OPEN Government Data Act paves way for public access to government data

  • Open government advocates are celebrating the passage of the OPEN Government Data Act, which requires all non-sensitive federal government data to be machine-readable and available to the public.
  • Experts say its impact will include streamlining government functions, speeding FOIA requests, and helping citizens and journalists identify problems in government agencies.
  • The origins of the law go back to open government policies mandated by President Obama that have been continued under the Trump administration.

Open government advocates celebrated last month when President Donald Trump signed the OPEN Government Data Act, a bill requiring all federal government data to be made machine-readable and available to the public where allowable by law. It also requires government agencies to find and present evidence for proposed policy changes, and to appoint chief data officers to oversee the process of making data public and ensure agencies are compliant.

“Today is a historic day for the open data movement. The Data Coalition applauds President Trump for signing into law the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (the umbrella bill within which the OPEN Government Data Act was passed). The government-wide law will transform the way the government collects, publishes, and uses non-sensitive public information,” said Sarah Joy Hays, acting executive director of the Data Coalition, an organization that advocates for the publication of standardized government data.

“Title II, the OPEN Government Data Act, which our organization has been working on for over three and a half years, sets a presumption that all government information should be open data by default: machine-readable and freely-reusable. Our Coalition celebrates the congressional and executive branch allies, as well as the open data advocates, who made this possible.”

Impacting everyday constituents

Sasha Moss, who helped write the act while working as legislative counsel for Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, (she’s now the Federal Government Affairs Manager at R Street Institute), told Grassroots Pulse that the everyday constituent ultimately stands to benefit most from OPEN Government Data because it allows everyone from citizens to private companies and nonprofits to analyze government-provided data. Before the bill was signed into law, she said, any individuals who wanted to review the data were required to purchase a license from a government contractor, even though citizens already fund agency-created data through their tax dollars.

As far as what kind of impact of the law will have, Christian Hoehner, Data Coalition’s senior policy director, expects the expanded release of data pertaining to federal contracts, human resources, and programs, which will improve oversight while streamlining government functions.

“There are thousands of people working on acquisitions in the federal government, and there’s no real way to query or inventory the sum history of acquisition procurement actions so that they can speed up that time to award and get contractors brought in,” he told the Washington Examiner. “This could result in the delivery of services in a way that’s better for the public.”

As an example of how this newly-available data could be used by constituents, Moss points to the 2014 VA wait time scandal.

“Because the taxpayer was not allowed to review the data without having to pay for what — let’s be frank — they already purchased, constituents, private entities, nonprofits, and others were unable to work with the VA to distribute tools to combat the problem of long wait periods,” she said.

By the same token, Moss also believes more open data will empower the media to spot more problems in government — and to draw awareness to those problems before they become scandals.

“The best check on the government is the constituent, but if the constituent is left in the dark, he or she cannot implore their government to do better,” she said.

History and implementation

The origins of the OPEN Government Data Act go back to “open government” policies proposed by the Obama Administration as it pushed to make good on its claim of being “the most transparent administration in history.”

The spotlight moved away from open government initiatives with the advent of Trump administration, but advocacy groups like the Data Coalition continued to press the issue, and the Office of Management and Budget continued efforts to take the principles of the Obama administration’s open data policies and execute them through a management plan. Signing the OPEN Government Act into law marks a significant step forward because it ensures that President Barack Obama’s 2013 executive order requiring open government data will continue to be carried out under federal law.

“It’s a very big deal,” Matt Bailey, who worked in the Office of the U.S. Chief Information Officer for two years under both the Obama and Trump administrations, told the Washington Examiner. “It’s really going to bring a lot of rigor to work that began under Obama… It’s a statement that it’s a priority — or still a priority — and that it’s the law of the land.”

The law passed with virtually no organized opposition, said John Wonderlich, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, because transparency in principle is uncontroversial. However he expects to see Freedom of Information Act requests, which are likely to become faster and more streamlined under the law, prompt court battles with government agencies over details such as what counts as machine-readable formatting.

The act isn’t liable to make national headlines as government agencies work to comply with its requirements (it was far from front-page news when it was passed on January 14 in the middle of a government shutdown). Instead, Hoehner says there’s about a year’s worth of implementation work ahead, so its impact will be felt more gradually.

“It’s always hard for the public to realize when something transformative takes place in government,” he said. “A lot of this is going to go on under the hood.”

Image Credit: Photo by Chris Liverani

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