2019 House FSGG Approps Bill and Transparency

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee favorably reported the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act for FY 2019, which contains a few transparency-related measures and a few omissions. (Bill as reported; Committee Report as reported). I’ll address a few of the items:

  • Central website for Congressional Budget Justifications
  • No direct funding for Oversight.Gov
  • DATA Act/ USASpending.gov Implementation
  • Undermining Civil Liberties Oversight
  • New Technology Investments
  • Pushing SEC and Open Corporate Data
  • Preventing Easy Tax Filing

Continue reading “2019 House FSGG Approps Bill and Transparency”

Rep. Hoyer Speaks on Renewing Faith in Government

Yesterday, House Minority Whip Steny Hower (D-MD) gave an interesting speech on renewing the American people’s faith in government. He ticked off four major areas for reform: campaign finance reform, voting rights, redistricting reform, and government technology.

While there’s a lot to digest in his speech, I want to highlight the part that concerns government technology. Continue reading “Rep. Hoyer Speaks on Renewing Faith in Government”

Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help

Part IV: The Way Forward Towards A Stronger Congress

How do we use technology to build congressional capacity to perform its work? In part, the work of the Congressional Data Coalition is powering this virtuous cycle in partnership with Congress. Congress works best with a single entity that represents public stakeholders, and the Congressional Data Coalition is a trusted partner. Greater support of the work of the coalition will speed the process up and provide support to the Senate to follow the path trod by the House as well as encourage the House to go further.

Congress, however, still is not equipped to think systematically about how the information revolution can transform the way it governs. For example, with respect to congressional access to information:

  • Congress requires agencies to provide it thousands of reports, but no effort is made to gather the reports in a central location so that all committees and staff can benefit from the reporting.
  • Information relevant to Congressional activities is not appropriately contextualized. For example, if a staffer is examining a particular bill, legislative information systems should 1) automatically identify others bills that have the same or similar language over multiple congresses; 2) surface testimony and committee reports associated with those bills; 3) and identify GAO reports, CRS reports, and Dear Colleague letters that cover that subject matter; and other relevant information.
  • The work product of the Congressional Research Service focuses on producing reports and answering discrete questions. Encouraging analysts to aggregate topical information — think tank reports, news stories, agency statements, hearing information — and regularly share it with staff, perhaps in the form of a email blast, can prevent member offices from duplicating effort and raise the overall quality of work of staffers covering an issue area.
Continue reading “Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help”

Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help

Part III: Bootstrapping Congress Into the Digital Age

How can Congress muster sufficient resources to properly fund its essential functions in an era of asphyxiating budgets? Unsurprisingly for a 227-year-old institution, congressional operations often are inefficient, expensive, or no longer necessary. There’s not a lot of money there, but there’s enough to invest in greater productivity. Moving to a digital congress, and finding cost savings in doing so, is a way forward in transforming how Congress operates.

For example, the House already has moved to publish the House Calendar online so it does not have to physically print and distribute copies to all offices. The same is true of printing and distributing bills, the U.S. code, and other documents. Money saved by making these operational changes can go towards supporting process reforms. To some extent, Congress is moving down this path.

Continue reading “Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help”

Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help

Part II: How Congress Broke Itself

How can Congress get out of the mess it finds itself in? The approach I suggest is to provide Members and staff greater tools and resources do to their jobs. This will enable them to think long term and remove their undue reliance on special interests dedicated to the status quo. In an era where Congress will not spend more money on itself, resources can be freed up by moving Congress into the information age.

For that to be possible, we must answer difficult questions. What are the incentives and choices affecting legislators as legislators? What internal constraints push members of Congress and their staff act as they do? How do you help members of Congress think of themselves collectively as the first branch of government? How do you create enough space so Congress becomes capable of healing itself?

Continue reading “Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help”

Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help

Part 1: A Thought Experiment on Our Broken Legislature

Imagine astronomers discover a giant asteroid on a collision course for Earth, scheduled to collide in 100 years. It is possible to build the technology to deflect the asteroid if we spend $2 trillion dollars now. What would Congress do?

We can guess at the answer. Some members would say we need to study the issue more and defer action until a blue ribbon panel reports back. Others would deny we’re on a collision course. Members from districts that would build the technology to deflect the asteroid would argue the government should spend $4 trillion… just to be safe. Others would suggest we build deep trenches to escape the impact, because doing so would be a lot cheaper. Questions would be raised whether the asteroid is a Chinese or Russian plot. And each party would blame the other for not addressing the asteroid menace and using it to score political points.

