Top 5 Federal OpenGov Efforts

Photo credit: SDOT photos

In recent years there has been a lot of talk about opengov at the state, local and international levels, but when it comes to the federal government people just shake their heads and mutter. That is unfortunate, because a lot is happening at the federal level.

Here are five areas where the federal government is making major strides.

5. Innovative uses of technology

When you think of how the government uses technology, innovation often is not the word that comes to mind. More often it’s thought of as clunky, slow, out-of-date, insecure and expensive. But the executive branch has taken a step towards addressing these issues by creating 18F.

18F bills itself as “building the 21st century digital government.” It is an inside-government consultancy that builds technology for government on a cost-recovery basis. Housed at the General Services Administration, 18F addresses the twin problems of outside contractors who build cruddy tools that cost a ton of money as well as underfunded government developers who must use inadequate tools in unfriendly environments. Private sector developers are brought into government in the equivalent of a technology startup to help agencies build new tools and change the way they engage with technology. Most importantly, they work to change the culture around government information technology.

18F connects to opengov because many of its projects are opengov-related and the tools it builds are developed in the open. Projects include cleaning up Federal Election Commission data, a consolidated FOIA request hub, making federal spending transparent and rethinking the portal MyUSA. 18F is changing the way government uses technology, which often results in better, faster disclosure of government information.

4. Open courts

Unfortunately, federal courts are awful about opengov. But I did not want to let the opportunity to praise some great work being done on the federal civil society side, notably CourtlistenerOyezScotusBlogand Cornell’s Legal Information Institute. Respectively, they provide alerts for and deep content regarding federal court decisions; publish audio and transcripts of Supreme Court decisions from 1955 forward; provide real-time reporting and context for current Supreme Court activities; and provide access to many Supreme Court opinions.

3. Improved efforts to provide access to executive branch information

Over the last six years, both Congress and the executive branch have made serious efforts in proactively and responsively releasing information to the public, at least in some (non-national security) arenas.

The most notable effort has been in legislation to fix the Freedom of Information Act. Significant FOIA legislation passed the House and Senatelast Congress, but in slightly different forms so it has yet to be signed into law. The Obama administration, most notably the Department of Justice and financial regulatory agencies, fought against much-needed efforts to improve FOIA because it dared codify a presumption of openness and would require the public’s interest be weighed when evaluating whether to release information the executive branch deemed privileged. The legislation slowly is moving towards passage this Congress.

Other notable efforts ongoing on the FOIA front include the establishment of a FOIA advisory committee, an effort to unify FOIA regulations across all agencies and the construction of a central online FOIA request portal.

On the proactive disclosure side, the Obama administration conducted a survey of all the datasets it held, and — after a FOIA lawsuit — has agreed to release the inventory to the public. It also continues to publish a log of many of the visitors to the White House. And the administration is engaging in a biannual open government planning process, where many agencies publish a plan for releasing information to the public and follow through on some of their commitments; there’s also an international process around domestic transparency commitments. The website, which publishes some federal datasets, also is of some value.

Still, there is a long way to go.

Congress has considered (and in a few instances passed) other notable legislation, including the DATA Act discussed below. Also on the docket is a bill — the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act — that would require all agency reports to Congress be published online. The Presidential Library Donations Reform Act, which requires disclosure of donations to presidential libraries, is poised for consideration by the full House and Senate. There are other smart bills being drafted and considered as well.

2. Publishing federal spending information

Last Congress, the DATA Act was signed into law. This bipartisan measure would make much federal spending information available to the public, and would have gone further if not for strong oppositionfrom the Office of Management and Budget. The regulation governing the law currently is jointly being written by OMB and Treasury. By incorporating unique identifiers, following federal spending at a great level of detail and pushing information into a central repository, the DATA Act holds out the promise of transforming our understanding of federal spending. New legislation to extend the DATA Act also has been introduced.

