Tag Archives: Government Transparency

Congress moves to expand access to critical research

Though probably unscheduled, the pending expansion of access policy re. reports of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) is super-timely.  CRS staff research and reports are valued as authoritative , timely and consequential resources, heretofore reserved for members of Congress, their staff, and info mavens. .  Extending access to the general public is something like a digital fireworks display for seekers of authoritative information.

For decades the debate has centered on one key question:  Does “confidentiality” demand that the work product of CRS staff serve Congress members and staff only, or does it rightfully belong to the public. In fact, though insider seekers of truth had routes to the motherlode access was a practice more honored in the breach than in the practice.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes the less-than-free flow of information https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congressional_Research_Service_reports.  And that has been the practice for decades.

Until last week when access advocates announced that there is a light at the end of the legislative tunnel.  Members of the House Appropriations Committee passed the legislative branch appropriations bill which includes “strong language” mandating that all non-confidential CRS reports be made publicly available.” Though no legislative initiative is ever “over till it’s over” hopes are high that the full House will concur and that the Senate will pass a companion bill.  With all due respect to CRS and the virtue of solid research and truth-telling, this bill will probably not make headlines or warrant a filibuster.  And yet, in the current environment, access to authoritative, unbiased, current information matters more than ever!

In his comments on the legislative state of things the American Library Association spokesperson wrote this:

The Committee has debated this issue for several years, and after considering debate and testimony from entities inside the legislative branch and beyond the Committee believes the publishing of CRS reports will not impede CRS’s core mission in any impactful way and is in keeping with the Committee’s priority of full transparency to the American people. Within 90 days of enactment of this act CRS is directed to submit a plan to its oversight committees detailing its recommendations for implementing this effort as well as any associated cost estimates.

The timing is ideal.  As Americans celebrate the 4th with fireworks, parades and picnics this small step for the democracy is a giant step for an informed democracy.  The quantity and quality of CRS reports is beyond belief  – Check out the history of CRS publications here:  https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/

Assuming that this legendary level of quality is allowed and funded to continue, we will be better informed citizens, capable of more informed decision-making.  Something like the forefathers had in mind when they signed their names….

Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.

Abraham Lincoln, 1861

Stories amplify the adventure of open government

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”Lewis Carroll

As we approach the fifty year anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) we are challenged to balance these parallel forces of “adventure” and “explanation”. We need to consider the possibility that the “dreadful time” spent on legal and journalistic explanations of the Constitution has somehow sapped the “adventure” out of the right of the people to information by and about the government. In truth, the right to know is itself an adventure so bold, so woven into the very fabric of this democracy, that the essence may be obscured in endless explanation.

Proponents who staunchly defend the fine points of FOIA have brilliantly and adamantly fought for open government. Wise defenders of the principle creatively respond – and help to shape – evolving social structures and communication strategies. Advocates collaborate to ward off insidious threats to the people’s right to know. Still, the democratic tenet remains as implicit as it is complex. After a half century of worthy service, FOIA hovers on a precipice reconstructed by fundamental change in politics, the media, economics, technology and the body politic.

When a naïve reporter recently referred to FOIA as “obscure”, advocates wisely shifted from mere explanations to fiery examples of adventures, to stories of how and why FOIA matters – why, after a half century, FOIA is itself an adventure in preserving a democratic principle in an era of cataclysmic change.

The fact is, the right to know is by definition linked to content, complicated by the essential reality that information is implicit, invisible, elusive, built into the genetic structure of the ultimate decision or end product. Information remains inert until and unless sentient beings transform it into knowledge that supports “adventures.” It was neither a politician nor a journalist but Goethe himself who reminded us that “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” The adventure lies in the doing….”

The challenge has always been to trace, to describe, and to realize the value and essence of transparency. The sine qua non is the right of the people to hold government accountable as an authoritative and accessible source of information that ultimately matters “in the doing.” Fifty years after passage of FOIA we may need more adventure to make it real!

In an earlier blog post my emphasis was on “putting a face” on information, https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2013/12/24/open-government-putting-a-face-on-an-implicit-right/  I now favor the energy that “adventure” suggests. Though we need explanations of how to exercise the right to know, as FOIA turns Fifty we need adventure stories in which FOIA is the weapon the hero wields to save the day!

