BEGA amendment will hinder public education advocacy


This post was initially published by the DC Open Government Coalition

As a parent raising children in a city whose education system is ruled by the scandal du jour, I worry about a proposed amendment which will further entrench us into a culture of darkness. The D.C. Council’s “BEGA Amendment Act of 2018” will end the independent nature of the Office of Open Government. D.C. residents risk losing an independent resource which has for the past five years supported government agencies and boards in compliance of Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts.

I have not blogged in a while (years!) because I’ve felt like there are many folks out there doing a much better job of articulating the local issues I care most about — spoiler, it’s ALWAYS education.

  • Education bloggers thoughtfully communicate system-wide issues and policy with data. There’s a cadre of parent education wonks who are leading a robust conversation on equity and Inclusion, and those who are keeping DCPS and education officials on their toes via IRL  and Twitter activism.
  • Our local media has been discovering one scandal after another about D.C. Public Schools (thank you, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)!). (Think of what we might discover if charters were also subject to FOIA…).
  • Finally, I proudly support our Ward 6 elected officials! Councilmember Charles Allen (and team!) and State Board of Education Rep Joe Weedon always seem to be on top of issues and successful at ensuring our community is engaged in these conversations.

With so much discussion, what is there left to say? A lot, if you care about our ability to fuel these discussions with facts.

I am (admittedly late in)  “waking up” to the proposed “BEGA Amendment Act of 2018.” See attached.  This amendment to the structure of the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA) looks like it would put the Office of Open Government (OOG) squarely under the control of BEGA, removing the OOG’s decision-making independence over issues of transparency and accountability.

This amendment risks impacting parents’ (and the media’s, and watchdogs’ and everyone’s) ability to access information. And this is not just about education — if you care about [insert your most important issue here], this applies to you.

The background

Since 2013, the Office of Open Government, among other things, has been supporting the public in filing FOIA requests, and also supporting agencies in complying with those requests. The OOG has done the same around compliance of the Open Meetings Act. Former Director of Open Government, Traci Hughes enjoyed independence from the Executive Office of the Mayor, enabling her to issue opinions without fear of interference (in theory). Hughes’ appointment was not renewed, sparking an outcry from the open government community and beyond.

The Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety held a public oversight hearing on February 8, 2018, and public testimony indicated lack of trust in BEGA’s leadership (and vision) vis a vis transparency and accountability.

The (unfortunately flawed) proposed amendment

Councilmember Allen, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee chair, seemed to hear the concerns then, so it’s disappointing (and confusing) that he would propose an amendment that effectively removes OOG’s much needed independence.

As mayoral appointees, BEGA’s structure does not inspire independence from the Executive. The amendment tries to support transparency by mandating that at least one BEGA member bring transparency expertise to the board. However, it is not clear how having one board member with experience in transparency issues will support or safeguard the independence of decisions made by the OOG.

The Director of the OOG presumably brings expertise in transparency and accountability, so while it may be helpful for BEGA to have a transparency expert on the board, independence to express opinions and deliver guidance is much more critical to the OOG than mentorship from (or agreement with) BEGA.

The recommendation

Councilmember Allen should consider removing the BEGA Amendment Act of 2018 from the Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Support Act before the Council votes Tuesday on second reading. Instead, he should give the public an opportunity to weigh in on the proposed amendment at a public hearing. The D.C. Open Government Coalition recommends that the Judiciary Committee hold a hearing on a bill Councilmembers David Grosso and Mary Cheh introduced “to improve the OMA, FOIA and the statute creating the OOG.”

Although open government and transparency, like access to data, are looked at as niche/wonky spaces, open government fuels the public’s ability to collaborate with government in finding solutions to our local problems. I am hopeful the open government community will be given the time and opportunity to engage the broader public around this issue.

UPDATE 6/26/18 

Councilmember Allen kindly reached out yesterday to address rationale around the proposed “BEGA Amendment Act of 2018”.

He raised good points I hadn’t considered, including (in my words):

  • Currently, the Office of Open Government (OOG) doesn’t have a clear accountability model, so while we were lucky that the first Director of Open Government (Traci Hughes) was effective in applying the letter of the law to decisions/opinions, in a situation where the OOG is not open government-friendly, this independence could backfire.

  • BEGA board members are Mayoral appointees and currently, there are no clear qualifications they must meet vis-a-vis open government expertise. The proposed amendment addresses this to ensure there is at least one member on the board with expertise/background in government transparency.

In the end I still hope Councilmember Allen will pull the “BEGA Amendment Act of 2018” from today’s vote; in favor for a broader conversation about this, including a public hearing specific to the structure of BEGA and OOG. The risk of keeping the status quo is losing appetite from DC Council to revisit BEGA/OOG structure. However, I think it’s safe to say the broader conversation would help to counter this risk.

By day, Sandra provides strategy and performance management advice to social development clients, bringing almost 20 years of experience in change management, business process analysis, knowledge management, and program management. Sandra has worked for the World Bank’s Governance Global Practice implementing evidence-based capacity building, open data, and data literacy programs.

 By night, Sandra works on local community efforts related to schools and educationactive transportation, and civic technology and serves on Washington D.C.’s Open Government Advisory Group. For this work, the Sunlight Foundation recognized Sandra as an Open Gov Champion. Sandra lives on the best block in the best city with her husband, two children, and the ‘village’ that makes every-day life possible. Tweet @sandramoscoso.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation.