Open government initiative from D.C. mayor, not so open

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser standing next to an American flag with people in the background.
Muriel Bowser. (Photo credit: Matailong Du/Flickr)

Back in May, Democratic D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a press release launching to enhance transparency and create an “Open Government Officer” position.

“Since day one, I have been clear that this government is the peoples’ government. delivers the kind of transparency our community deserves,” Bowser said. “Soon I will also bring on an Open Government Officer to ensure that we are doing our part to comply with FOIA and Open Meeting requirements—and demonstrating our commitment to transparency in District government.”

On the surface, the portal as well as the new position seem like positive steps, but Sunlight had a lot of questions for the mayor’s office. The big one: How does this new position interact with D.C.’s landmark Office of Open Government? The office, run by Director Traci Hughes, has the unique distinction of being independent from Bowser’s office and is specifically charged with “advancing open governance in the District.”

The publication of the critical information around this position, including the mayoral order, was neither transparent or responsive. After the announcement, Sunlight reached out to Senior Communications Officer and mayoral spokeswoman LaToya Foster, requesting a copy of the order that created the new position. After our requests went unanswered, we filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on May 19.

According to D.C. statutes, an agency has 15 business days to respond to a FOIA request. When the request generates a large volume of documents, agencies may invoke a 10-business-day extension and inform the requestor of the extension.

It wasn’t until Sept. 7 — 75 business days later — that we got a response and a link to the executive order, which was evidently published on June 3.

At the announcement of an executive order like this, most cities have the order drafted and ready for signature. Without the order being drafted  and ready for signature, it is difficult for the public to know what exactly the mayor is proposing. It is disappointing that D.C. City Hall dragged its feet in publishing this information and in response to our FOIA about an open government policy of all things.

A commitment to open government means that you are setting the default to open. In a city that prides itself on openness and transparency, there should be clear communication and processes in place to detail policy changes with the public. The irony is not lost on us that we had to file a FOIA request in order to receive a copy of a mayoral order on open government. And months later, we are still waiting for answers from the Bowser’s office on why it would create a seemingly redundant open government position — one that now answers to the mayor directly — and what this new position means for existing open government policies in the District.