would be joining the Open Government Partnership:

“Persuadés que la transparence, l’intégrité et la participation des citoyens aux décisions qui les concernent sont les piliers de la démocratie, le Mexique et la France ont décidé d’adhérer à l’Initiative pour un Gouvernement ouvert, dont le Mexique assumera la présidence en 2015 et sera siège du Sommet l’an prochain. Forts de leur expérience en matière d’ouverture et de partage des données publiques, la France et le Mexique entendent encourager pleinement cette initiative.»

Roughly translated to English, that is:

“Convinced that transparency, integrity and participation of citizens in decisions that concern them are the pillars of democracy, Mexico and France have decided to join the Open Government Partnership, of which Mexico assumes the presidency in 2015 and will be the seat of the Summit next year. With their experience of the opening of materials and sharing of public data, France and Mexico agree to fully encourage this initiative.”

opgFrance1

“France is joining the Open Government Partnership with great determination,” Marylise Lebranchu, Ministre de de la Décentralisation, de la Réforme de l’Etat et de la Fonction Publique, France, said, in a statement. “France is willing to contribute to its dynamism with full commitment and by engaging in a fruitful dialogue with its partners. What’s at stake is innovation and building the public action of tomorrow. It’s not only about being accountable, it is also about deeply renewing the way we design, drive and assess public action.”

Commenting on France joining, the civil-society co-chair of OGP, Rakesh Rajani, said that “opening up government to citizen ideas and oversight is not easy and not always popular. France has shown … that it is willing to take the extra step of joining the Open Government Partnership, and putting citizens at the heart of government reform efforts.”

Minister Kuntoro, the government co-chair of OGP, in a statement, said that “OGP is stronger today with France as a participant, and I look forward to working with them to advance reform efforts in France and globally. The demand from citizens for open, innovative and accountable governments is common across the world. France can help strengthen OGP and inspire other countries to join this vibrant movement.”

Official adoption of gouvernment ouvert and open data by France means that “données publiques” (public data) and “données ouvert” (open data) will become part of the lingua franca of Francophone countries around the world. (Canada started that the ball rolling a few years ago.) Tranparence, collaboration and participation, the three pillars of open government proposed by the White House open government initiative five years ago, need far less in the way of translation, differing only in one letter.

Whether there is much of a discussion of how “libéralisme” — meaning economic liberalism and the market system — relates to données ouvert remains to be seen, particularly given that the Socialist party is currently in power in France. As the relationship between of open data and economic activity has become better established and the potential value of its release valued in the trillions of dollars (or euros), governments around the world have become interested in tapping their own national reserves.

One challenge for France, as it is everywhere the 21st century version of technology-driven open government is being embraced, will be to come to grips with the privacy rights of citizens, from surveillance to public data release, nor put critical infrastructure at risk through open data releases.

Another will be to pay equal or greater attention to the release of “données publiques” that is not only “ouvert” in the sense of format, license and reuse, but also in the sense of making the government more transparent and accountable to the citizens of the representative democratic republic, or to the oversight of their elected representatives, where public disclosures might affect national security, privacy or the trade secrets of companies under regulation.

The most uncomfortable challenge, however, may be reconciling this newfound, public commitment to more “openness” with closed or secret systems of government in France, from intelligence to criminal justice, just as it has true in other participating countries, from the United States to the Philippines.

As the Fifth French Republic submits a letter of intent and joins the Open Government Partnership, the Hollande administration is committing itself to creating a National Open Government Action Plan, following through on a public consultation and collaboration with civil society, and then to working towards milestones and goals in it.

Whether France makes meaningful commitments in its consultation, from publicizing it to giving citizens a real say in the future direction of the country, or follows through on them, will be, as is true everywhere, an open question.

[Illustration Credits: OpenDataFrance.net and Republique Citoyenne]

This post and headline have been updated, after official confirmation of France’s intent to join, with statements from government and OGP.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh issues open data executive order; city council ordinance to come?

5943910065_b422feecec_o

The City of Boston has joined the growing list of cities around the world that have adopted open data. The executive order issued yesterday by Mayor Marty Walsh has been hailed by open government advocates around the country. The move to open up Boston’s data has been followed by action, with 411 data sets listed on data.cityofboston.gov as of this morning. The EO authorizes and requires Boston’s chief information officer to issue a City of Boston Open Data Policy and “include standards for the format and publishing of such data and guidance on accessibility, re-use and minimum documentation for such data.”

