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Today in OpenGov: Don’t roll back sunshine in government, Congress

Monday, May 23, 2016 15:05
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(Before It's News)

By The Sunlight Foundation

WE NEED MORE SUNSHINE, NOT LESS. Congress is considering rolling back a key transparency law tomorrow. That’s a huge mistake.

TRADE UP: Sunlight joined 7 other open government groups submitting recommendations for the 2016 U.S. Trade Representative’s next Open Government Plan. Here’s the summary:

  1. “Publish U.S. textual proposals on rules in ongoing international trade negotiations;
  2. Publish consolidated texts after each round of ongoing negotiations; and
  3. Appoint a ‘transparency officer’ who does not have structural conflicts of interest in promoting transparency at the agency.”

MORE DATA, PLEASE: The Federal Communications Commission responded, repeatedly, to our critique of their new complaints data disclosure. While the agency isn’t shifting its policy or adding who complaints are filed against, they didn’t rule it out, either. “We have an obligation to protect consumer privacy and that includes being sure personally identifiable information that might be included in the text of a complaint is not released,” said an agency spokesman.  “This is the same privacy process used in our responses to FOIA request. At this time, we do not have the automated redaction or opt-in capabilities.  Due to the very high volume of complaints we receive, an automated redaction system would be needed before we could release complaint narratives in a timely manner.” National

  • The Guardian published a series on whistleblowers over the weekend, including how the Pentagon punished NSA whistleblowers, a former Pentagon official going on record against the whistleblower program, Edward Snowden’s call for a whistleblower shield, and hopes from experts that Justice Department efforts will improve the system.
  • It sure looks like registered lobbyists are regaining their influence on the campaign trail. [WSJ]
  • This past weekend also had a move towards greater transparency on the use of lethal force by the Defense Department in other countries, after the United States publicly acknowledged targeting the leader of the Taliban with a drone strike in Pakistan. [Just Security]
  • The Obama administration and Congress have made reforms but did not extend protections to contractors for intelligence agencies. [Poltifact]
  • The Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs suggested that wait times weren’t the best way to measure care at hospitals. [Christian Science Monitor]
  • While measuring satisfaction and patient outcomes are important question, the time it takes for veterans to gain access that care also really matters. [Washington Examiner]
  • Quartz reporter David Yanovsky is suing the U.S. Department of Commerce to gain access to immigration data about who is entering the United States. Yanovsky tried to get data through a the Freedom of Information Act in March 2015 but was denied – and then, incredibly, the agency reportedly offered to sell him five years of statistics from the two databases for $173,775, arguing that “because it is authorized to charge for the databases, they are exempt from FOIA requests.” If true, this is outrageous: The agency should be releasing anonymous immigration records and airport manifests to the public as open data, not charging media huge amounts of money for them, much less advancing the argument that these data are not subject to federal public records law. [QZ]
  • Liz Hempowitz read the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy’s annual Summary and Assessment of the Chief FOIA Officer Reports for 2016 and offered some helpful, constructive critique about how FOIA success is being measured or managed in return.
    It’s hard to take their findings seriously, however, when they conclude that agencies earned overwhelmingly positive marks despite growing dissatisfaction among requesters who use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Two good examples of bad methodology can easily be found in the survey questions OIP used to rate both: 1) how well agencies implement the President’s and the Attorney General Holder’s instructions to proactively disclose documents where possible; and 2) how well agencies are reducing their backlogs of FOIA requests. These examples reflect the larger problem with FOIA implementation: that agencies are less focused on the quality of responses and released records, and more about complying with the law’s requirements on paper. Frequent FOIA requesters are frustrated with both of these aspects, so the perfunctory questions of whether an agency has a process to identify proactive disclosures or if the backlog has decreased don’t get to the root of the problems. [POGO]

