Sunlight files FOIA request for full list of agency databases

scales of justice_Flickr user Tim Evanson_halved
Photo: Flickr user Tim Evanson

The Sunlight Foundation has filed a new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for enterprise data inventories and data inventory schedules submitted by all agencies in response to OMB’s “Open Data Policy – Managing Information as an Asset.” While the Obama Administration has touted its open data requirements as a big development for transparency, without seeing the entire enterprise data inventories, it is impossible for the public to know what data is being collected and stored by the government and to debate whether or not that data should be made public.

On May 9, 2013, President Obama issued Executive Order 13642, titled “Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information.” This executive order required that agencies, under the guidance of OMB, take steps to better manage their data and make it more open to the public. The President tasked the Director of OMB to “issue an Open Data Policy to advance the management of Government information as an asset.”

OMB then released Memorandum M-13-13, entitled “Open Data Policy-Managing Information as an Asset” and further guidance in a later document titled “Supplemental Guidance on the Implementation of M-13-13 ‘Open Data Policy – Managing Information as an Asset.’” These document included a detailed description of the open data responsibilities of agencies. They required that by November 30, 2013, each agency must, “Develop and Submit to OMB an Inventory Schedule” and “Create an Enterprise Data Inventory.”

The Enterprise Data Inventories must include, at a minimum, “all data assets which were posted on before August 1, 2013 and additional representative data assets from programs and bureaus.” The inventories must contain “one metadata record for each data asset” and must be submitted as a single JSON file to OMB. While a small subset of these inventories – a list of the already publicly available databases and databases which may be made public – were required to be published online, the full enterprise databases have not been made available to the public.

The inventory schedules will “[d]escribe how the agency will ensure that all data assets from each bureau and program in the agency have been identified and accounted for in the Inventory.” Inventory schedules were to be published on agency websites (at www.[agency].gov/digitalstrategy) by November 30, 2013, but a spot check revealed that several agencies, including the Department of Commerce and the Department of Veterans Affairs, have failed to comply with that mandate, so we decided to request all inventory schedules submitted to OMB.

These data inventories and schedules are necessary in order for the public to understand how well agencies are complying with the open data guidelines and to assess the agencies efforts to become more transparent. Currently, only the list of publicly available databases – a small subset of the larger enterprise data inventory – is viewable online. And even for the lists of publicly available databases, there is spotty compliance, as we discussed in our recent blog post.

If agencies aren’t making visible progress in opening up new datasets, the open data guidelines are meaningless. The stated goal of the open data executive order and guidelines is to create more openness and accountability, so each agency should be moving actively toward releasing more substantive data, and if an agency wishes to keep the substance of a dataset privately, it should have to justify that secrecy to the public. We must be able to see the entire inventory in order to know the number of databases that are still being kept secret and intelligently debate the efficacy of that secrecy.

We’ll keep everyone updated as our request moves forward. So stay tuned!

(Photo credit: Tim Evanston, Flickr)