The element on re-use is critical: the success of such initiatives should be judged based upon the network effects of open data releases, not the raw amount of data published online, and improvements to productivity, efficiency, city services, accountability and transparency.

Notably, Boston City Councilor-at-Large Michelle Wu also filed a proposal yesterday morning to create an open data ordinance that would require city agencies and departments to make open data available, codifying the executive order into statue as San Francisco, New York City and Philadelphia have done.

“Government today should center on making data-driven decisions and inviting in the public to collaborate around new ideas and solutions,” said Wu, in a statement.  “The goal of this ordinance is greater transparency, access, and innovation.  We need a proactive, not a reactive, approach to information accessibility and open government.”

 

Notably, she posted the text of her proposed open data ordinance online on Monday, unlike the city government, and tweeted a link to it. (It took until today for the city of Boston to post the order; city officials have yet to share it on social media. )

“Boston is a world-class city full of energy and talent,” said Wu. “In addition to promoting open government, making information available to the fullest extent possible will help leverage Boston’s energy and talent for civic innovation. From public hackathons to breaking down silos between city departments, putting more data online can help us govern smarter for residents in every neighborhood.”

As long-time readers know, I lived in Boston for a decade. It’s good to see the city government move forward to making the people’s data available to them for use and reuse. I look forward to seeing what the dynamic tech, financial, health care, educational and research communities in the greater Boston area do with it.

EXECUTIVE ORDER OF MAYOR MARTIN J. WALSH

An Order Relative to Open Data and Protected Data Sharing

Whereas, it is the policy of the City of Boston to practice Open Government, favoring participation, transparency, collaboration and engagement with the people of the City and its stakeholders; and
Whereas, information technologies, including web-based and other Internet applications and services, are an essential means for Open Government, and good government generally; and
Whereas, the City of Boston should continue, expand and deepen the City’s innovative use of information technology toward the end of Open Government, including development and use of mobile computing and applications, provision of online data, services and transactions; and
Whereas, the City of Boston also has an obligation to protect some data based upon privacy, confidentiality and other requirements and must ensure that protected data not be released in violation of applicable constraints; and
Whereas, clarification and definition of open data, privacy, security requirements, interoperability and interaction flows is necessary for the City’s Open Government agenda;
NOW THEREFORE, pursuant to the authority vested in me as Chief Executive Officer of the City of Boston by St. 1948, c. 452 Section 11, as appearing in St. 1951, c. 376, Section 1, and every other power hereto enabling, I hereby order and direct as follows:

1. The City of Boston recognizes Open Government as a key means for enabling public participation, transparency, collaboration and effective government, including by ensuring the availability and use of Open Data, appropriate security and sharing of Protected Data, effective use of Identity and Access Management and engagement of stakeholders and experts toward the achievement of Open Government.
2. The City of Boston Chief Information Officer (“CIO”), in consultation with City departments, is authorized and directed to issue a City of Boston Open Data Policy.
a) The Open Data Policy shall include standards for the format and publishing of such data and guidance on accessibility, re-use and minimum documentation for such data;

b) The Open Data Policy shall include guidance for departments on the classification of their data sets as public or protected and a method to report such classification to the CIO. All departments shall publish their public record data sets on the City of Boston open data portal to the extent such data sets are determined to be appropriate for public disclosure, and/or if appropriate, may publish their public record data set through other methods, in accordance with API, format, accessibility and other guidance of the Open Data Policy.
3. The City of Boston CIO, in consultation with City departments, is authorized and directed to issue a City of Boston Protected Data Policy applicable to non-public data, such as health data, educational records and other protected data;

