The new and much improved location for Congressional information, beta.congress.gov, has plenty of resources to offer users. Now the Library of Congress (LOC) is offering webinars and in-person training to help users navigate the expanding website. We applaud LOC for providing a variety of training opportunities for those seeking a better understanding of the information available.
Public- and private-sector experts from Mexico and the United States explored how laws granting public access to government information can be more effective at a recent Wilson Center event.
Mexico's freedom of information law is hailed by some experts as a “gold standard” because it set a high bar: treating all information as public rather than secret. Those same experts agree, however, that legal and cultural changes are needed to make the system more effective. Mexico is still working to create a supporting set of laws for its freedom of information centerpiece. IFAI, the autonomous government body overseeing freedom of information in Mexico, is working to gain more enforcement power that will help it ensure government officials comply with the law. As the law stands now, IFAI has little power to tell a federal body that they must comply with freedom of information standards.
As mentioned earlier, the open government movement made major strides today -- when together with the Participatory Politics Foundation, we launched OpenGovernment Minnesota. This brings the total number of states covered by the OpenGovernment initiative, to six. As we continue to expand this project to include more states, we take note of individual citizens who are being proactive about tracking the legislature in their states. By so doing, we recognize that active citizen participation in government is the key to prompting change and increasing accountability. And we support this recognition by building tools that empower the public to see how their government is functioning. But our role can not simply be reduced to tracking bills. We need to be engaged in the rule making process and reinforcing Public Records Laws and Open Meetings Laws is one such way of doing that. All the while ensuring that the legislative system is not given "special treatment".
- Two years ago, the legislature in Bacon Hill, Massachusetts managed to exempt itself from the requirements of the Public Records Law and the Open Meetings Law -- using a sweeping ethics reform bill. Now, there are four bills that have been introduced to subject the legislature to the open meetings law. Media and technology lawyer Robert Ambrogi, is challenging the lawmakers to pass these laws if they are true supporters of transparency. Will these bills see the light of day, unlike their predecessors that went no where? Read more on the media law blog.
- A new bill that will make all executive orders issued by the office of the mayor of New York City available on line, has been passed. Currently, the orders can only be accessed via requests through the Freedom of Information Law. Richard Yeh shares that open government advocates are applauding the bill because of the transparency and openness it will create. Legislative text from the bill shows that all memorandum of understanding and similar documents will be available on a government website starting April 1, 2012. See what else the bill says on the WNYC News blog.
- Public information from the governor’s office in Louisiana will soon be accessible to the public. A new bill that will significantly relax the state’s public records law by making all of the Governor’s documents including those related to budgetary issues, public, has been introduced. At the moment, the state is using Act 495 enacted in 2009, which exempts the governor from disclosing any material considered to be under a “deliberative process”. Chad Rogers is sure this bill will go a long way in restoring confidence in the public. Read more about how the bill will change Louisiana from being the only state that exempts the governor's records from disclosure on chadrogers.net
- The Cleveland Coalition, together with several open government supporters including the Sunlight Foundation, will be joining forces for the Transparency Action Plan Summit (TAP) to take place in Cuyahoga Ohio on July 29-30. The first of its kind in the region, the summit will bring together like-minds to discuss transparency initiatives that will make the county a leader in government transparency and public engagement. For more of the action plan details, head on over to Cleveland Coalition.
The Sunlight Foundation and a dozen other bipartisan organizations are seeking Senators who are willing to be among the first to embrace the most modern of trends in the upper chamber—voluntary electronic filing of their campaign finance reports.
Senators Boxer, Cochran, Cornyn, Feinstein, Leahy, Lugar, and Sanders electronically filed their campaign finance reports with the FEC during the last reporting period. Senator Gillibrand recently announced that she too will begin filing electronically on July 15, the next deadline for filing FEC reports. Any senator who supports transparency should join this small group and commit to filing their campaign finance reports electronically starting in July and continuing to do so for every reporting period thereafter.
Failing to file electronically is inexcusable. The FEC makes voluntary electronic filing easy. Senators, or their campaigns, can simply download the agency’s free filing software and contact the agency for an ID and password. In fact, senators who served in the House prior to coming to the Senate are likely to have already filed electronically. Electronic filing has been mandatory in the House for years.
Voluntary filing will never obviate the need for a change in the law. For that reason, the letter also asks senators to cosponsor S. 219, the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, introduced by Senators Tester and Cochran. The law would modernize the archaic system in which candidates for the Senate file their FEC reports with the Secretary of the Senate, who then prints them out and delivers them to the FEC, only to have the FEC re-enter the information into its own computer databases. The system costs hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars each year and denies the public timely access to information. Unfortunately, efforts to mandate electronic filing have been stymied since the bill was first introduced in 2003. It is imperative that the legislation is enacted to ensure that all Senate candidates file electronically.