Adventure engages today’s body politic, not as inert consumers but active players in the challenge to sustain this democracy. Participants in the adventure who once relied on established media are overwhelmed, and often misinformed, by the political, economic and technological transformation of the media. Today’s information environment places greater demands on engaged citizens to be independent seekers, learners and interpreters of the facts, of truth.

During the build-up to “FOIA at Fifty” advocates are mounting a major campaign to “Fix FOIA”. The partisan initiative is under Congressional discussion now as members consider recent legislation, action precipitated by a recent congressional report that concluded that the FOI process “is broken and in need of serious change.” (http://www.standard.net/frontpage/2015/02/09/Lawmakers-move-to-strengthen-freedom-of-information-act.html

The challenge now is to add zest to the explanations that politics demand. My humble hope is to collect and share stories that illuminate the adventure – anecdotes that amplify the contributions of individuals who first inspired the mandate, to celebrate those who preserve that same spirit of adventure even as they craft the legal structures that preserve the essence of open government.

Journalist and writer Jon Meacham offers this guidance in the pursuit of the adventure of an informed democracy:

The American Dream may be slipping away. We have overcome such challenges before. To recover the Dream requires knowing where it came from, how it lasted so long and why it matters so much.

In fact, the Dream lasted so long, in part at least, because informed citizens have exercised their right to know. Stories that illustrate FOI at work matter so much because they illustrate the impact of the law. Adventures matter simply because “explanations take such a dreadful time.”

 

FOIA Machine Lubricates the Wheels of Access

Some holiday time-off-task offers a chance to get back to Poking Around – so where do I start?   With a post about FOIA…. Though I’m eager to poke around a broader sphere, I have been intending to share this newish tool for some time.

Maybe you too have sworn off cookies, shopping, toys that blink and blast, and melodramatic reruns on TV – time to stretch the brain. Admit it, you’ve always wanted to mine the wealth of public information/data — from what’s behind the torture revelations to the fine points of climate change to your personal information trail.

Though widely supported efforts to streamline the Freedom of Information were torpedoed in the waning days of the last Congress, the folks at the Center for Investigative Reporting are pressing on – inviting seekers of government information to participate in the beta test of a promising tool on which they have been working since 2012.

FOIA Machine, a Kickstarted open-source platform, free to the user, offers innovative features that may clear the path to the maze of public records. Initially supported with a John S. and James L.Knight Foundation Prototype grant,with support from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, FOIA Machine was put over the top by 2000 contributors to the Kickstarter campaign. In their Kickstarter promo FOIA Machine team leaders describe the project as designed 1) to automate submission of requests, 2) to track FOIA requests, and 3) to aggregate information about FOIA requests themselves.

FOIA Machine was originally designed by and for journalists. Still, the John S. Knight Foundation anticipated that “FOIA Machine will aid journalists and private citizens in accessing millions of important governmental documents around the world that are covered by freedom of information laws which exist in more than 90 countries.”

FOIA Machine allows inquisitive users to

  • Prepare a request under the FOIA or any other Public Records state law from the agencies databases
  • Send requests to a right officer and agency, or schedule it for later sending
  • Track the status of requests
  • Get the records back to their email and FOIA Machine mailbox
  • Create projects from the group of similar requests
  • Use automated request or request letter templates to prepare requests
  • Search for other users’ requests and responsive documents
  • Share their FOIA experience with other users

As with any request, the toughest step is the first one – formulating the information or data need. FOIA Machine offers a couple of options: Users may use the email-like form to select an agency and contact(s) by simply fillinf out the body of the message. If the user knows the contacts and agencies, or can locate that information in the FOIA Machine data base, that is included – if that information is missing, FOIA Machine promises to lend a hand. There’s also a guided “wizard” option to assist in the process.

When the information/data request is submitted FOIA Machine emails the identified contact(s). It will also send the requester a copy of that information. From that point on the requester and agency staffer are in touch with the requester responsible for follow up. Simultaneously, there is another email address cc’ed by FOIA Machine on every message. FOIA Machine tracks the status of the request and the agency response, then provides a log of each interaction in a central location.

