Advances, setbacks, and continuing impediments to government transparency

I heard yesterday about the good, the bad, and the edgy in open government at Computers, Freedom & Privacy, being held this week in Washington, DC. A panel that covered open meetings laws and social networking started with a summary by Andy Wilson of Public Citizen Texas of how Utah and Texas trended in different directions.

Utah state legislators recently suffered embarrassments when email messages were demanded and released under the open records law in that state, the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). In their urgency to protect future email from public exposure, they passed (and the governor signed) a bill called HB 477 that went to the extreme of cutting off public access to most records. Widespread outrage accompanied the act, predictably organizing under the slogan “Don’t Kill GRAMA!”, and succeeded in restoring access to records.

In Texas, during the same period, activists succeeded in moving the state forward in terms of open records. Public utilities were required to put data online, over their objections that it represented “competitive information.” Electronic filing was instituted for new classes of government information.

Wilson said that Texas legislators were no more enlightened than Utah’s. In fact, he called Texas “even more parochial and conservative” than Utah. He attributed the successes in Texas to well-organized NGO sector, and to their advantage in acting pro-actively instead of in reaction to some shock. They used financial arguments to bring many new records online, pointing out how much paper and postage it would save.

Readers of the Government 2.0 site know many of the US Administration’s achievements in transparency and public participation, and have probably heard the unfortunate budget cuts that will devastate sites such as Recovery.gov and Data.gov (Congress reduced this “Electronic Government” fund from a requested 34 million to 8 million dollars). Daniel Schuman of Sunlight Foundation mentioned that a Congressional hearing will be held on its budget today, but not in a fashion that gives one confidence in Congress’s commitment to open government: he said it will be in a room that seats ten people, with no webcasting.

Nevertheless, even Congress has made great strides in opening up to the public itself. After taking back the House in 2010, the Republicans created several rules opening up their procedures to public scrutiny. The Sunlight Foundation proposed a Public Online Information Act to standardize the release of government information in open, “user-friendly” formats. The bill was introduced into the previous Congress but failed, and has been introduced again.

Joe Newman of the Project on Government Oversight discussed the barriers to opening Federal email and to the use of social networks such as Twitter by legislators and agencies. Plenty are on these networks: nearly all Senators have at least one Twitter feed, and most of the House as well. But many simply use it as an extra channel for announcing their press releases. “Self-promotion is not transparency,” Newman pointed out. Real social networking success comes when citizens talk back–hopefully in productive ways, but even flaming shows that there’s some chance of engagement. Coffee Party USA, represented at the panel by founder Annabel Park, may be one stimulus to reaching out from the citizen side.

It’s ironic that one of the best exemplars of how to use Twitter in Congress, before his fall, was Anthony Weiner. (Before this session, I had felt relieved to get through a day in Washington without anyone mentioning Weiner.) His tweets had information, personality, and appeal. There was some controversy over whether his handle, @repweiner, was proper because it tied his name to the office he held, but the convention is widespread. Congressional use of Twitter dropped 30% after the Weiner scandal hit, but Newman assured us the setback will be temporary.

I brought up a point I have made before in blogs, that government use of commercial sites such as Facebook and Twitter ties their users and citizens into networks whose purposes and goals might not align with the purposes and goals of government. However, Newman warned against asking the government to set up its own social network, particularly if law enforcement can snoop around at what people are storing there. Schuman said there is no way to avoid the popular networks. “Politicians go where their constituents are. If people are on Facebook, they go on Facebook; if people are in the town square they go to the town square.”

On the agency side, people are reluctant to take up social media until they’re back up by clear policies, and Newman said these aren’t in place yet. The problem is not a lack of policy memoranda–quite the opposite. Half a dozen agencies have weighed in with numerous documents about the use of social media. Few federal employee are going to read through them all and follow the references to other documents. Those who do who will come out the other end still not sure where the source of authority resides. Meanwhile, Congress has tried and failed two years in a row to legislate how Federal agencies should store their email. An Electronic Preservation Act also failed to pass last year, and this year (as part of a larger bill) seems to be held up be partisan wrangling. But successes in open government, both in Congress and in the states, demonstrate that it appeals to politicians across the aisle.

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