Today in OpenGov: Baffling


In today's edition, we launch a guide to help co-design local open data initiatives, we also try to wrangle the Wild West of federal government websites, a lawsuit aims to open up old Office of Legal Counsel documents, and more. 

states and cities

Image credit: Roberta Tassi.
  • This new guide will help you co-design local open data programs. "If open data programs hope to effectively deliver information to the public, they must be rooted in user needs. In addition to conducting user research, governments can help make this a reality by using co-design methods…Today, we’re launching a new guide designed to help local governments understand principles of co-design and learn how to create participatory design processes for open data. This guide explains co-design in an open data context, provides examples from the field, and offers tips for cities looking to apply co-design principles in the context of their specific data work." (Sunlight Foundation)
  • Housing data use cases include ownership, evictions, and violations. "Cities from coast to coast are grappling with major challenges in providing safe and adequate housing for their residents, as developers continue to build in luxury condominiums and affordable options dwindle.  In the face of this struggle, civic hackers and housing advocates use open data to collaborate to develop tools to protect renters’ rights and aid communities facing displacement. My project aims to build a tool that helps hackers collect and organize housing data that is readily available. However, open data on housing is not always readily available or easy to work with. And the variety of unique housing-related issues necessitates many different types of data to address. Some necessary data may be unavailable, requiring significant effort to actively collect or advocate for the release of it. Other data, while perhaps readily available, might require an arduous process of scraping, cleaning, and record-linkage to make usable." (Sunlight Foundation)
  • The 2019 National Day of Civic Hacking is coming up on September 21. "Code for America, the nonprofit and nonpartisan group at the forefront of civic tech, is preparing for National Day of Civic Hacking 2019, which will take place on Sept. 21. National Day of Civic Hacking, which is now in its seventh year, invites all members of a community to participate, from civic leaders to government employees, to technologists and those who just want to help. The idea is that they will bring their disparate skills to bear on obstacles and challenges in their respective communities. This year’s event aims to address something Code for America (CfA) has worked on in recent years — record clearance." (Government Technology)
  • This New York lobbyist has given candidates $900,000 since 2014, but who's opinion does the money represent? "Of all the billionaires, hedge fund managers and chief executives who have showered politicians in New York with money in the last five years, no one has given more often than David C. Rich. Since 2014, Mr. Rich has doled out more than 200 contributions totaling over $900,000. Last year alone, he gave away nearly a quarter of a million dollars across dozens of campaigns, according to an analysis by The New York Times, and has donated at least 39 times so far this year. The scale of personal contributions put Mr. Rich in the rarefied ranks of the fabulously wealthy…But Mr. Rich is no billionaire. He is the in-house lobbyist for the Greater New York Hospital Association, the state’s most powerful hospital and health system trade association." (New York Times)

washington watch

A screenshot of, the site that aggregates user analytics for 5,700 federal websites.
  • Exploring the Wild West of federal government websites. "The diffuse and disorganized nature of the federal government web allows broken links and outdated content to abound, while doing little to prevent politically motivated changes to content…what most Americans may not know is just how diffuse and disorganized the federal web is as a whole. Agencies have wide autonomy in the management of websites and guard that autonomy with a vigor reminiscent of that with which town marshals guarded their Wild West towns. The federal web does resemble, to some extent, the organization of the Wild West: well-organized fiefdoms within agencies, but little standardization or harmonization across the wider landscape (the tireless efforts of 18F and United States Digital Service notwithstanding). To the extent that people think of the federal web as a single system at all, they probably don’t think much past the .gov extension that marks government sites. And as it turns out, that .gov is about the only thing that ties federal government websites all together." (Sunlight Foundation) Sunlight summer fellow Andrés Nigenda Zárate shared his experiences wrangling federal websites
  • How the CIA tries to keep "embarrassing incidents" out of its history. "An undated regulation uncovered in the Central Intelligence Agency archives, formerly classified SECRET, appears to outline the “Dos and Don’ts” for Agency historians. While most of the consideration goes into avoiding exposing the identities of undercover agents…and acknowledging the inherent difficulties therein…one surprising paragraph instructs historical officers to avoid “embarrassing incidents” or “unflattering statements” unless absolutely necessary." (MuckRock
  • This new dark money group is looking to spend heavily in favor of 2020 House Democrats. "A new 'dark money' group funded by secret donors plans to spend almost all of its $10.4 million budget on ads helping Democrats in House races heading into 2020. House Majority Forward was quietly incorporated in March but operated under the radar until its public launch in July as a new 501(c)(4) arm of House Majority PAC, the Democrats’ flagship super PAC for congressional races that is closely aligned with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Unlike the super PAC, HMF can keep its donors, as well as many details of its activities and finances, hidden from the public." (OpenSecrets)
  • These Ryan Zinke-linked PACs are still raising money and spending it in questionable ways. "Ryan Zinke resigned from his Interior secretary post in December amid ethics investigations and wrath from the White House. But his leadership PAC, along with an obscure network of dubious PACs, continued to funnel donor money to closely tied political consultants. Four PACs with Ryan Zinke connections collectively raised more than $2.6 million this year, nearly 70 percent of which came from donors who gave $200 or less…These groups went on to spend more than $1.7 million — nearly two-thirds of their total expenditures — at a handful of D.C.-area vendors that share the same personnel and addresses. The PACs themselves contributed next to nothing to Republican campaigns and spent little on independent expenditures to boost Republican candidates." (OpenSecrets)