Requesters have a number of options. They may keep the transaction public or private; if it’s public it will appear in FOIA Machine’s listing of public requests. Users may also use the system feature to generate requests if they want to rely on the tool for tracing only. FOIA Machine provides a social support component with an online discussion group and through Twitter @foiamachine.

Clearly, the more users the more robust the pool of shared information. The cumulative knowledge can help users figure out how to improve their chances of getting requests fulfilled. Shared experiences, including the agencies track record, can guide users’ approach – plus the record of past requests may eliminate the user’s need to initiate a time-consuming request.

After this beta testing phase FOIA Machine will be managed by the non-profit  Investigative Reporters and Editors.  Meet the FOIA Machine design team here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cir/foia-machine

 

 

 

Human Rights – Common Threat, Common Theme

When Ursula LeGuin and Pope Francis echo each other’s concern for basic human rights being relegated to mere commodities it is time to take heed. As these intellectual giants remind us, human beings have a certain and inalienable right to access to food and access to information and ideas. The right to food and literature transcend the unfettered pursuit of wealth and the power that it affords. Pope Francis spoke at the International Food and Agriculture conference meeting in Rome.(http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=49396#.VHjGY8aC14M). Ursula LeGuin shared her thoughts from the prestigious platform of the 2014 National Book Awards. (http://www.nationalbook.org/amerletters_2014_uleguin.html#.VHjFjcaC14M)

Similarly global voices are speaking out for the human right to Internet access; there is a growing Global Net Neutrality Coalition that now represents more than 35 human rights and technology organizations from 19 countries. (http://thisisnetneutrality.org) Andrea Germanos has written an extensive article on the human right to Internet access in the November 24, 2014 issue o f Common Dreams. (http://www.commondreams.org/news/2014/11/24/global-survey-internet-access-should-be-human-right.

Clearly, the very definition of human rights is on our collective consciousness.

On December 10, 2014, we will celebrate Human Rights Day, commemorating the date on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming its principles as the “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” The theme of Human Rights Day 2014 is Human Rights 365. There will be local, national and international commemorations of the day and of the achievements of human rights activists over the decades.

To put the issues of 2014 in perspective it is enlightening to review the summary of human rights achievements that have been made since the 1948 Declaration. Since 1993 the High Commissioner for Human Rights has borne the responsibility to advocate, monitor, and train advocates as well as to contribute to legislative and policy reforms to increase accountability for human rights violations and to advance human rights. A summary of achievements over the past two decades suggests a broad range of initiatives ranging from the rights of victims of torture to the rights of LGBT individuals, people with disabilities, rights of the elderly, women’s rights and the human rights responsibilities of business enterprises. (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/OHCHR20_Backup/Pages/Achievements.aspx)

In 2013, on the 20th anniversary of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights the OHCHR issued a review of accomplishments. (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/OHCHR20_Backup/Pages/Achievements.asp)

A pervasive message emanates from the chorus of voices calling for attention to the universality of human rights. The 2013 report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights highlights the single human right that trumps the rampant forces that threaten the inherent rights of human beings on every front:

There is heightened awareness and growing demand by people worldwide for greater transparency and accountability from government and for the right to participate fully in public life. 

 Millions of people have gone on to the streets over the past few years, in countries all across the world. They have been asking for their right to participate fully in the important decisions and policies affecting their daily lives, at the international, national and the local levels.

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives. Every person shall have the right to vote and be elected, and to have access to public service, as well as to free expression, assembly and association. These are among the rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which 167 States are party. And they have been restated in many similar ways in other laws and documents.

* * * * *

Transparency, which engenders truth, is the foundation for all this.

Robert David Steele 

The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth, and Trust

 

 

Election Day Musings

Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.

Coco Chanel

The occasion to quote Coco Chanel does not arise often. Still, her pithy wisdom illuminates the paralysis that has gripped the American electorate during this season’s political campaigns. Though we the people hold to the conviction that we are the ultimate deciders of our political and social fate, we are adrift in a sea of information overload, bombarded by misinformation, doomed to operate from a position of information skepticism.   Our instinctive desire for authenticity is thwarted.

