Today in OpenGov: Freedom of Information Act reform heads to the White House


FOIA REFORM GOES TO POTUS: Monday’s vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to send the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 to the White House is the culmination of a decade of work from a coalition of advocates to reform the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The passage of the bipartisan bill was applauded on both sides of the aisle, as it should be: The path to any historic reform in Congress is a long and winding one, with fits, starts, disappointments, setbacks, frustration and, in the case of FOIA reform, secret opposition from agencies, financial interests and the Justice Department itself, followed by failure. Thankfully, we saw a different outcome in 2016. [READ MORE]

WATERSHED: Making meaningful improvements to how the federal government uses the internet can take years, new laws, regulations, demonstration projects, testimony and dogged persistence by public interest advocates and reformers in the pursuit of change. Then, all at once, a dam breaks and a new resource blossoms into a commons online. June 15, 2016 was such a day, when the IRS has begun publishing electronic nonprofit tax returns online in a machine-readable format on Amazon Web Services. The Sunlight Foundation has long held that nonprofit e-file data should be open. Now it is. [READ MORE]

SHADOW LOOM: The U.S. House passed a bill that would reduce disclosure requirements for “dark money” donors. Sunlight’s Louis Serino:This misguided legislation could effectively open up a loophole allowing foreign money in elections through 501(c) groups, specifically 501(c)(4)s, that can engage in political activities. While foreign money is not allowed in U.S. elections, it can be deposited into these nonprofits — which can then spend that money in elections while keeping the identity of donors hidden. By removing the only way the government has of vetting these contributions, the bill would prevent the IRS from safeguarding U.S. elections from the influence of foreign companies and individuals.”

FIRST PRINCIPLES: As mandated by law, the District of Columbia published a list of voters online 14 days before the election. This is an excellent and unfortunate example of how a disclosure of unredacted voter registration data online may be legal, but raise ethical questions that merit public debate and reform. Publishing voter registration data online must balance privacy with transparency.  [READ MORE]


  • Commenting on the IRS’ historic disclosure, open government champion Carl Malamud wrote that opening tax returns will be “transformative.”

    Now that the core data is available, the nonprofit sector can have a discussion on how to make that data better. Are reporting standards consistent? Are we collecting too much information or not enough? Can we use “big data” to try and understand the sector better or define new kinds of metrics? The nonprofit sector is 10 percent of our workforce; the size and vibrancy of this sector is unique to America. Nowhere else will you find a nonprofit economy of this size and impact. The IRS database is like the EDGAR database for our public corporations: It makes the market more efficient, more transparent, more effective. Let’s keep working toward that goal.  [Sunlight]

  • Toby McIntosh reported on the long battle to get FOIA reform passed in Congress. Of note for the future, when the White House is now entrusted with reviving that central FOIA request portal: commercial companies lobbied against it. [National Security Archive]
  • Lauren Harper published a comprehensive, must-read digest of the last week’s news around FOIA. I could reproduce all of it here but you should really just go over there and read the whole thing. [National Security Archive]
  • Dozens of news organizations are “demanding that the Justice Department release its secret rules for targeting journalists with National Security Letters.” The Freedom of the Press Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit last year for the rules. The Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press filed an amicus brief on Saturday. [Freedom of the Press Foundation]
  • The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that will  allowing public companies to file quarterly financial statements as open data, using the XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language) format. “The Data Coalition has been calling for this change for many years – most recently in our November 2015 comment letter on the SEC’s disclosure effectiveness initiative,” said Executive Director Hudson Hollister, in a statement. “The SEC finally has a road map to move from today’s awkward half-modernized system to a reporting regime that runs on open data.”

  • The White House is quietly supporting 18F’s new “” identify management effort. Watch this one closely. [Federal News Radio]
  • Open government groups met with the National Archives to discuss several issues. The one that generated the most debate was the designation of a Senate report on CIA interrogation practices by as a federal record. The Constitution Project has been leading a coalition to ensure the report is preserved. Here’s a data point on another issue: the federal FOIA ombudsman said that lack of response to a FOIA request is the number one reason lawsuits are filed. So: if you pick up the phone or reply to that email, you save public money.
  • CrisisTextLine received nearly 24 million dollars in funding from tech titans. Congratulations to founder and CEO Nancy Lublin. [ReCode]
  • The General Accountability Office published a scathing report on the FBI’s face recognition program, recommending that the agency “better ensure privacy and accuracy.” Good idea: Secret, unaccountable databases with quality issues that curtail liberties with little recourse for repeal are anti-democratic. [Washington Post]
  • Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is being accused of using the Trump Foundation to make political contribution, which is forbidden under IRS and FEC rules. “This should be investigated. There are troubling legal issues posed in both circumstances,” Sunlight’s Richard Skinner told the reporter. “There is definitely [use of] a charitable foundation in an inappropriate way.” [Daily Beast]
  • The EDIT Act (H.R. 5493) would “direct the Librarian of Congress to ensure that each version of a bill or resolution which is made available for viewing on the website is presented in a manner which permits the viewer to follow and track online, within the same document, any changes made from previous versions of the bill or resolution.” Yes, please.

State and Local

  • Naperville, Illinois is planning to release more open data, with some help from Sunlight. “Governments take the information and public records and data that they have internally and say, ‘The public owns this and there’s value that can come from sharing this broadly,'” Sunlight’s Stephen Larrick told the reporter. “Let’s get it out there.”[Daily Herald]
  • Alex Koma: “Panelists at the ‘Smart Cities Innovation Summit’ believe open data has the power to help local governments make their communities more equal and engaged.” [StateScoop]
  • Koma also reported on North Carolina lawmakers advancing a bill that would declare that video archives  from government bodycams, dashboard cameras or other surveillance devices aren’t a public record. Tha argument should be tossed out and replaced with a debate about how and where those videos should be stored, accessed and disclosed, and to whom. The DC Open Government Coalition conducted research into state bodycam video policies last year that should inform North Carolinians about the right balance to strike. [StateScoop]
  • A new resolution in New York City would enable New Yorkers to officially comment on proposed laws online. [Fast Company]


  • The Open Knowledge Foundation is seeking feedback on its next Global Open Data Index (GODI). [OKFN]
  • Global Integrity published “Learning to Open Government,” the results of its research on how the Open Government Partnership is working in Albania, Costa Rica, the Philippines, Mexico and Tanzania. Here’s the three big takeaways:
    1. “OGP investments in securing commitments from high level political leaders often do not operate as might be expected.
    2. OGP’s integration with politics is key to results
    3. Integration with in-country politics is also crucial to transforming the culture of open government.”


  • The 2016 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference (#LDTC16), hosted by the Committee on House Administration, will take place on Tuesday, June 21, 2016, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Capitol Visitor Center Congressional Auditorium. [RSVP]
  • is planning a Town Hall in DC on June 28, 2016 to discuss the future of FOIA beyond its 50th anniversary. [RSVP]
  • The Data Foundation will host Data Transparency 2016, on September 28, 2016, at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, including an Open Data Summit.


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