Today in OpenGov: Complaints and investigations


In today's edition, Mick Mulvaney only likes lobbyists with open wallets, the National Archives shares information on its investigations, Michigan lawmakers find it easy to vote on laws despite conflicts of interest, presidential term limits are helping African democracies, and more. 


A screenshot from the CFPB's Consumer Complaint Database, which might not be available to the public anymore if acting director Mick Mulvaney gets his way. 
  • Mick Mulvaney wants to kill public access to consumer complaints collected by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau… "Consumer Financial Protection Bureau acting director Mick Mulvaney told a large crowd of bankers gathered in Washington that he doesn’t have to run a 'Yelp for financial services, sponsored by the federal government.' Mulvaney’s remark, delivered to the American Bankers Association, got lots of chuckles and then huge applause when he added that, in particular, he doesn’t see anything in the Dodd-Frank law that created the CFPB that requires 'the Bureau,' as he prefers to call the agency, to make a database of complaints against the banks available to the public." (Market Watch) Our take? Digital feedback loops — where the public informs governments about the quality of products and services they use — inform consumers, the press, legislators, and regulators as well as adding valuable transparency to many markets. The CFPB's open complaint data is just one valuable case study of this idea. 
  • …at the same event, Mulvaney admitted that, as a Congressman, he wouldn't meet with lobbyists unless they had also ponied up to his campaign. As Glenn Thrush reported, Mulvaney described his Congressional office's "hierarchy" for taking meetings as such: "If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you…If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talked to you without exception, regardless of the financial contributions…” (New York Times)
  • Environmental Protection Agency officially proposes a "transparency" rule that won't do much for transparency, but will limit science. "The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new regulation Tuesday that would restrict the kinds of scientific studies the agency can use when it develops policies, a move critics say will permanently weaken the agency’s ability to protect public health. Under the measure, the E.P.A. will require that the underlying data for all scientific studies used by the agency to formulate air and water regulations be publicly available. That would sharply limit the number of studies available for consideration because much research relies on confidential health data from study subjects." (New York Times) You can read the proposed rule here. Worth noting: several energy reporters couldn't help but point out that the announcement of the policy was closed to the press and kept secret until shortly before it started. 
  • Meanwhile, EPA chief Scott Pruitt's ethics woes continue. "Several Senate Republicans said Tuesday that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s management and spending decisions should be subject to greater congressional scrutiny, although nearly all of them stopped short of asking him to resign." (Washington Post) Also on Tuesday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked the EPA IG to review the agency's ethics program. (Government Executive) Finally, the New York Times reported that the "former Secret Service agent who leads the security detail for Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, worked on assignments for the tabloid news publisher American Media Inc. during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to records and interviews."

washington watch

A screenshot from NARA's new Unauthorized Disposition dashboard
  • The National Archives launched a dashboard to track its investigations into lost, altered, or destroyed public records. "To engage in a monumental understatement, it’s a big deal for the public’s information to be altered or disposed of without justified intention and public notice of the removal. In spring 2018, for the first time the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) has begun using the Internet to inform the American public about its ongoing investigations of unauthorized dispositions in an online dashboard. In a year that continues to be marked by regression on transparency and accountability under the Trump administration, this is a welcome development that shines a bright light on a matter of significant public concern and shows continued commitment by NARA to its open government plan." (Sunlight Foundation)
  • Is FCC Chairman Ajit Pai dragging his feet on the net neutrality repeal? Jon Brodkin considers the possible strategy behind Pai's delay. "More than four months after the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality rules, the rules are technically still on the books, and we still don't know when they will die their final death…Why are the rules still in place? There's a technical answer related to how Pai structured the repeal, and there is speculation on why Pai structured it that way." (Ars Technica)
  • The Senate still doesn't require electronically filed campaign finance reports, but 53 Senators now support a change. "A bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate that would save taxpayers nearly $900,000 a year and increase political transparency has won over more sponsors than any other time since it was first introduced in 2003. With Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), John McCain (R-AZ) and Tina Smith (D-MN) recently joiningas official cosponsors, the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act (S. 298) — which would require U.S. Senate candidates to join all other federal candidates in electronically filing their campaign finance reports — has now been formally backed by 53 sitting senators." (Issue One)
  • New online tool aims to open unclassified geospatial data to a wider audience. "The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has introduced an online platform designed to help users collaborate and share unclassified data for geospatial technology development efforts. NGA said Monday it developed GEOWorks for organizations and individuals to collectively develop tools and services within a data science environment." (Executive Gov)