  • Speaking of FOIA, the DC Circuit court ruled today that “students who make FOIA requests to further their coursework or other school-sponsored activities are eligible for reduced fees under FOIA because students, like teachers, are part of an educational institution.” []
  • Sunlight’s Emily Shaw shared her thoughts on transparency today at William & Mary, including a terrific presentation on public transparency and public records law that she’s uploaded to the blog. [Sunlight]
  • If you’re considering making a FOIA request, this new podcast with Vice reporter Jason Leopold is required listening. [IRE]
  • A new research paper (sorry, paywall) by Ben Wasike, an associate professor in the Communication Department at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, used used five Department of Justice metrics to compare FOIA performance between the Obama and Bush administrations. Conclusion: “Results indicate that while efficiency is higher under Obama, agencies are releasing information only in part. While appeals were processed faster under Bush, petitioners have had more success under Obama. Additionally, FOIA staff workload has dramatically reduced under Obama. One notable finding was that contrary to popular media outcry, neither administration evoked national security and law enforcement exemptions as much as has been widely claimed. Legacy and commonality were also findings indicating that certain trends transcend the incumbent.” [ScienceDirect]
  • And you’re wondering why there’s a lot of FOIA news in today’s digest, well, click on over to #50DaysOfFOIA!

State and Local

  • When ProPublica analyzed the risk assessments that software assigned to convicts that predicted how likely they were to commit a crime again, they found two things: the algorithm wasn’t particularly good and it was racially biased. Make sure to read their investigation on “machine bias” and think about how it might affect other public spheres as “software eats those worlds.” [ProPublica]
  • Commendably, ProPublica published both the methodology they used to analyze the recidivism algorithm and the open data behind it. [ProPublica]
  • Activists and advocates are questioning the impact of Missouri’s new ‘revolving door” law. []
  • Here’s how Socrata is helping the Seattle Police Department publish its data online. [Seattle Times]
  • In the other Washington, OpenGov Inc is helping the District of Columbia put its budget online. [OpenGov]
  • The ACLU has sued the New York Police Department for contracting records for cell site simulators, AKA “Stingrays.” [Daily News]
  • Unemployed Detroit residents are stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide. [New York Times]
  • A proposed law governing public access to police body cam video in Minnesota has transparency activists up in arms. [Star Tribune]


  • Here’s a great read on Russia’s “Dissernet,” a volunteer organization that runs a website that exposes fraudulent university credentials, from Leon Neyfakh: “In all these cases, the alleged fraud was exposed by members of a volunteer organization that calls itself —the “website” Naryshkin referred to so dismissively. Started in early 2013 by a handful of scientists and journalists, the group has undertaken the task of identifying and publicly shaming government functionaries, academic administrators, and members of Russia’s so-called elite who allegedly hold advanced degrees they did not earn through legitimate means. Using software that looks for sections of text that resemble previously published work, Dissernet has, to date, identified roughly 5,600 suspected plagiarists and published damning reports on about 1,300 of them. In an exposé posted earlier this year, Dissernet showed that 1 in 9 members of the Russian State Duma—the parliamentary body that Naryshkin presides over—had received their diplomas using dissertations that contained large portions of other people’s work and that had, most likely, been purchased from ghostwriters.” [Slate]
  • Here’s an interesting look at making the education system more accountable in Pakistan. [Accountability Lab]
  • Tim Hughes shared some reflections on the development of the UK’s next National Action Plan and what open government policy can learn from Internet culture.
    “One of the lessons I’ve learnt from four years of coordinating the OGN is that there’s some truth in the 1% rule for internet culture, which states that 1% of an internet community will create material, 9% will edit it, and 90% will only view it.  The percentages might be a bit off and these are certainly not static groups (people move – and should be able to move – between them depending on the issue), but for our purposes I think this means we need to strike the right balance between collaboration, participation and transparency in the process.

We need to open up the nuts and bolts of the process to the “1%” with the interest, knowledge and skills to actively collaborate in developing a specific commitment.  We need the participation of the “9%” in commenting, challenging and improving ideas, drafts and policies. And finally, we need the “90%” to know what’s going on, not least so they can step into the fray when they have something to say or offer.  With limited time and resources it can be easy to skew to one, but all are needed to get maximum value.  This all means having a clear process, defined and accessible opportunities to get involved, and feedback loops to those involved and less so.  The basics of any good participatory process, but the things it can be hard to nail down when the pressure is on.” [OpenGovUK]

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We want to find and share the most important stories about open government around the world from the past 24 hours here. To do that, we’ll need YOUR help. Please send your tips and feedback at [email protected]. If you would like suggest an event, email us by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event.

The Sunlight Foundation is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike.


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