Federal responding requirements like the DATA Act can be transformative. Whatever the merits of the2009 economic stimulus bill, the transparency requirements around the $787 billion legislation have had surprising results: “spending transparency became institutionalized in some states.” In some cases, the availability of Recovery Act data marked the first time officials were able to monitor performance trends for federal contracts, grants and loans across all state agencies. If properly implemented, the DATA Act can have similar follow-on benefits.

1. Open legislative information

By far the most remarkable transformation has been in public access to legislative information. The work to make congressional information available to the public in a structured data format and in bulk has been transformative, and the House literally has changed the way it operates to make this happen. We are here only because of a bipartisan commitment by House leadership who have labored without great acclaim against high bureaucratic barriers to modernize congressional operations.

There’s too much to point out all of the changes, but here are the highlights.

This is no less than a revolution in how Congress makes information available to the public. In turn, it has empowered a huge federal civic technology community that transforms the new data and tools into new ways to communicate with Congress, analyze information and make government more efficient and effective. Literally millions of people each month are directly or indirectly accessing federal legislative information because of this process. The Senate is not as far down the path as the House, and the Library of Congress is notable for its foot-dragging, but we have seen real, tangible, important progress.

Concluding thoughts

What makes all this progress even remarkable is that advocates for opengov at the federal level, especially when it comes to legislative information, have received much less attention recently than advocates at other levels of government. A lot is happening at the federal level, and if we keep working at it the possibilities are endless.

Cross-posted at the Sunlight Foundation blog.

{ Liked this? You may also like There Oughta Be a Law }

— Written by Daniel Schuman

A Rough Guide for Librarians On OpenGov

The Leeds Library in Yorkshire, U.K. Photo credit: Michael Beckwith.


In the last few years “Open Government” has emerged as a social movement that reframes the public’s relationship to government. While the concept of Open Government is not new — the federal Freedom of Information Act is a well-known example — the digital revolution has prompted new actors to publish and reuse government information for civic purposes.

Libraries, as a primary source of information about government, should embrace digital open government as a powerful tool to further their access-to-information mission. Citizens, civic organizations and businesses, and governments traditionally have looked to libraries for information about government activities. However, stakeholders increasingly are turning to online entrepreneurs to fill the digital information vacuum where bricks and mortar libraries previously played this role.

It is important to add that open government is not e-government. The concept of open government concerns the public’s ability to access and make use of information relating to governance. E-government, by contrast, concerns the provision of government services through electronic means. For example, filing a tax return electronically is e-government, but obtaining the total amount of money collected by the IRS as revenue is a form of open government.

Oftentimes, and unlike the ways many activists seek to understand government, technologically-oriented open government advocates organize from the ground up, not the top down. They will often use seemingly unconventional means to gather public information, such as “scraping” or reverse-engineering websites to obtain information. It is not uncommon to observe a distinct (and perhaps deserved) lack of patience with the usual procedures for trying to obtain information and the usual formats in which it is provided.

Open government activists likely will embrace librarians that serve as a connector between them and the information that they seek. Librarians, in turn, can lay the groundwork to both fulfill open government activist requests for information and proactively fulfill these requests through online publication of information, breathing new life into civic information often held in musty archives.

Roles Libraries Play

Libraries play a number of roles in the open government space. Here are a few conceptual categories:

Transparency and Hacking — Where libraries facilitate government efforts to be more transparent and citizen efforts to access that information and build new tools with that information. This is the new variety of open government that this guide attempts to describe.

Civic Literacy Education — It is longstanding library practice to educate the community through literacy and educational training. To the extent the subject matter concerns civic-related activities, it is open government.

Access to Government Services (egov) — While egov (service provision) largely is distinct from opengov (making government work better), building new tools or finding new ways to empower citizens to access government services fits within both categories. Libraries may gather information published by governments and repackage it as services tailored for their community.

Information Preservation — Libraries have long played a role in preserving information about government activities, but that often has taken the form of preservation of printed documents. Libraries can move towards preserving government information in digital forms and making that information available online.