Until the law passes, we urge senators to demonstrate their leadership as well as their support for transparency and openness in Congress by embracing voluntary electronic filing.
The following groups have joined Sunlight calling for voluntary electronic filing and support of the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act: The Campaign Finance Institute, The Campaign Legal Center, The Center for Responsive Politics, Common Cause, Fix Congress First, Judicial Watch, MAPLight.org, OMB Watch, OpentheGovernment.org, Public Campaign, Public Citizen and US PIRG.
In our still on going campaign to tell our governors to support open government, we stand beside citizen activists who want to see an end to the roll back of transparency laws. We are dedicated to equipping the public with tools with-which to demand for accountability, and have developed various resources including open government.org, an open-source public resource website for government transparency and civic engagement at the state and local levels. So far, we have covered California, Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, and Wisconsin with Minnesota to be launched soon. Montana's recent strike at open government reaffirms the need to continuously-- as Pete Weitzel, former director of the Coalition of journalists for Open Government puts it-- "turn a public official's 'right to no' into your 'right to know'."
- Last week, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed a bill that would have created a website with the state’s budget and spending details. Proposed by Rep.Tom Burnett, HB 444 would have enabled the public to search, retrieve and download information about the state finances including state budgets, revenues, appropriations and expenditures. But Gov. Schweitzer thwarted the bill with claims that at an estimated $400,000, the website would be too costly and did not have an “ investment on return for the tax payer”. Michael Noyes writes more on Montana Watchdog.
- The city of New York unveiled a “Road Map for the Digital City” -- a project that will feature APIs for city data and plans that will change the way government information is presented online. Open government entrepreneurs are optimistic that the Road Map will give the city’s startups an advantage through integrating media and technology while widening access to wifi in public parks. Anil Dash, who is confident the web is a public space, adds that this would be a valuable opportunity for citizens to be engaged through technology. Read more on Anil Dash.
- Last week, we highlighted a post that mentioned Oregon's move to strengthen their public records. Now, A.J. O’Connell is writing that the opposition from some government agencies including the League of Oregon Cities, that has hired lobbyists to try and prevent the bill from becoming law, may cause a problem. His attempt at reaching out to the state’s Attorney General to show that Creswell, his city, is not aligned with the lobbyists intentions, have been swept under the rug. What is he hoping to do next to save open government in Portland? Find out on A.J. for Creswell.
- A bill that would limit the reach of public records in Raleigh, NC was proposed on the grounds that productivity of government workers searching for, organizing and providing information requested by the public, will be reduced. Daniel O’Leary is proposing an easier way: turning the documents into electronic format! Through LinDoc which creates electronic e-forms, that connect directly to a universal repository, the public and reporters are able to search and find public records for themselves, eliminating the need for government staffers to do this task. In cases where some records have to be paid for, O’Leary recommends using WebLink which is already being used by other states. Read more of his compelling argument on Capture Expert blog.
When it comes to public records, different states have different exemptions. What is exempted in one state, may not necessarily be exempted in another. Take an example of New Jersey. Under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), State or federal statutes and regulations, Executive Orders, Rules of Court, and privileges created by State Constitution, statute, court rule or judicial case law are specifically exempted from disclosure. While the California Public Records Act makes available all public information because it believes that "access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person." So when we see states making an effort to open up their governments even more, we make a note of it. Just as we are doing with Oregon.
- A new proposed amendment to Senate Bill 41 in Oregon will reduce exemptions that allow public records to be kept private. The proposal was introduced during a conference organized by the Oregon Library Association, where several government transparency projects were discussed, including the Oregon Transparency website and data.oregon.gov which lets you build your own graphs using state government data. Check out Chrystal Reeves blog post as she writes more about the integration of state and federal agency data on Oregon Legal Research.
- In his blog post “Ethics Laws Potentially to Get Quick Fix; Push For Comprehensive Reform to Come Next Year,” Charlie Harper recommends a comprehensive ethics reform for Georgia that is funded by an investigative Ethics Commission. Sparked by the recent ruling of Georgia’s ethics Commission that declared that gifts and expenses on legislature staff will be exempted from disclosure requirements and cripple transparency, Harper believes that a well funded Commission will restrict lobbyists from influencing the state’s decision makers. Take a look at how he rationalizes it on Peach Pundit.
- Governor Dannel Malloy has a solution for Connecticut’s fiscal crisis: balance the budget with $2 billion in employee concessions. But while writing about an article in the Middletown Press , Jonathan Pelto expressed that he feels that the governor should be more open about where he hopes to get the money from. Pelto argues that even with the state employee give backs, the governor will not be able to make up the difference needed to balance the budget so the questionable conclusion is that the ongoing negotiations between the state unions and the governor’s administration may not be as transparent as they are made out to be. Find details on the New Haven Advocate.
