Several months into the new administration, Washington, D.C., was treated to events to learn about efforts to increase openness and transparency in government. Some speakers focused on the current situation, highlighting resource challenges that are facing all three branches of government, while others looked to the future and the technology that would enable government to keep up with the expectations of citizens. Here are the highlights of each event.
Commerce Department Belatedly Celebrates Sunshine Week
Originally scheduled for March 15, 2017, during Sunshine Week, but postponed due to a snowstorm in D.C., Strengthening Transparency through Open Data and Access to Information was finally held on June 20 at the Commerce Research Library. It was then that individuals from seven Commerce Department bureaus received certificates of recognition for reducing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) backlog by 10% or exceeding their bureau’s FOIA goals—for example, by closing their 10 oldest FOIA requests.
Melanie Pustay, director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy, presented a graphic to illustrate the steady increase in FOIA requests received and processed from 2010 to the present. It was thought that a change to a “release to one, release to all” policy would reduce the number of FOIA requests, but it appears that, as the documents are released via FOIA, they engender further probing and requests for “all backup material.” Pustay encourages FOIA officers to help respondents narrow their requests so that they can be put into the simple request track, guaranteeing a response within 20 days (as opposed to 100 days for complex requests).
Victor Goode, assistant general counsel and interim education director at the NAACP National Office, wished for meaningful engagement between those in the nonprofit and advocacy space and public officials. Forming a partnership could speed the release of information for analysis, increase the efficacy of program evaluation, and provide a pathway to better policy development.
Lisa Wolfisch, deputy director of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Center for New Media and Promotion, spoke about Census Bureau efforts to assess the usability of census data by engaging with developers at API events, such as the National Day of Civic Hacking. The big news concerned the launch of a beta site for the Census Bureau’s new data exploration platform, which will replace American FactFinder.
Reboot Congress 2017: Modernizing the First Branch of Government
On May 17, Lincoln Network and Democracy Fund hosted Reboot Congress 2017, an event that brought together civic technology innovators, engineers, designers, elected officials, senior staffers, and policy experts who are interested in how to modernize Congress. The day illuminated how ill-equipped leaders are in using technology to the benefit of their constituents and the future of American society. The key takeaways from the event are as follows:
- Panelists noted that there is a considerable lack of respect in Congress for scientific facts, and while legislators may disagree on policy, all must have respect for the role of science in our lives.
- The Congressional App Challenge is one example of efforts being made to inspire students to study STEM subjects.
- Lifelong learning is the appropriate response to the quickening pace of change in today’s knowledge economy: Children should learn how to code in schools (and during summer holidays), as should unemployed/underemployed adults as they retrain for jobs that will be relevant in the future.
- The federal government spends $85–$90 billion on IT—with 75% going to support legacy systems—but we clearly don’t have that much invested in federal IT infrastructure. It’s not that the technology isn’t available, it’s that the procurement process is complex and the skills to use the technology are absent among most members of government.
- The small staff and budget for congressional offices (with a high turnover rate) make it difficult to sustain the implementation of technology. Those that have been successful have had a tech-savvy champion among senior staffers.
- Congressional staffers would benefit from tools that allow them to be more responsive to constituents—including with regard to workflow issues related to constituent correspondence (e.g., approval process, tracking changes, and version control)—and that provide a one-to-many outreach, such as Facebook’s Town Hall feature for video live-streaming. The focus of the leadership should not be on technology for use by their party members—congressional committees would benefit if given assistance with using technology to make their work more open and transparent.
- There is an urgent need to reduce the effort involved in citizen outreach, while improving the quality of each contact. Technology that could be helpful is available today, but it is not being used in Congress due to a variety of factors, including members not knowing about the tools, hurdles in the federal procurement process, security concerns, and a bureaucratic, competitive bidding process.
Several organizations and helpful tools were mentioned throughout the day, and their progress deserves watching. They include the following:
Legislative Data and Transparency Conference
The June 27 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference on Capitol Hill brought those who are responsible for building internal systems and public-facing legislative sites together with members of transparency groups and legislative data users for a frank conversation about the state of legislative data, challenges facing those who are tasked with modernizing parliamentary systems, and steps being taken to improve governance, policy, and lawmaking. Based on the premise that a more informed citizenry is better able to participate in democracy (with laws being the foundation of democracy), speakers spent the day demonstrating a range of efforts by the government, corporations, not-for-profit organizations, and individuals to help make laws more discoverable and understandable.