A new law ensures Maryland’s emphasis on transparent government and open data will be a permanent part of state policy decisions for years to come.
Senate Bill 644 establishes the Council on Open Data, which will be comprised of 37 government, academic and private-sector leaders in Maryland. The group will meet at least twice each year and make recommendations to the state’s Legislature. The law also mandates that open data be released to the public in multiple machine readable formats.
The Council’s formation follows the enactment of two executive orders by Gov. Martin O’Malley that created Maryland’s open data portal and launched a working group to improve transparency in the state. O’Malley signed SB 644 into law earlier this month.
Sponsored by Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, SB 644 also funds a full-time staff position to serve the council, with a budget of $119,904. Under the new law, the council must report to the Maryland Legislature on its activities and make legislative recommendations on open data by Jan. 10 of each year.
Molly McKee, Ferguson’s chief of staff, told Government Technology that while O’Malley’s efforts regarding transparency have been successful, the legislation was necessary to ensure a focus on open data continues after he steps down at the end of 2014 following his second consecutive term in office. Under state law, O'Malley can't run for governor again until 2018.
“No one knows who the next governor is going to be and whether open data and transparency will be as big of a priority for the next administration,” McKee said. “So ensuring that this is created through legislation … is just a second assurance that we’ll have this moving forward.”
SB 644 also gives Council on Open Data members the ability to establish workgroups as necessary to carry out a variety of duties. According to the fiscal and policy note authored by the Maryland General Assembly’s nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services, in addition to recommending possible legislation and regulations related to open data, the council must:
Despite the council’s numerous responsibilities, it doesn’t have any enforcement power over state agencies. An earlier draft of the bill required the council to establish purchasing guidelines for technology related to open data, including a mandate that state entities follow the guidelines by a certain date. That was stricken in the final version of the bill.
McKee wasn’t sure of the specific reason why the requirements were deleted, but felt it was likely a compromise in order to push SB 644 through the legislative process.
Rebecca Williams, policy analyst for the Municipal Transparency Program at the Sunlight Foundation, was at a hearing on SB 644. She recalled there was some discussion about the procurement provision having a negative impact on contracting with vendors.
“There wasn’t a lot of argument in the room about it,” Williams said. “I still have hope it’ll be included in the future.”
SB 644 passed the Senate and the House unanimously.
Although the bill doesn’t give the council much authority, McKee believes it should nevertheless have an impact on state decisions regarding open data. She noted that while there can be numerous “task forces” established by legislation, many regard them as “nothing bills.” Having a formal council named is much more substantial and influential.
“The bill is requiring them to sit down and talk and come up with recommendations that are listened to,” McKee said. "Not necessarily adhered to 100 percent, but generally [the Legislature] takes the advice of councils, especially with something as serious as the Council on Open Data – particularly after the governor has already taken this on with his own initiatives.”
Looking ahead, Williams recommended that state leaders consider setting some timelines for various datasets to be released to the public and adding some management structure and enforcement power for the council. She also felt setting up an inventory of what datasets are potentially available in each state department would be a valuable initial step for the council.
“That initial inventory is a great step toward transparency,” Williams said. “So not only [do] citizens know what data is being housed by the government, but also the other departments.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.