While they’re arguing, the asteroid would come closer and closer. The costs of dealing with the problem would mount. And finally, long after the point where anything meaningful could be done, Congress would fund a private sector initiative to build deflection technology that would not work properly.

Continue reading “Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help”

Save the Date: Second Congressional Hackathon Oct. 23

The Second Congressional Hackathon will take place at the U.S. Capitol on October 23 from 10–5. Hosted by Majority Leader McCarthy and Democratic Whip Hoyer, the hackathon is intended to explore how we can modernize Congress–from open data to updating constituent engagement.

To RSVP, go here.

The First Congressional Hackathon–#InHackWeTrust–was a great event, with tons of information about the ongoing work of the House and, equally as important, it presented a fantastic opportunity for real conversations between staff, technologists, and advocates. I wrote about it here.

With the same offices behind this hackathon, we have high hopes. Since the first congressional hackathon, there has been a series of public meetings and conferenceshosted by the Clerk of the House, the launch of new pro-transparency congressional policies and tools, the creation of the open source caucus, and a civil society-organized congressional hackathon entitled #Hack4Congress. With so many new resources available (and more coming soon), and a spirit of cooperation between congressional staff and the public, I cannot wait to see what can be accomplished.

We will post more information as it becomes available.

Cross-posted from the Congressional Data Coalition.

Save the Date: Second Congressional Hackathon ← P R E V I O U S

The Grassroots and the Battle Over Encryption

Remarks delivered at the #CryptoSummit on July 15, 2015.

• • •

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me.

Congratulations to ACCESS for holding such a successful summit on the vital issue of encryption. Encryption is part of a suite of technology and privacy issues that have kept things interesting up on Capitol Hill. As we saw recently, the grassroots energy and activism around surveillance and net neutrality provided an educational opportunity for members of Congress.

Right now, policymakers are in the process of mangling encryption. A senator, who I won’t name, recently compared encryption to poisonous waste dumped into our rivers and streams. He argued that companies pushing for encryption are harming the public.

It’s not entirely surprising that some members of Congress are getting this issue wrong, at least right now. Congress has seriously diminished its ability to understand complex policy issues. The number of committee staff in the House has been cut in half over the last 3 decades. Expert agencies inside the legislative branch have been cut to the bone. Congress is at the mercy of special interests for information and guidance. And no interest is more special than the defense establishment, which literally has offices on Capitol Hill and places staff in member offices.

This is why grassroots pressure is so important. It forces members of Congress to move away from simplistic narratives. It drives them out of the bubble. It forces them to engage with the people most expert on encryption — the people in this room — and with the millions behind us. Grassroots pressure also helps change the narrative about encryption and widen the range of policy options.

For example, last year’s ResetTheNet campaign encouraged developers to make their websites more secure from prying … and encouraged Internet users to use NSA-resistant privacy tools. By getting more people to use encryption, the ResetTheNet campaign worked towards three important goals:

First, it made the use of encryption more commonplace, showing that is not scary or complicated.

Second, it taught how the widespread use of encryption can protect everyone from surveillance, like mass inoculation against virulent diseases.

Third, it encouraged policymakers to find a solution that is proportionate and appropriate to the problem it is trying to address.

A campaign raising awareness around encryption, no matter how clever, is only half the battle. People must connect encryption to bigger fights and broader organizing efforts. To win on encryption, it must be seen as a brick in the wall against an overly-intrusive government and other hackers.

And that wall must be built upon opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act, to skepticism around the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, to deep concern on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, to dread around Executive Order 12333, and so on.

We have won unprecedented victories lately by educating and organizing around these issues. Hundreds of thousands of people weighed in on mass surveillance. We must apply those lessons to encryption, and help people connect the dots. They must come to understand the fight is about the future of privacy, about the future of technology, and about the future of democracy.

We have made good headway, but there is so much more to do. Thank you.

{ Like this? You may also like Sunsetting the Politics of TerrorWhat Our Mass Surveillance Debate Gets Wrong, & Senate Torture Report: The Senate Speaks }

— Written by Daniel Schuman

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 Data.gov 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