Open Data Grows (But Not Enough)

2015 was a year of progress for government transparency — however, there’s still much work to be done.

by / November 30, 2015

As 2015 winds to a close, we can look back on a year of success stories and failures when it comes to transparency in government.

At the start of the year, the federal government began releasing its enterprise data inventories — comprehensive indexes of the data sets it collects — to the public. The move, which came in response to a Sunlight Foundation Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, was a major victory for government transparency. By making the indexes publicly available, we’ll have a better picture of what data and information the federal government collects and maintains, and it opens the door for further investigation and analysis by Congress, journalists and citizens alike.

But there’s still some information missing, particularly around data sets that are withheld from the public, and some federal agencies like Homeland Security, Justice and NASA have yet to comply. It’s important to note that sharing an agency’s enterprise data inventory won’t expose any information that should reasonably be withheld from public view. It would, however, make it easier to understand the government’s justification for the decisions it makes in determining whether to disclose or withhold certain data sets. And it would give a more comprehensive overview of what exactly these agencies have.

The open data executive order that called for the creation of these inventories aimed to enable and encourage informed debate about what data should be made public, and in order to have that debate, we must know the extent of the data the government holds.

A troubling revelation came to light in March 2015 when it was revealed that while she served as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton used a personal email account and a private email server to conduct official business. While Clinton has turned over a trove of emails (that her staff unilaterally deemed to be personal) and access to the private server, (which security experts have demonstrated had significant vulnerabilities) the move sets a dangerous precedent. Federal law governs how official records, including email, are managed to ensure that public records are preserved, and helps to make sure that our freedom of information and other accountability laws reach official communications. The apparent intentional disregard for the spirit of the law is certainly concerning.

We’ve seen some positive developments in Congress, which is slowly embracing openness and modern technologies to streamline and democratize the legislative and policy process. The House of Representatives is leading the effort to open up legislative data through programs like the Bulk Data Task Force, the docs.house.gov website, and regular legislative data and transparency conferences.

And while there’s much more to be done, there are two things Congress could do right now to improve transparency and accountability: prioritize FOIA reform and require Senate candidates to electronically file their campaign finance reports. Reform through the FOIA Improvement Act would require agencies to update their regulations in a timely fashion, codify the presumption of openness, improve public digital access to records released under the FOIA and strengthen the Office of Government Information Services. And while House and presidential candidates are already required to e-file campaign reports, the Campaign Disclosure Parity Act would bring the Senate — which still delivers reams of paper to the Federal Election Commission every quarter — into the 21st century.

As we enter the new year, I hope that the president and members of Congress continue to build upon the victories we’ve achieved and set the stage for the next administration to improve where we’ve fallen short.

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.