- State purchasing officers in Oklahoma will soon be able to use a public Wiki to report items that are on a mandated state purchasing schedule thanks to a recently introduced House Bill. Authored by Jason Murphey and state Senator Clark Jolley, HB 1086 will also enable the creation of a website that will help policy makers and the public to monitor state projects from start to finish. Murphey shows how this bill will improve communication between purchasing offices and potential vendors interested in bidding for government business on the House district 31.
- Proposed legislation in Maryland, House Bill 173 is about to make Invest Maryland -- a venture capital program -- the most easily accessible website in the state. The program, which will require disclosure of all funds and credits that the state invests in a company, will also provide details of the state’s spending programs, including annual reports from the Department of Business and Economic Development. Megan Poinski blogs that this will increase the state’s public records availability. Read more on Annapolitics.
For some states, Sunshine Week brings a wave of success for being transparent in state spending. While for others like Illinois which scored a C in the U.S - PIRG 2011 report, little or no transparency in government is starting to cost them. Listed by the report, under “emerging states” for having a transparency website with "less comprehensive information", Illinois neglected to adopt more successful models such as Kentucky's Open Door (which scored an A) and instead created reforms to their Freedom of Information Act - that made the State Attorney General, the major watchdog of the state's transparency. Now it is about to cost Illinois residents their right to know about government.
- Illinois Senate is discussing SB1645 - a bill that would restrict the citizens’ right to know under the FOIA Act and Adam Andrzejewski wants to know where state Attorney General Lisa Madigan is. Citing non compliance with FOIA by the Attorney General's office, Andrzejewski writes that she instead enacted weak reforms that advocated more for the government than the public. By regulating the questions that the public asks government, this bill will require more transparency from citizens while the government remains in secrecy. Join Andrzejewski’s search for the state’s Attorney General on For the Good of Illinois.
- A senate bill that would have allowed Hawaii public employees to conceal their names, compensation range, and job description has been killed. Key among the information that would have been affected by the Senate Bill 1094, is the availability of the table of state salaries on the Hawaii Sunshine . See how Malia Hill is encouraging citizens to thank Senator Les Ihara (D–Kaimuki) and Senator Sam Slom (R–Hawaii Kai) for voting against the bill down on Rooted in Reason.
- With Wifi-enabled laptops and down loadable mobile apps, some of us don’t fully appreciate the contribution of public libraries to open government. Well Michael Casey, the Information Technology Director for the Gwinnett County Public Library in Atlanta is changing that. In his analysis of the recently released report by the Pew Internet and American Life , he explains the relationship between transparency and relevance. Whereas he notes that the two are important in the growth of public libraries, he stresses that the challenge remains in knowing the kind of information that the public needs so that libraries can have and deliver it. Read more on Michael e Casey.
- Chair of the New Dominion Project, Mike Signer is reviving an issue identified by Virginia newspapers - the state’s FOIA law needs improvements. Specifying an article by the Virginia State House News that highlighted ways in which the state can better their law, Signer warns of the dangers of the law reform including which include increasing fees for FOIA noncompliance. Now he is asking you if you think Virginia FOIA law is strong enough. More on the New Dominion Project blog.
Senators Tester and Cochran introduced the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act today, a bill that would speed disclosure of public campaign finance information, ensure the accuracy of that information, improve efficiency and save taxpayers money. Sunlight has been supporting a version of this bill for the past three congresses—pretty much since we first opened our doors. Maybe this no-brainer bill will finally become law during the 112th Congress.
Senators’ counterparts in the House, presidential candidates and PACs all electronically file their campaign finance reports. Senators, on the other hand, remain mired in an archaic system in which they file their quarterly reports with the Secretary of the Senate, who then prints them out and delivers them to the Federal Election Commission. That agency then inputs the information into its computer databases so it can be publicly viewed online, all at annual cost of about a quarter-million dollars of taxpayer money. Eliminating this duplicative exercise balance the budget, but the outmoded process is worse than simply wasteful. Re-entering the data delays public access to crucial information about who is funding Senate campaigns, sometimes until after the election takes place.
The previous versions of this bill all have had significant bipartisan support and no Senator that we know of has ever publicly opposed the bill. So why are we still waiting for it to pass?
The culprit is Senator Mitch McConnell and his minions, who have demanded that in order for Senators to be able to vote on the bill, there must also be a vote on an unrelated controversial amendment. The amendment would force nonprofit and religious organizations to disclose the names of anyone who gives $5000 or more to the organization any time the group exercises its right to file a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee. Look closely. The self-serving amendment has nothing to do with the disclosure law. But more importantly, if the amendment became law, the result would be fewer legitimate inquiries into Senators’ ethical conduct.