states and cities

Learn more on Eventbrite. 
  • May 1 in New York City, Learning About NYC: Environment and Sustainability, part of the NYC Open Data Updates event series. On May 1, join the NYC Open Data Team, Esri, and Civic Hall for "the second event of the 2018 open data event series on May 1st at 6pm. In honor of Earth Day (April 22nd), this quarter's meetup will showcase datasets and agency work relevant to environmental protection, sustainability and green initiatives. This event is brought to you by the NYC Open Data TeamEsriCivic Hall and key City Agency partners: NYC Department of Parks & RecreationMayor's Office of Sustainability and NYC Department of Environmental Protection." Learn more and register to attend here.
  • New report ranks all 50 states on spending transparency. "Online government spending transparency continues to improve, but many states still struggle to meet 21st century standards, according to Following the Money 2018: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data. This is the eighth report of its kind produced by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and Frontier Group." This year, West Virginia joined perennial budget transparency leader Ohio at the top of the rankings. You can read the full report here. (U.S PIRG)
  • Michigan lawmakers sometimes vote on legislation after acknowledging conflicts of interest. "A Center for Public Integrity analysis of more than 50,000 pages of official legislative journals logging each day’s actions found [seven] Michigan legislators who voted on bills even when they publicly noted their own conflicts of interest. Currently, the penalties for voting when a conflict of interest exists are modest — and seemingly unused…But a new state bill introduced this session would make voting on such conflicts of interest a felony punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and as much as four years in prison, which would make Michigan stricter than some states." (Center for Public Integrity)
  • Kentucky state Attorney General finds in favor of open records activists in fight over arrest data. "In a definitive win for open records advocates, the state attorney general's office has found Kentucky State Police violated the state public records law by denying Courier Journal requests for the agency's database of arrest and traffic citations." (Courier Journal)
  • In Norman, Oklahoma the police and community are working together to build trust. The Norman Police Department publishes statistics on use of force, including information on the 83 occurrences where use of force was used in 2017. The department's membership in the Police Data initiative is helping the department earn community trust. Learn more via The Norman Transcript.

around the world

Angolan journalist Rafael Marques. Image: Youtube screenshot/Stanford CDDRL, via Global Voices.
  • This Angolan journalist is being brought to court for investigating corruption. "Angolan journalist Rafael Marques is once again being brought to court for his investigative work. This time, Marques is facing charges of “insulting public authorities” after having published an article in October 2016 on the independent news website Maka Angola (of which he is the founder and editor) that raised questions over possible corruption against now-former Attorney General João Maria de Souza." (Global Voices)
  • US falls while Canada rises in 2018 World Press Freedom Index. Overall, "The 2018 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), reflects growing animosity towards journalists. Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies…In North America, Donald Trump’s USA slipped another two places while Justin Trudeau’s Canada rose four and entered the top 20 at 18th place, a level where the situation is classified as 'fairly good.'" (Reporters Without Borders)
  • Research shows that presidential term limits are helping strengthen democracy in Africa. Alexander Noyes explores the roll of term limits in African democracies, including a discussion of his "recent research [which] reveals that term limits can encourage democratic changes — even when incumbent parties stay in power. My research looked at what happens when African countries adopt power-sharing accords after disputed elections. Power-sharing arrangements bring together a variety of political parties and conflict actors, often in the form of a government of national unity. When individual leaders don’t expect to be around forever, they are likely to be more willing to accept constraints on their power." (Washington Post)
  • Pentagon watchdog knocks waste and misuse in World Bank's Afghanistan efforts. "A Pentagon watchdog faulted the World Bank and Afghanistan’s government for failing to shield billions of dollars in aid from potential waste or misuse, saying that long-identified weaknesses remain in a program that provides 40 percent of non-military expenditures in the country." (Bloomberg)


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