One final note: part of what makes libraries unique is that the information is provided to patrons at no cost and with minimal restrictions. The ability to provide everyone with access with information, not just those who can afford it, is an essential characteristic of libraries and should not be overlooked.

Places to Start

The extent to which your library engages with the open government movement will vary significantly based on local circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

As one possible starting point, check the Meetup website and reach out to local activists interested in open government. Perhaps invite them to use a library space for the next meeting and even consider kicking and for pizza.

The book “Beyond Transparency” provides excellent examples of how open government has been in implemented at the municipal level all across the country.

The book “Open Government Data” provides an excellent overview of what open government is and what it looks like online.

The recent Bloomberg article “What is code?” provides a plain language explanation of, well, what computer code is. (Opengov is not technology, and vice versa, but this article is a useful point of entry.)

Another starting point is to talk to local officials to get a sense of what their online information publication practices are. Perhaps there are resources at the library that can support these ongoing efforts.

The Free Government Information blog, written by several California-based librarians, provides timely information about the national conversation taking place on open government from a librarian’s perspective.

Finally, some of the organizations listed below may also have ideas or contacts regarding ways to get started.

Who To Talk To

There are a number of resources inside and outside government that should be engaged.

Inside government, possible allies include:

  • The municipality’s director of information technology, CIO, or CTO
  • Elected officials who run on a modernization campaign
  • Other librarians
  • Government components with public-facing or outreach responsibilities
  • Computer or information science academics at local colleges.
  • Other municipalities.

Outside government, there likely are significant local resources as well as state and federal resources. For example:

  • Open government activists often use the website Meetup to organize regular meetings and making use of government information.
  • Local journalists
  • Local IT professionals
  • Code for America is a nationwide organization whose mission is to embed technologically-sophisticated programmers inside government.
  • The Sunlight Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports open government advocacy on the municipal level and also builds sophisticated open source tools for transparency.
  • The Open Data Institute provides course information and technical assistance with publishing open data.
  • The OpenGov Foundation is focused on helping states and municipalities make there was available online.
  • General Assembly provides online and in-person courses on how to write code.

{ Liked this? You may also like Choosing the Next Librarian of Congress and It’s Time for Congress to Publish CRS Reports }

— Written by Daniel Schuman

It’s Time for Congress to Publish CRS Reports

This morning the New York Times editorialized in favor of public access to Congressional Research Service reports.

“Given the extreme partisanship and gridlock in Congress, it’s more crucial than ever to have an informed electorate. Putting these reports in the public domain is an important step toward that goal.”

Over the years our coalition has submitted testimony in favor of public access to these reports, most recently in March. In summary, the reports explain current legislative issues in language that everyone can understand, are written by a federal agencies that receives more than $100 million annually, and there is strong public demand for access. A detailed description of the issues at play is available here.

This congress, two legislative efforts are underway to make CRS reports public. First, the bipartisan H. Res. 34, introduced by Reps. Leonard Lance (R-NY) and Mike Quigley (D-IL), would make all reports widely distributed in Congress available to the public, except confidential memoranda and advice provided by CRS at the request of a member. Second, Rep. Quigley offered an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have required CRS to make available an index of all of its reports. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate in prior years.

The issue of public access can be resolved by either chamber of Congress passing a simple resolution. Indeed, a single member of Congress has the right to publish as many reports as desired on his or her website. Legislative branch appropriators in either chamber or the Committee on House Administration or Senate Rules Committee all have jurisdiction and could move swiftly to release the reports to the public. At a minimum, a hearing would shed light on the underlying issues. (In 2011, I hosted a panel discussion on the future of CRS that discusses public access.)

For two decades, members of Congress have tried to make these reports available to the public on a systematic basis. It’s time to finally make it happen.

For an index of resources, go here.

{ Liked this? You may also like A Rough Guide for Librarians on OpenGov and Choosing the Next Librarian of Congress }

— Written by Daniel Schuman

Choosing The Next Librarian of Congress

Jefferson Building, Library of Congress. Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol.