The reason the Republicans have been able to make unwarranted demands for a vote on this “poison pill” amendment is because they have objected to Majority Leader Reid’s attempts to bring the bill up by "unanimous consent," a procedure the Senate uses to move non-controversial bills quickly, so as to preserve limited floor time for contentious issues. In an ideal world, unanimous consent would be the best to get this straightforward bill enacted. But it hasn’t worked so far. If the Republicans continue to insist on the amendment, perhaps it is time to let the bill come to the floor for a vote. If any Senator is willing to go on record as being against transparency, efficiency and saving taxpayers’ dollars, let him. In the end, we think enough Senators will oppose the amendment and vote to enact a clean electronic filing bill once and for all.
The term Gov 2.0 may throw some technologically challenged people such as myself, off . But Gov 2.0 guru Tim O'Reilly encourages us to look at it as “government as a platform”. In fact, in his "What does Government 2.0 mean to you?" he gives citizens the opportunity to literally define it in their terms and be comfortable with how they see it working for them. This is why the latest blogosphere excitement about upcoming Gov 2.0 activities in various states make me want to share it with you. If the enthusiasm with which this year's conferences have been organized is anything to go by, then we can conclude by saying that the concept has succeeded in grabbing the attention it deserves, reaffirming O'Reilly's words that government can become a platform of, for and by the people.
- Gov 2.0 advocates have come up with yet another exciting program to open their government. The Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and EFF-Austin will be organizing a Texas Government 2.0 Camp on January 28. The “Making Transparency Work” conference will also bring together professionals from different fields to discuss ways of making government more open. See how Jon Lebkowsky is offering opportunities for anyone interested in leading a session on topics ranging from open Internet to government use of technology on the EFF-Austin blog.
- In a Q&A Yoli Martinez presents to us the future of government workings as California Gov2.0 supporter Alan Silberberg sees it. Silberberg’s idea of fighting obscurity in the operations of government is by giving citizens political power through the use of social media and mobile technology. Outlining the Los Angeles Fire Department and Orange County Transportation Agency as the leading Gov2.0 practices in Southern California, Silberberg hopes that this year’s Gov.2.0 LA unconference will bring on more citizen participation and government support for digital governance. More on the Socal Focus.
- Several counties in New Mexico are struggling to make their governments more open. But Jesus Lopez blogs that at most, San Miguel is only scoring a “D” in transparency. Drawing on the Sunshine Review’s findings , Lopez praises the state’s open government ranking but urges residents to make more use of public records laws provided by FOI. Read more on the San Miguel Reeper
- Rhode Island govenor Lincoln Chafee will soon issue a ban that will prohibit state officials from appearing on talk radio. Though criticized by Buddy Cianci, a former mayor of Providence turned radio talk show host, Governor Chafee believes that talk radio is a “ratings-driven, for-profit programming” and does not think it is an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money. Hart Kirch shares how this is a slight on transparency and open government on the Hart Kirch Talk News blog.
At the beginning of each new Congress, both the House and the Senate have the opportunity to update their respective rules. We transparency wonks at Sunlight dusted off the old Rules and found ways to modernize them to better ensure real time public access to what’s going on in Congress. The majority of changes we recommended for House Rules a few weeks ago also apply to the Senate. A few of the most important are highlighted below.
First and foremost, Senate Republicans should stop blocking a Rules change that would allow Senate candidates to file their campaign finance disclosure reports electronically. There is no legitimate reason to continue to delay public access and review to who is giving what to Senate candidates. This Rules change is one that happens to belong to the Senate alone. House candidates have been filing electronically for years.
After the election, too, greater transparency could help ferret out potential conflicts of interest or unethical behavior. Right now, most ethics-related disclosures are still available only on paper, and only if an individual physically visits an office on Capitol Hill. All congressional ethics documents that are publicly available should also be made available online. This includes personal financial disclosures, travel reports and filings regarding negotiations for future employment.
Also missing from public view are the “Dear Colleague” letters Senators write to one another. Often they are used to urge another Senator to cosponsor legislation or attend a briefing. Constituents should know what issues and events their Senators think are important enough to merit a letter to their fellow Members. Dear Colleague letters should be put on a centralized publicly available database for all to see.
Other changes we’d like to see would open up the work of Senate Committees. All committee votes should be posted online in XML. Information about hearings, including schedules and information about witnesses should be posted online as far in advance of a hearing as possible. Committee reports should be available online and all hearing rooms should be wired for videotaping/live streaming so that all committees can broadcast and archive all open proceedings.
These should not be controversial or difficult changes. As it looks to update its Rules, the Senate should harvest this low hanging fruit so the public can benefit from a bounty of data about the way Washington works.