a) The policy shall provide guidance on the management of Protected Data, including guidance on security and other controls to safeguard Protected Data, including appropriate Identity and Access Management and good practice guidelines for compliance with legal or other rules requiring the sharing of Protected Data with authorized parties upon the grant of consent, by operation of law or when otherwise so required;
b) The policy shall provide a method to ensure approval by the Corporation Counsel of the City of Boston to confirm Protected Data is only disclosed in accordance with the Policy.
4. This Executive Order is not intended to diminish or alter the rights or obligations afforded under the Massachusetts Public Records Law, Chapter 66, Section 10 of the Massachusetts General Laws and the exemptions under Chapter 4, Section 7(26). Additionally, this Executive Order is intended to be interpreted consistent with Federal, Commonwealth, and local laws and regulations regarding the privacy, confidentiality, and security of data. Nothing herein shall authorize the disclosure of data that is confidential, private, exempt or otherwise legally protected unless such disclosure is authorized by law and approved by the Corporation Counsel of the City of Boston.
5. This Executive Order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the City of Boston, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.
6. The City of Boston CIO is authorized and directed to regularly consult with experts, thought leaders and key stakeholders for the purpose of exploring options for the implementation of policies and practices arising under or related to this Executive Order.

Internet Caucus to host forum in DC on open data with Zillow CEO

SDC-Zillow-Keynote-demo-dc6656

Tomorrow, the Internet Caucus is hosting a forum on open data in the United States Congress that will feature a conversation between Zillow CEO Spencer Rakoff and  yours truly.

Open government data powers Zillow’s ability to give consumers more insight into the real estate market. They are a clear winner in the open data economy, an early beneficiary of federal government releases of data that could one day add trillions of dollars in economic value, better services, resilience against climate change, accountability, and social justice. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the potential and challenges of opening up data about housing and making the real estate market more transparent.

If you have questions about Zillow, open data, startups, real estate or other counts, please let me know. 

[Image Credit: Zillow]

Representative Quigley introduces updated Transparency in Government Act (TGA)

Earlier today, Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced a comprehensive open government transparency bill on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. The aptly titled “Transparency in Government Act” (PDF) (summary) coincides with Sunshine Week, the annual effort to stimulate a national dialogue about the iopen government and freedom of information.

“The public’s trust in government has reached historic lows, causing many Americans to simply give up on Washington,” said Representative Quigley. “But the mission of government matters, and we can’t lead in the face of this deficit of trust. The Transparency in Government Act shines a light on every branch of the federal government, strengthening our democracy and promoting an efficient, effective and open government.”

As it has in its previous two iterations, the transparency bill has received strong support from most of the major government watchdog and transparency groups in Washington, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the Sunlight Foundation, Data Transparency Coalition, the Center for Responsive Politics, the Center for Effective Government, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

As Matt Rumsey noted at the Sunlight Foundation blog, this iteration of TGA is the third version to be introduced since 2010:

As we noted at the time, the original bill was inspired in part by model transparency legislation put together on PublicMarkup.org, a project of the Sunlight Foundation.

The 2014 version of the TGA includes a number of Sunlight Foundation priorities including, but not limited to, enhanced access to the work of congressional committees and Congressional Research Service reportsimprovements to the current lobbying disclosure regime as well as increased transparency in federal contracting, grants and loans.

The prospects for TGA to pass through the entire House don’t appear to be much better than the prior two versions. That said, as CREW policy director Daniel Schuman wrote today, the bill is a deep reservoir of transparency ideas that Congress can draw upon to amend other legislation or introduce as stand-alone bills:

  • Greater congressional accountability through improved disclosure of foreign travel reports, gift reports, how members of Congress spend their official budgets, and greater disclosure of personal financial information.
  • Greater congressional transparency through improved access to the work of committees (including meeting schedules and transcripts) and greater contextualization of floor votes.
  • Empowering public understanding of congressional work through public access to Congressional Research Service reports.
  • Better tracking of lobbying by broadening the definition of lobbyist, improving the tracking of lobbying activity (in part through the use of unique entity identifiers), and more frequent disclosures by lobbyists of political contributions; improved access to information on lobbying on behalf of foreign entities; and public access to statements by grantees and contractors certifying that they have not used money awarded by the federal government to lobby (the SF-LLLs).
  • Enhancing transparency for contracts, grants, and loans through improved data quality, better disclosure (including electronic) and improved compliance.
  • Making the executive branch more transparent by requiring online access to White House and executive branch agency visitor logs, providing centralized access to agency budget justifications, and allowing the public to see how the Office of Management and Budget OIRA changes draft agency regulations.
  • Improving transparency of non-profit organizations by requiring non-profit tax forms (990s) to be available online in a central location (replacing the current ad hoc disclosure system).
  • Improving the Freedom of Information Act by publishing completed requests online in a searchable database and requiring notice of efforts to carve out exemptions to FOIA. (Ourrecommendations go even further.)
  • Opening up federal courts by requiring live audio of Supreme Court hearings, publishing federal judicial financial disclosures online, requiring a Government Accountability Office study on the impact of live video-streaming Supreme Court proceedings, and requiring a GAO audit of PACER.
  • Require annual openness audits by GAO that look at whether data made available by the government meets the eight open data principles.