Librarian of Congress James Billington recently announced he will retire after 27 years of service. The Library of Congress has an outsized role in our democracy: it is a wellspring of policy expertise for lawmakers, a cultural curator, and a hub in our information society. Its activities span from the Copyright Office to the Congressional Research Service, the Law Library to the Poet Laureate, and traditional library services to books for the blind. The role of the Library is shaped by the personality of the Librarian, who oversees a $600 million annual budget and 3,200 permanent staff, and by tradition is a lifetime appointee.

In recent years, public criticism of Dr. Billington has grown and been reported on in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. It is not my intention to revisit those critiques. Instead, I will focus on the qualities that the next Librarian of Congress should possess, touching on those criticisms only to inform the discussion. There are no formal requirements to be Librarian but appointment by the president and confirmation by the Senate; people who have filled that role have included poets, playwrights, journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, historians, and librarians.

I have been a close observer of the Library of Congress, at one time an employee there, and believe that the institution needs a strong leader with a diverse range of skills. More than anything else, the next Librarian must be a capable manager with a vision for the Library and a strong orientation towards using and adapting to new technologies.

In particular, the next Librarian of Congress should possess the following attributes:

  • A strong commitment to and evolving understanding of library and information science.
  • A background in research and analysis.
  • An understanding of how to use the library and technology as a vehicle for civic engagement.
  • The ability to embrace technological innovation over the next 30 years.
  • An understanding of how to hire and oversee technology managers and projects.
  • The ability to inspire people and create a positive work culture.
  • A commitment to equal employment for all.
  • Strong fundraising abilities.

Library and Information Science

The next Librarian of Congress must be an expert on library and information science in the modern sense. He or she must understand that the job includes not only overseeing the collection and cataloging of books and records, but also gathering the useful sum of human knowledge no matter the form, archiving it, and sharing it to make the information as widely accessible as possible.

Serving Congress

Although the Library of Congress fills a public role to help advance and preserve human knowledge, the Library of Congress exists first and foremost to meet the needs of Congress. As the federal government continues to grow in complexity, the Library of Congress should possess the requisite skills to advise Congress.The next Librarian must shore up the Library’s analytical capacity and ensure Congress has the world’s information at its fingertips.

Civic Engagement

The Library is woefully behind in sharing its vast informational riches with the public and encouraging new uses of that information. The next Librarian must have an understanding of how modern technology has transformed the way the world communicates. The Librarian must be committed to using current technology and adopting new technology to further its mission. While willing to engage in public-private partnerships, the Librarian must keep free public access to information at heart. He or she must be open to working with civic technology developers and others to expand access and reuse of public information, and consider bringing such expertise in-house. And the Librarian must be dedicated to releasing information that maximizes public reuse.


It is axiomatic that no one knows what the future will bring. When Dr. Billington was appointed in 1987, microfiche was still a popular preservation medium, card catalogues were made of paper, and newspapers and TV were the dominant news sources. Now, the cloud, structured datasets, and blogs are the tools of the trade. There is no way to know how things will look in 30 years. The Librarian must embrace technology and innovation to keep the Library of Congress relevant in the 21st century and beyond.

Technology Infrastructure

The Library of Congress is technologically backward. A series of GAO reports (20152012, and so on over 20 years) has detailed its inability to manage its information technology — or even to set forth a strategic vision. The next Librarian of Congress must have a vision for integrating technology into the work of the Library and understand how to hire and oversee technology managers and projects. In this era of constrained budgets, smart deployment and use of technology is essential.

Positive Work Culture

In recent decades there has been significant instability in the Library’s leadership. During Dr. Billington’s tenure, the average Deputy Librarian of Congress served fewer than 3 years. Reports of staff unhappiness are not uncommon. The current Librarian is known for a challenging, complex interpersonal style. The next Librarian of Congress must understand that leadership includes inspiring people and creating a work culture that encourages creativity, truth-telling, and respect.

