This Week in Civic Tech: DOJ Balks at Open Records Reform, California Considers Deregulating Taxis

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / April 28, 2016
A public records request has uncovered a letter from the U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and fellow administrators at the Department of Justice, opposing key reforms to the Freedom of Information Act. Flickr/United States Mission Geneva

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

Justice Department Fights Data Transparency

In a twist of irony after its privacy dispute with Apple, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is expressing its indignation over a public records bill that would make the department — and other federal agencies — more transparent.

The administration of Attorney General Loretta Lynch sent a memo to Congress opposing a series of key reforms to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the nation’s open public records law. In the memo, the DOJ staunchly opposed the Freedom of Information Improvement Act, which requires that agencies seeking to withhold documents prove the information in those documents would cause “specific identifiable harm.”

At present, whether information should be classified or redacted is left to departments. A report from a House oversight committee revealed that this type of policy has produced a long chain of abuses. Blatant refusals, excessive processing charges and protracted delays — some lasting longer than a year — have become common behaviors, according to the study. The grievances have sparked the legislation’s strict reforms that, in addition to putting the burden of proof on departments, create a centralized FOIA website for requests, mandate a disclosure review of documentation, and give oversight authority to both the Office of Government Information Services and an organization that would be called the “Chief FOIA Officers Council.”

The DOJ opposes all these measures with the exception of the Chief FOIA Officers Council, which it said could operate as long as it didn’t have any authority over departments.

“By removing agency discretion to determine when a document covered by an exemption should be released, it would create massive uncertainty and would chill intragovernmental communication,” the DOJ said in its memo. It went on to label the bill’s provisions as “unnecessary," "counterproductive," "inefficient” and “unworkable.”

Adding to the irony, the DOJ had to be legally compelled to release its commentary with the memo requested by the Freedom of the Press Foundation in a FOIA request and published in an article by Vice News. Transparency lobbyists have since responded to the DOJ’s cloaked criticisms by sending a letter, signed by 46 groups, to President Obama petitioning his endorsement of the key FOIA revisions.

“Without these legislative changes, implementation of the Freedom of Information Act will remain a matter of policy, not a statutory command, too often driven by partisan political concerns,” transparency advocates said. “The Justice Department’s positions are at variance with the underlying intent of the FOIA, good public policy, common sense, and the administration’s oft-stated position on transparency.”

In an article by Government Executive on April 22, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said the president would sign the Senate’s version of the bill, passed in March, but said the House’s new measures, that include the heightened wording, still required negotiation and review.

California Steps Up Battle Against Uber

California Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Silicon Valley, is taking an alternative approach on the taxi vs. ride-sharing debate. Instead of raising regulations on transportation network companies like Lyft and Uber, Low has introduced a bill to deregulate the taxi industry. The goal is to create a competitive balance between the strict regulations governing taxi cabs and the lighter rules for ride hailing services.

The new bill, AB 650, frees taxi companies to establish their own pricing for fares, and eases red tape around licensing requirements, background checks and insurance standards. Most notably, the changes pivot governance away from cities and onto the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) — a shift that would set uniform rules for the two services.

Despite intentions, Low’s bill has not seen widespread support. The Los Angeles Times reported this week that CPUC officials say their resources are already tight, and that even taxi companies themselves are skeptical. Their possible opposition to deregulate could stem from a Catch-22. If deregulation allows drivers an easier path to taxi ownership — as opposed to renting cars from providers — fostering greater competition could be more challenging.

Even so, a sizable share of taxi drivers have already abandoned the industry for ride-share jobs where they’re not straddled with high operating fees. In San Francisco, drivers shoulder roughly $100 a day just to operate a permitted car. If they don’t, they must pay the city a flat fee of $250,000 for a taxi medallion allowing unlimited taxi service.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.