In aggregate, this is a bright beam of sunshine from Congress that everyone should stand behind, from citizens to legislators to advocates. The Project for Government Oversight is strongly supportive of its provisions, writing that “there is a lot to like in this bill, including more transparency for Congress, lobbying, the executive branch, and federal spending on contractors and grantees.”

Taken one by one, the individual provisions in the bill are well worth considering, one by one, from bringing the Supreme Court into the 21st century to FOIA reform.

If Representative Quigley’s bill can attract the attention of Congressional leaders and legislators across the aisle who have professed support for open government and transparency, maybe some more of these provisions will move forward to enter the Senate, though that body has shown little appetite for moving legislation forward in the 113th Congress to date.

Federal government agencies receive .91 GPA in FOIA compliance from Center for Effective Government

Today, the Center for Effective Government released a scorecard for access to information from the 15 United States federal government agencies that received the most Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, focusing upon an analysis of their performance in 2013.

The results of the report (PDF) for the agencies weren’t pretty: if you computed a grade point average from this open government report card (and I did) the federal government would receive a D for its performance. 7 agencies outright failed, with the State Department receiving the worst grade (37%).

The grades were based upon:

  1. How well agencies processed FOIA requests, including the rate of disclosure, fullness of information provided, and timeliness of the response
  2. How well the agencies established rules of information access, including the effectiveness of agency polices on withholding information and communications with requestors
  3. Creating user-friendly websites, including features that facilitate the flow of information to citizens, associated online services, and up-to-date reading rooms

The report is released at an interesting historic moment for the United States, with Sunshine Week just around the corner. The United States House of Representatives just unanimously passed a FOIA Reform Act that is substantially modeled upon the Obama administration’s proposals for FOIA reforms, advanced as part of the second National Open Government Action Plan. If the Senate takes up that bill and passes it, it would be one of the most important, substantive achievements in institutionalizing open government beyond this administration.

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington have disputed the accuracy of this scorecard, based upon the high rating for the Department of Justice. CREW counsel Anne Weismann:

It is appropriate and fair to recognize agencies that are fulfilling their obligations under the FOIA. But CEG’s latest report does a huge disservice to all requesters by falsely inflating DOJ’s performance, and ignoring the myriad ways in which that agency — a supposed leader on the FOIA front — ignores, if not flouts, its obligations under the statute.

Last Friday, I spoke with Sean Moulton, the director of open government policy at the Center for Effective Government, about the contents of the report and the state of FOIA in the federal government, from the status quo to what needs to be done. Our interview, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows.

What was the methodology behind the report?

Moulton: Our goal was to keep this very quantifiable, very exact, and to try and lay out some specifics. We thought about what the components were necessary for a successful FOIA program. The processing numbers that come out each year are a very rich area for data. They’re extremely important: if you’re not processing quickly and releasing information, you can’t be successful, regardless of other components.

We did think that there are two other areas that are important. First, online services. Let’s face it, the majority of us live online in a big way. It’s a requirement now for agencies to be living there as well. Then, the rules. They’re explained to the agencies and the public, in how they’re going to do things when they get a request. A lot of the agencies have outdated rules. Their current practices may be different, and they may be doing things that the rules don’t say they have to, but without them, they may stop. Consistent rules are essential for consistent long term performance.

A few months back, we released a report that laid out what we felt were best practices for FOIA regulations. We went through a review of dozens of agencies, in terms of their FOIA regulations, and identified key issues, such as communicating with the requester, how you manage confidential business information, how you handle appeals, and how you handle timelines. Then we found inside existing regulations the best ways this was being handled. It really helped us here, when we got to the rules. We used that as our roadmap. We knew agencies were already doing these things, and making that commitment. The main thing we measured under the rules were the items from that best practices report that were common already. If things were universal, we didn’t want to call a best practice, but a normal practice.