Commitment to Equal Employment

The Library of Congress has not always engaged in fair employment practices. In the mid-1990s, a federal court found the Library engaged in racially discriminatory hiring practices between 1977–1988. In 2003, a federal court found a Library employee was improperly passed over for a job promotion on the basis of sex and race. In 2008, a federal court found the Library improperly rescinded a job offer to an Army special forces commander after it learned of her intention to have a sex-change operation. And an ongoinglawsuit alleges that a Library employee was harassed and ultimately fired on account of being gay. Racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination have no place in a modern workforce. The next Librarian must redouble efforts to make the Library a welcoming place to work.


Fundraising by the Librarian is increasingly important as congressional appropriations have dropped. Appropriations for the Library of Congress have fallen by more than 7 percent between 2010 and 2014 (down $34 million), and staff have decreased by more than 11 percent between 2008 and 2013 (313 positions cut). Personnel, projects, and technology investment have all been cut to the point where the Library’s mission is imperiled. During his tenure, Dr. Billington oversaw the Library’s efforts to raise a half-billion dollars in donations from the private sector. While fundraising by the Librarian cannot offset these cuts, it can help preserve some vital programs.

Concluding Thoughts

There may be other traits the next Librarian of Congress should possess, but the foregoing should cover the bases. It is my hope that the President and Congress will work diligently over the upcoming months to identify the best candidates for an appointment that will shape American life for decades to come.

{ Liked this? You may also like A Rough Guide for Librarians on OpenGov and It’s Time for Congress to Publish CRS Reports }

— Written by Daniel Schuman

Sunsetting the Politics of Terror

Last sunday night’s sunset of the 9/11-era USA PATRIOT Act is an example of the Congress working properly and a repudiation of the politics of terror. After the 9/11 attacks, national security hardliners stampeded the Congress into enacting broad surveillance legislation without much opportunity for our elected officials to think through the legislation or to address competing interests of privacy, programmatic effectiveness, transparency, return on investment, and so on. The only saving grace was that legislators tacked on a sunset — a legislative expiration date — that would force future congresses to reconsider some provisions of the legislation when passions had cooled.

The purpose of a sunset is twofold. First, it puts the burden on proponents of legislation to justify the need for its existence. Second, it uses the structure of Congress itself as a procedural protection to make sure there is broad agreement that controversial legislation is necessary.

As it turns out, Congress re-upped provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act every four years, under great pressure from hardliners and in contrived circumstances that undermined reform. In the meantime, evidence piled up that expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act were ineffective, counterproductive, and implemented by the administration in ways that violated the law.

This time around, proponents of reauthorization had no credibility when they made their case for an extension. Passions had cooled, and many members of Congress had not voted on the original legislation in 2001. But proponents included members of leadership in the House and in the Senate, and they tried to ram legislation through anyway. That is where the structure of Congress itself came into play. When surveillance hardliners overplayed their hand, Congress’s system of checks and balances provided just enough procedural protections that the rank-and-file from both parties were able to capitalize on their longstanding reform efforts, join together, and prevent a power play.

There’s no doubt that when the shoe is on the other foot and privacy advocates wish to enact legislative reforms, they will have a tremendous uphill fight. But last week’s filibuster, the refusal of pro-privacy senators to acquiesce to legislation that extends the USA PATRIOT Act, and the House’s strong actions in favor of reform all served to box in surveillance hardliners. They were prevented from reaching their goal of a straight reauthorization or enacting faux-reform legislation.

The fight is not over. Surveillance hardliners still have many opportunities to use Congress’ arcane procedural mechanisms to sneak or push through surveillance legislation. But now that several provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act have sunset, the landscape has shifted and Congress will be even more reluctant to go along. In addition, with this defeat, the aura of legislative invincibility enjoyed by hardliners has dissipated. It is now possible for many members of Congress to envision a path towards real reform.

{ Like this? You may also like The Grassroots and the Battle Over EncryptionWhat Our Mass Surveillance Debate Gets Wrong, and Senate Torture Report: The Senate Speaks }

— Written by Daniel Schuman