The White House, Congress, and Open Data Policy

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The White House’s new Open Data Policy has received many accolades, but its ability to be sustained long term will depend on support from the legislative branch. Fortunately, Congress has been working on these issues for the last several years.

For example, the White House policy calls on agencies to inventory the data they hold and list datasets that are public or that can be made public. Legislation introduced in April 2011, the Public Online Information Act, works along similar lines. It requires each agency to “publish on the Internet a comprehensive, searchable, machine processable list of all records it makes publicly available.”

POIA, introduced by Representative Steve Israel in the House and Senator Jon Tester in the Senate, goes further than the White House, and would require online publication of the underlying information and grant the public the ability to compel the executive branch to comply. It also establishes a government-wide advisory body with the responsibility of helping the government develop and implement better information disclosure policies.

The White House Open Data Policy also adopts a number of open data principles, such as ensuring that data is public, accessible, described, reusable, complete, timely, etc. Legislation passed by the House last Congress and considered in the Senate, known as the DATA Act, adopts many of these principles for federal spending information. The bill, sponsored by Representative Darrell Issa and Senator Mark Warner, requires the release of government spending information in a format that is “widely accepted, nonproprietary, searchable, platform-independent [and] computer-readable.” It requires Treasury to issue guidance on data standards, and creates a commission to help with the “establishment of the Government-wide financial data standards.”

These are other transparency measures on Congress’s plate. The Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act, introduced by Representative Mike Quigley, would make the executive branch more transparent and accountable by requiring that public reports from executive branch agencies to Congress be online in one central location. And the recently introduced FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act would, among other things, write into law President Obama’s (often unheeded) directive that the government process FOIA requests with a presumption of openness.

Of course, writing a solution into law is not a panacea. The ill-fated Government Information Locator Service, intended to “assist agencies and the public in locating information and to promote information sharing and equitable access by the public,” is a notable (if obscure) failure. To be successful, these kinds of projects require ongoing commitments from all parties.

It’s admirable that the White House has demonstrated its willingness to act unilaterally on data transparency issues, often to good effect. This kind of experimentation can be helpful, as we’ve seen with data.gov. But to ensure a lasting legacy, the White House needs to engage with Congress and transform good ideas into smart laws… as part of an ongoing collaboration.

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