Is FOIA compliance better under the Obama administration, more than 4 years after the Open Government Directive?

Moulton: In general, I think FOIA is improving in this administration. Certainly, the administration itself is investing a great deal of energy and resources in trying to make greater improvements in FOIA, but it’s challenging. None of this has penetrated into national security issues.

I think it’s more of a challenge than the administration thought it would be. It’s different from other things, like open data or better websites. The FOIA process has become entrenched. The biggest open government wins were in areas where they were breaking new ground. There wasn’t a culture or way of doing this or problems that were inherited. They were building from the beginning. With FOIA, there was a long history. Some agencies may see FOIA as some sort of burden, and not part of their mission. They may think of it as a distraction from their mission, in fact. When the Department of Transportation puts out information, it usually gets used in the service of their mission. Many agencies haven’t internalized that.

There’s also the issue of backlogs, bureaucracy, lack of technology or technology that doesn’t work that well — but they’re locked into it.

What about redaction issues? Can you be FOIA compliant without actually honoring the intent of the request?

Moulton: We’re very aware of this as well. The data is just not there to evaluate that. We wish it was. The most you get right now is “fully granted” or “partly granted.” That’s incredibly vague. You can redact 99% or 1% and claim it’s partially redacted, either way. We have no indicator and no data on how much is being released. It’s frustrating, because something like that would help us get a better sense on whether agencies would benefit would new policies

We do know that the percentage of full grants has dropped every year, for 12 years, from the Clinton administration all the way through the Bush administration to today. It’s such a gray area. It’s hard to say whether it’s a terrible thing or a modest change.

Has the Obama administration’s focus on open government made any difference?

Moulton: I think it has. There were a couple of agencies that got together on FOIA reform. The EPA led the team, with the U.S. National Archives and the Commerce Department, to build a new FOIA tool. The outward-facing part of the tool enables a user to go to a single spot, request and track it. Other people could come and search FOIA’ed documents. Behind the scenes, federal workers could use the tool to forward requests back and forth. This fits into what the administration has been trying to do, using technology better in government

Another example, again at the EPA, is where they’ve put together a proactive disclosure website. They got a lot of requests, like if there are inquiries about properties, environmental history, like leaks and spills, and set up a site where you could look up real estate. They did this because they went to FOIA requests and see what people wanted. That has cut down their requests to a certain percentage.

Has there been increasing FOIA demand in recent years, affecting compliance?

Moulton: I do think FOIA requests have been increasing. We’ll see what this next year of data shows. We have seen a pretty significant increase, after a significant decrease in the Bush administration. That may be because this administration keeps speaking about open government, which leads to more hopeful requestors. We fully expect that in 2013, there will be more requests than the prior year.

DHS gets the biggest number of all, but that’s not surprising when we look at the size of it. It’s second biggest agency, after Defense, and the biggest domestic facing agency. when you start talking about things like immigration and FEMA, which go deep into communities and people’s lives, in ways that have a lot impact, that makes sense.

What about the Department of Justice’s record?

Moulton: Well, DoJ got the second highest rating, but we know they have a mixed record. There are things you can’t measure and quantify, in terms of culture and attitude. I do know there were concerns about the online portal, in terms of the turf war between agencies. There were concerns about whether the tech was flexible, in terms of meeting all agency needs. If you want to build a government-wide tool, it needs to have real flexibility. The portal changed the dialogue entirely

Is FOIA performance a sufficient metric to analyze any administration’s performance on open government?

Moulton: We should step back further and look at the broader picture, if we’re going to talk about open government. This administration has done things, outside of FOIA, to try to open up records and data. They’ve built better online tools for people to get information. You have to consider all of those things.

Does that include efforts like the Intelligence Community Tumblr?

Moulton: That’s a good example. One thing this administration did early on is to identify social media outlets. We should be going there. We can’t make citizens come to us. We should go to where people are. The administration pushed early on that agencies should be able to use Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook and Flickr and so on.

Is this social media use “propaganda,” as some members of the media have suggested?

Moulton: That’s really hard to decide. I think it can result in that. It has the potential to be misused to sidestep the media, and not have good interaction with the media, which is another important outlet. People get a lot of their information from the media. Government needs to have good relationship.

