6 Action Items to Help Presidential Candidates Embrace Principles of Openness

Candidates should have robust policy platforms that explicitly commit to a more open and data-driven government that embraces the emerging field of civic tech.

by / January 27, 2016

The 2016 presidential campaign is well underway, U.S. Senate and House campaigns are gearing up and candidates from both parties are touting their vision for the future. Battle lines are tightly drawn around issues like immigration, the economy and foreign policy, but there’s one topic on which both parties can work together: open government and open data.

To restore public trust in government, currently at a historic low, our next president and Congress should embrace the principles of openness and transparency. Candidates should have robust policy platforms that explicitly commit to a more open and data-driven government that embraces the emerging field of civic tech.

Here are six action items candidates should incorporate into their visions for the future.

1. Institutionalize new approaches to increase open technology processes. More people in government must recognize civic technology’s importance. Under Obama, efforts like the U.S. Digital Service and 18F have become valuable assets, helping the federal government improve how it interacts with citizens. For example, in November, 18F launched a beta website for the Federal Election Commission to make campaign finance and elections data more accessible.

2. Reveal the true extent of federal data holdings while ensuring that agencies maintain and release data in machine-readable, electronic, nonproprietary formats. In response to a Freedom of Information request from the Sunlight Foundation, in early 2015 the federal government released inventories of the data collected and held by major agencies. By establishing a record of what the government actually has, we can better evaluate data quality and how it’s being used.

3. Open up government spending information by fully implementing the DATA Act and continuing to release more data about grants, contracts and other spending. The 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act was a landmark piece of bipartisan legislation that would — if well implemented — ensure that all Americans have timely access to accurate information about government spending. Implementing this complex law will require a strong commitment from the next administration.

4. Take the necessary steps to ensure that vital electronic records are managed and stored in a way that guarantees their availability to future generations and, where appropriate, released in the short term under FOIA. Recent news stories have revealed the shaky system of electronic records management that’s supposed to ensure that historically relevant government documents are preserved. Emphasis must be put on the systems that manage their long-term preservation, but the next administration also must make sure valuable information isn’t withheld from the public in the short term by limiting agency reliance on FOIA exemptions. Government should make it policy to proactively release data where appropriate.

5. Make the White House more open and ethical by releasing visitor logs more quickly. The public deserves to know who the president and top advisers are meeting with. Visitor logs should show the lobbying and influence that happens at the highest level. The current system doesn’t adequately reveal this information. Along with disclosure, we need real lobbying reform to end the revolving door between high-level political positions and private industries.

6. Continue to participate in global efforts to promote open government — like the Open Government Partnership — and turn this participation into actionable change. U.S. leadership has been a key component of the open government movement’s global growth. Ongoing participation in international efforts to build more open and accountable governments should have a positive impact abroad and at home.

As we enter the 2016 election cycle, openness, efficiency and ethics should be at the top of every elected official’s, candidate’s, political appointee’s and agency employee’s agenda for the next four years.

The modern, and hopefully bipartisan, definition of “good government” should be one that’s transparent and open and that embraces a new civic expectation that citizens, activists and journalists deserve access to data that’s previously been walled off from them. Technology makes this goal even more achievable, and so we hope all candidates will share their thoughts about the kind of government they’d like run if they prevail in November.

Chris Gates Contributing Writer

Chris Gates previously served as the president of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for open government globally and uses technology to make government more accountable. He stepped down in January 2016. Gates is a thought leader in the fields of democratic theory and practice and political and civic engagement.