Open Government and Obama’s Re-election

Obama’s first term in office brought in innovative technology leaders like Todd Park, Bryan Sivak and Vivek Kundra, to name a few. With his reelection, we can expect four more years of their and others’ continued work in the space of government data. But what does that really mean? We at Captricity have been thinking about open government a lot since participating in Code for America and launching our Open Data Portal. So we’re particularly interested in knowing: What does Obama’s re-election mean specifically for open data in government?

As it turns out, answering this question is not simple and involves a quick jaunt through history. Open Government policies arguably start with the signing of the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, following uneven enactment since then, including an essential cordoning-off of government data under Bush (George W) and a re-opening of data under Obama, with some specific steps to make data not only open, but accessible in a meaningful, useful way.

Some important dates and events:

  • 1966 – President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA requires all government agencies to release data requested (by individuals, media, etc) within 20 days, unless the data falls under one of the nine exemptions (i.e. is “classified”).
  • 1966 – 2001 – The FOIA was amended and updated, but remained mostly unchanged.
  • 2001 – 2009 – George W. Bush, in his tenure as President, essentially told government agencies to claim exemptions as often as they could (i.e. “classify” as much data as possible)
  • January 2009 – On Obama’s first full day in office, he issued a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government that reversed Bush’s mandate, making “accountability through transparency” a priority and launching the the Open Government Initiative
  • March 2011– was launched to bring together data on and published under the FOIA in one place
  • July 2011 – the international Open Government Partnership was launched, partially due to prodding by Obama in September of the previous year. The US is one of a handful of countries to have produced a country plan. (Read more here)
  • March 2012 – the White House launched the Big Data Initiative, including $200M in R&D commitments from six governmental agencies, aiming “to greatly improve the tools and techniques needed to access, organize, and glean discoveries from huge volumes of digital data.”
  • May 2012 – Obama released this memo summarizing certain requirements of a Digital Government Strategy meant “to build a 21st century digital Government.” Among those requirements were establishing centralized repositories of data and making all of that data machine-readable by default. (Ideas we’ve heard many times before from our friends Tim O’Reilly and Jen Pahlka and their “Government as a platform” ideas, as well as Carl Malamud and the team at Public.Resource.Org)

While we may take the FOIA for granted, history shows that policies of each President can in fact largely affect its implementation. Obama’s government brought about a number of new decrees and initiatives to move open government forward, and judging by those alone, the next four years look promising.

Outcomes, however, paint a slightly different picture. While data request processing time has improved, particularly in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and there are fewer backlogged requests, those improvements vary between agencies and do not necessarily translate into increased transparency. Many agencies still lag behind in honoring requests for data, and many more continue to classify a worrisome amount of data. In September of this year, Bloomberg news published an article reporting that only 14% (8 out of 57) of agencies from which data was requested fulfilled that request in the required twenty days. Some never fulfilled it all, or redacted large amounts of data. The Federal Times reported in October 2011 that both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security refused seemingly straightforward requests. The Hill reported six months earlier varied responses from over seventy federal agencies from whom reporters requested information on people filing FOIA requests. Different agencies responded with different speed, ranging levels of redaction, and a wide variety of formats, including handwritten.

Given past policies and outcomes, what can we expect for the future? I’m inclined to put on the rose colored glasses and say we’re headed in the right direction. If there’s anything my Health Policy background taught me, it’s that large-scale political change is usually incremental and always hard-fought. With that in mind, the changes made in these past four years are encouraging and certainly moving us in the right direction. With Obama in office for another four years, it seems that we can expect another four years of progress…perhaps slower than we would like, but still in the right direction. And given the new policies, directives and funding for open government, it is an exciting time for anyone looking to make a difference in the space.

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