I don’t think that’s the intention, though, just as under Clinton, when they started setting up websites for the first time. That’s what the Internet is for: sharing information. That’s what social media can be used for, so let’s use what’s there.

Presidential Innovation Fellows show (some) government technology can work, after all

The last six months haven’t been kind to the public’s perception of the Obama administration’s ability to apply technology to government. The administration’s first term that featured fitful but genuine progress in modernizing the federal government’s use of technology, from embracing online video and social media to adopting cloud computing, virtualization, mobile devices and open source software. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau earned praise from The Washington Post, Bloomberg View, and The New York Times for getting government technology right.

Last fall, however, the White House fell into a sinkhole of its own creation when the troubled launch of Healthcare.gov led to the novel scene of a President of the United States standing in the Rose Garden, apologizing for the performance of a website. After the big fix to Healthcare.gov by a quickly assembled trauma team got the site working, the administration has quietly moved towards information technology reforms, with the hopes of avoiding the next Healthcare.gov, considering potential shifts in hiring rules and forming a new development unit within the U.S. General Services agency.

Without improved results, however, those reforms won’t be sufficient to shift the opinion of millions of angry Americans. The White House and agencies will have to deliver on better digital government, from services to public engagement.

pif-logo-300pxThis week, the administration showed evidence that it has done so: The projects from the second round of the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellows program are online, and they’re impressive. US CTO Todd Park and US GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini proudly described their accomplishments today:

Since the initiative launched two years ago, Presidential Innovation Fellows, along with their government teammates, have been delivering impressive results—at start-up velocity. Fellows have unleashed the power of open government data to spur the creation of new products and jobs; improved the ability of the Federal government to respond effectively to natural disasters; designed pilot projects that make it easier for new economy companies to do business with the Federal Government; and much more. Their impact is enormous.

These projects show that a relatively small number of talented fellows can work with and within huge institutions to rapidly design and launch platforms, Web applications and open data initiatives. The ambition and, in some cases, successful deployment of projects like RFPEZ, Blue Button Connect, OpenFDA, a GI Bill toolGreen Button, and a transcription tool at the Smithsonian Institute are a testament to the ability of public servants in the federal government to accomplish their missions using modern Web technologies and standards. (It’s also an answer to some of the harsh partisan criticism that the program faced at launch.)

In a blog post and YouTube video from deputy U.S. chief technology officer Jennifer Pahlka, the White House announced today they had started taking applications for a third round of fellows that would focus on 14 projects within three broad areas: veterans, open data and crowdsourcing:

  • “Making Digital the Default: Building a 21st Century Veterans Experience: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is embarking on a bold new initiative to create a “digital by default” experience for our Nation’s veterans that provides better, faster access to services and complements the Department’s work to eliminate the disability claims backlog.
  • Data Innovation: Unleashing the Power of Data Resources to Improve Americans’ Lives: This initiative aim to accelerate and expand the Federal Government’s efforts to liberate government data by making these information resources more accessible to the public and useable in computer readable forms, and to spur the use of those data by companies, entrepreneurs, citizens, and others to fuel the creation of new products, services, and jobs.
  • By the People, for the People: Crowdsourcing to Improve Government: Crowdsourcing is a powerful way to organize people, mobilize resources, and gather information. This initiative will leverage technology and innovation to engage the American public as a strategic partner in solving difficult challenges and improving the way government works—from helping NASA find asteroid threats to human populations to improving the quality of U.S. patents to unlocking information contained in government records.”

Up until today, the fruits of the second class of fellows have been a bit harder to ascertain from the outside, as compared to the first round of five projects, like RFPEZ, where more iterative development was happening out in the open on Github. Now, the public can go see for themselves what has been developed on their behalf and judge for themselves whether it works or not, much as they have with Healthcare.gov.

I’m particularly fond of the new Web application at the Smithsonian Institute, which enables the public to transcribe handwritten historic documents and records. It’s live at Transcription.si.edu, if you’d like to pitch in, you can join more than three thousand volunteers who have already transcribed and reviewed more than 13,000 historic and scientific records. It’s a complement to the citizen archivist platform that the U.S. National Archives announced in 2011 and subsequently launched. Both make exceptional use of the Internet’s ability to distribute and scale a huge project around the country, enabling public participation in the creation of a digital commons in a way that was not possible before.