Mar-a-Lago. Image credit: Ebyabe.
  • How President Trump's Mar-a-Lago buddies exerted influence over career staffers at the VA. "Newly released internal emails show career employees at the Veterans Affairs Department were exasperated and concerned about taking orders from members of a resort owned by President Trump. The resort members previously came under fire for covertly influencing policy at the agency despite not serving in any official capacity.  Employees at the department repeatedly noted that the non-government individuals maintained personal relationships with President Trump and therefore should be heard out, according to the emails obtained by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington via a Freedom of Information Act request. After hearing from the three men, all of whom are members of the Trump-owned Florida resort Mar-a-Lago, employees complained to each other the private citizens were ill-informed and standing in the way of their normal duties." (Government Executive)
  • Lawsuit alleges that the Office of Legal Counsel is illegally withholding decades-old documents. "A free speech institution, a nonprofit watchdog and several scholars filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Office of Legal Counsel for failing to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests for decades-old documents they believe will shed light on current government surveillance activities, immigration policy and other significant issues. They argue the information should be released under a 2016 amendment to the law." (Government Executive)
  • A new Trump administration rule may limit public access to information on the treatment of migrant children in federal custody. "For months at a time, the detention of migrant children seems to fall off the national radar, somehow fading to the background, behind the daily dramas of scandals big and small. And then suddenly, news will erupt: The children don’t have soap. They are freezing. The food is rotten. Where this information comes from is not primarily from journalists but monitors—lawyers and advocates who regularly visit the nation’s detention facilities and border-patrol facilities to document the conditions. They do so not because these sites request the monitoring, but because that monitoring is allowed by what’s known as the Flores settlement, a 22-year-old consent decree that governs the care of migrant children in custody. But with new rules that the Trump administration is expected to publish this week, even that single, infrequent geyser of information could go away." (The Atlantic)
  • Will this whistleblower disclosure boost House Democrats' case for President Trump's tax returns? "A whistleblower recently made 'credible allegations' to the Ways and Means Committee of potentially wrongful interference with the IRS’ presidential audit process, lawyers for the House told a federal court Tuesday. The disclosure was included in a motion by House Democrats asking Judge Trevor McFadden to summarily order the Treasury Department to turn over President Donald Trump’s tax returns to Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.). Part of the Democrats’ argument in the case is that they need Trump’s returns to review the effectiveness of the IRS’ routine audits of every president." (POLITICO)
  • President Trump's continued connection with his businesses has caused more than 2,000 conflicts of interest, according to new report. "A nonprofit group tallied 2,310 conflicts of interest stemming from President Trump’s unprecedented decision to retain a stake in his business properties since he took office in 2017.  Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington released a report Thursday that calculated the number of times the president visited his properties at taxpayers' expense (362), the number of foreign government officials (110) and U.S. officials (250) who have visited Trump properties and the number of political events (63) held at his properties." (Government Executive

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