It is no wonder that we have lost control of our most valuable resource. Information is implicit, an invisible and ubiquitous thread that’s woven throughout the fabric of our environment, a force that frames the politics, economics, and social forces that shape our lives. Though we cannot see information pulsating through the channels that bombard the world around us, we need to understand the sources and the impact of this unique human resource.

A primary responsibility of the government is to produce and make accessible the information that Americans need to make good decisions. It is, then, the primary responsibility of the people to hold the government accountable to act in the public interest as determined by the electorate and their representatives.

Bottom line: We the people depend on our elected representatives and on government agencies, federal, local and state, to harness the power of information and telecommunications technology to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is incumbent on us as citizens in a democracy to understand the sources, the politics, the economics, the flow and the character of information, this nation’s natural and renewable resource.

In these hard times our priority must be to demand transparency, to hone the skills of access, and to feed our instinctive desire for authenticity.

 

 

 

Independence Day Birthday Greetings and a Public Spotlight on FOIA at 48

On my first day working in the DC office of OpenTheGovernment.org I was introduced to the security system, access code 7466.  Colleagues seem bemused that I did not immediately recognize this as July 4, 1966, date of the initial passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Since then the code has changed and I have learned more than I ever expected to know about FOIA.  Truth to tell, I have come to have enormous respect for this fundamental legislation, the bulwark of our nation’s protection of the people’s right to know.

Though some would say that FOIA is more honored in the breach than in the observance I worry much more about the fact that, for far too many of us, FOIA has come to be synonymous with national security, the province of attorneys and journalists, a mysterious process too pricey, too arcane, too complex for mere mortals.  In truth, FOIA is an indispensable tool that is available and accessible to the rest of us, which is why we need to engage in the ongoing hoopla surrounding FOIA as it approaches middle age….

Like most Americans FOIA, at the tender age of 48, is not about to sit on the shelf. Instead, FOIA is hot, ready to strut its stuff, retool, reinvent, whatever it takes to embrace the political and technological challenges of the day.  FOIA is taking its turn on center stage.  Everyone goes through this as the Big 5-0 approaches – not a bad idea for laws to pause for reflection at the same pace.

The 48th birthday celebration for FOIA blasted off on June 24 when U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014.(  http://www.leahy.senate.gov/download/alb14471 )

The intent of the bill is to significantly restrict the government’s ability to withhold information by citing what is known by insiders as the “withhold it because you want to” exemption.   The act also strengthens the FOIA ombuds Office of Government Services (OGIS), promotes more proactive online access to government information, and pushes back on agency attempts to weaken the 2007 Open Government Act amendments.  An earlier, less stringent, bill has already passed unanimously in the House. (FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act, February 2014)

Response to the Leahy-Cornyn proposal is immediate and generally positive from the open government community.  A quick google search will disclose comments by a host of advocacy groups of every stripe.  What matters now is that elected representatives understand that strengthening FOIA—the backbone of transparency and accountability — matters to “the rest of us,” the folks who care about food safety or the impact of fracking or the new EPA standards or transportation or children’s health or toxins or transportation safety or…..

It’s easy enough to brush up a bit on all things FOIA:

*If you’re the sort who likes to start from the beginning, check out the official FOIA website at http://www.foia.gov/index.html– keep in mind FOIA is a work in progress so if you see ways it can be improved, now’s the time….

*For specifics on FOIA at work, check out the National Security Archive, the unflappable agency that just keeps digging to unearth records long shielded by policy and practice from the public eye. http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/the_archive.html

*To learn about examples of the impact of FOIA as the force behind the headlines, take a look at the “FOIA Files” compiled by Sunshine in Government – see http://sunshineingovernment.org/wordpress/?page_id=1533

*The public ombuds within government is the Office of Government Services, a major target of the Leahy-Cornyn bill – Learn about OGIS at https://ogis.archives.gov

*More to the point, engage in the process.  The folks at the National Archives and Records Administration, a major player in all things FOIA, are currently re-thinking their role and processes.  It’s fun to join the discussion of the real people who really do the real work of tending the daily business of open government   http://blogs.archives.gov/foiablog/2014/06/25/foia-advisory-committee-begins-setting-priorities/)

*If you’re the voyeuristic type that just can’t get enough of this stuff, check out The Government Attic, a treasure trove of stuff that’s been gathering dust all these years, now released through the FOIA process – today’s favorite, the FBI files back when they had time to worry about “The Untouchables” (http://www.governmentattic.org/11docs/FBIfilesUntouchablesTV_1948-1962.pdf}

The point is, let your fingers do the walking, and you’ll be a FOIA fan in short order.

As a FOIA fan you’ll need time to prep for the celebration of FOIA’s happy birthday on the 4th.   You’ll want to mention to the visiting President that transparency matters to Minnesotans.  You’ll need to get up to speed and engage in the buzz that  FOIA is getting these days.

Take away – A lot has changed since July 4, 1966.  Access to information by and about our government matters more than ever – we the people are increasingly responsible to be independent seekers and evaluators of resources, to hold our government accountable.  By default information access, open government, accountability will fall into the abyss of “everybody’s business and nobody’s business.”

As citizens it is a privilege to commemorate the birthday of FOIA by paying attention!  Those who shaped the fundamentals of our independence had a lot of confidence that we the people were the best deciders and that our decisions rest on good information by and about the government.   FOIA matters to all of us.

Besides, when approached in the proper spirit, birthday celebrations, even for  monumental laws approaching 50, can end up being pretty entertaining.

 

 

 

 

Capitol Coders Share Open Government Ideas & Apps

You can’t keep a good Minnesota activist down!  Saturday’s Capitol Code, initiated by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, drew a public-spirited crowd of open government enthusiasts who braved the slipperiest streets in the hemisphere to share ideas, tools and apps.  The free and open event at Uptown Cocoa was well organized by state staffers and Bill Bushey of OpenTC’s.  The buzz of the worker bees at Uptown CoCo offered a lively take on the information chain at work as data and ideas flowed to and from policy makers, data producers, app developers and the public.

It was a chance to view close up,  then reflect upon, the real-time evolution of the two disparate forces:  1) the two-way interaction between the government and the governed and 2) the marriage between information (the content) and communications (the exchange).  Putting these two forces together, it is clear that the challenge du jour is to create conditions that support the constant and mutually supportive role of information and communication technology to effectively achieve the shared goal to serve the public good of a democratic people.

The parallel paths of governance and technology are restructuring the world order as we the people blink in awe. Till now the public has watched the inextricable growth of the information and communications industries.  Policy makers and the massive structures of implementation they have shaped have struggled breathlessly to keep apace while citizens are lost in a sea of acronyms – technical and bureaucratic.

For the corporate world, it’s match between producer and consumer is as obvious as it is profitable.  Unfettered by the intrusion of the vox populi, the unbridled power of wealth swoops in to consummate the marriage made in heaven.  Policy makers concerned about the public good and hamstrung by the slow-moving wheels of government, may find the relationship more problematic.

Tough as it may be, it’s time for the people to get a grip on our unalienable rights and our responsibility to defend those rights.  It’s time to butt in.  Accepting the fact that our forefathers got it right about our democratic government being based on an informed people, we need to keep an eye on how that information flows.  We need to care about how the information resource on which we depend – as individuals and as a nation — is first produced, then made accessible to the voting public in a format that is useful and usable.  That means everything from how the research agenda is determined to the format of the message to the free flow of information to the preservation of the public record.

We need to tend to the sources of information and to the channels of communication.  Above all, we need to hold accountable those charged with establishing and enforcing policy, the elected representatives of the people at every level of government.

The bad news – it’s complicated – obviously, we need to understand the tool.  What’s more, we need to know something about the responsibilities and the power flow among the levels of government.  We also need to be paying attention.

The good news, we don’t all need to understand the intricacies.  There are squadrons of good government organizations that tend to the mechanics.

What we need to do is to keep a critical eye on the process and the watchdogs, including the media, and to hold the system as a whole accountable.   Though nobody said it was easy, the burgeoning crop of hackers who participated in this weekend’s Capitol Code can attest to the fact that it can be a lot of fun!