On May 9, President Obama quietly signed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act) into law. Congress and open government advocates across the political spectrum worked for years to refine and pass the spending transparency legislation. The new law, if properly implemented, will be a big win for everyone.
As we look ahead through the new year, a number of major open government issues will almost certainly become the center of policy debates and offer opportunities for improving transparency. This article presents the top open government issues we believe are most likely to garner the most time and attention of Washington policymakers. And, since every year offers surprises, we also offer a quick list of the most likely "wild card" issues that may emerge in 2014.
What a rollercoaster of a year it was for citizen access to public information. Early in the year, a flurry of activity around improving freedom of information requests took place but then slowed down. Likewise, we are being teased with the possibility of serious improvements in the accuracy of federal spending datasets. We thought we were going to get better disclosure of fracking chemicals on federal lands, but good rules failed to materialize. After 38 years, legislation to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act has been introduced, but with preemption clauses, it could actually end up reducing protections. The information leaked by Edward Snowden has led to tough questions and pressure for better oversight of our national surveillance agencies, but to date no action has occurred. And the government shutdown shut down federal agency websites, leaving citizens in the dark. Here is our take on the biggest ups and downs in open government for 2013.
The recent government shutdown shuttered some websites and left others frozen without up-to-date information. Benefits.gov, a one-stop-shop for government benefits assistance, was among the government websites that remained online, but without ongoing updates. The site, which helps citizens assess their eligibility for more than 1,000 governmental assistance programs across 17 different agencies, is a critical service for the public.
In the aftermath of the West Fertilizer explosion in April, Congress and the Obama administration are looking for ways they can better address chemical plant security and safety. A congressional hearing on Aug. 1 focused on how the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) chemical security program missed problems at the West Fertilizer plant. On the same day, President Obama issued a new executive order instructing federal agencies to form a working group to identify and fix any regulatory or informational loopholes.
President Barack Obama replaced the Bush administration's White House website at noon on Inauguration Day. The new website has been met with both applause and criticism in its first week of operation, but it offers indications of how the new president may utilize Internet technology to better inform the public.
The new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Lisa Jackson, pledged in a memo to staff to "uphold the values of scientific integrity, rule of law, and transparency every day." In the memo, Jackson also highlighted five priorities for the EPA, including reducing greenhouse gases and strengthening EPA's chemicals management and risk assessment programs.
In his first full day in office, President Barack Obama acknowledged the importance of transparency by signing an executive order on the Presidential Records Act (PRA) and issuing memoranda on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and open government standards in general. He further pledged that he would "hold [himself], as president, to a new standard of openness."
On Jan. 5, President-elect Obama nominated Dawn Johnsen as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). Johnsen has written articles advocating for restrained executive power and increased government transparency, in particular at OLC. The office issued several secret and controversial opinions during the Bush administration.
On Dec. 9, 2008, the Department of Energy (DOE) published a proposed rule that would revise its official Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations to remove a 20-year-old requirement for weighing the public interest in records disclosure decisions. In the same rulemaking, DOE also proposed to raise FOIA copying fees from five cents to 20 cents a page.
This year's historic presidential campaign introduced the country to a plethora of vocational symbols. It not only featured Joe the Plumber, but also Tito the Bricklayer, Rose the Teacher, and more. There were also a few Joes and Janes who had prominent roles in the restriction — and in a few cases, the expansion — of public information that may have gone unnoticed during the year. Hopefully for the last time in the life of our Republic, the government transparency events of 2008 are presented below according to vocational nomenclature.
As the Obama transition team gathers policy information and vets potential appointees, many outsiders are eager to know what the new administration will do and how it will govern. The transition website, change.gov, may hold clues to some of these questions.
On Nov. 12, the right-to-know community published a set of transparency recommendations for President-elect Barack Obama and the 111th Congress. These recommendations are supported by a group of over 280 individuals and organizations and published in a report, titled Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-to-Know Agenda: Recommendations to President-elect Obama and Congress.
More than 100 groups and individuals from across the country have been working collaboratively to develop recommendations for the next president on how best to improve federal government transparency. The effort, the 21st Century Right to Know project, was organized by OMB Watch, and it involves organizations and individuals from across the political spectrum. A draft set of recommendations is now available for review and endorsement.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey recently finalized changes to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) rules that increase the agency's ability to gather information on citizens without having prior suspicion of wrongdoing. The new rules cover the FBI's powers over criminal, national security, and foreign intelligence surveillance and have been criticized by civil liberties advocates and privacy groups.
OpenTheGovernment.org's 2008 Secrecy Report Card, released Sept. 9, explored numerous indicators of government secrecy and found that continued expansion of secrecy across the federal government occurred in 2007. The report is the group's fifth such annual publication; all five reports have discovered continual poor performance by the federal government in permitting public access to government information.
On Aug. 11, the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Columbus, OH, announced the creation of its Center for Transparent and Accountable Government. With the mission of promoting open government initiatives at the federal and state levels, the center is leading the effort in Ohio to provide access to state and local government information and enable user participation in government through its wiki.
The Bush administration continues its strong efforts to censor climate change information that reaches the public and Congress. Recent reports indicate that the White House pressured the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make changes to its regulatory process regarding climate change and that Vice President Dick Cheney's office was responsible for suppressing key sections of the congressional testimony of a high-level official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Now back from the July 4 recess, the Senate is expected to quickly take up the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) compromise passed by the House in June, with a vote as early as July 9. Despite opposition to the compromise legislation, particularly from civil libertarians, and a recent court ruling that cast doubt on the main arguments for granting immunity to telecommunications companies, the legislation is considered likely to pass.
On June 12, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials held a hearing on the current status of the chemical security program at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and considered two bills to amend the program.