FOI Advocate News Blog

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The NFOIC open government blog is a compendium of original concepts and analysis as well as ideas, edited excerpts and materials from a variety of sources. When the information comes from another source, we will attribute it and provide a link. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited; we will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

For Advocate posts prior to July, 2011, visit http://foiadvocate.blogspot.com/.
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June 9, 2014 7:03 AM

PDF14 Day Two

  • "We can’t build a democracy for the people, by the people without all the people," said Noel Hidalgo, founder of the country's largest open government and civic tech meetup, BetaNYC.
  • That includes government people. Matthew Burton, a long time civil servant, reinforced the view that government needs young talent. Burton challenged us with rethinking government -- not as an alien entity that works against us but as a public product: "You can’t expect a government to work for you unless you yourself do the work of government."
  • The UK government's executive director of digital Mike Bracken works on delivering world class digital services to British citizens. Why? Because "services underpin democracy," he said. When frustration builds over delayed phone lines and long lines, people lose trust in the government. Much like positive "microaffirmations" build up digital movements, as activist and artist An Xiao Mina pointed out yesterday, a cumulation of negative "microaffirmations" tears down trust. He pointed to President Barack Obama's disastrous HealthCare.gov launch as a case in point.
  • Our own Andrew Rasiej observed, it's an example of what happens when you "build government up instead of tearing it down." Check out more in our post.
  • While campaigns like "Reset the Net" show us how to save the Internet, how does the Internet Save? Continue>>>

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June 9, 2014 7:02 AM

In a win for government transparency, a slew of strong new appointments for a city government watchdog group cleared their first round of approvals yesterday.

Society of Professional Journalists appointees Mark Rumold and Ali Winston, League of Women Voters appointee Allyson Washburn, and Attorney Lee Hepner were confirmed by the rules committee as appointments to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. That recommendation is now headed to the full Board of Supervisors for approval. "Make no mistake, the people want open government," Thomas Peele, co-chair of SPJ's Freedom of Information Committee told city supervisors at the rules committee. "As Justice Brandeis said: 'Sunshine is the best disenfectant.'"

The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force was formed in the '90s, and tasked with policing transparency laws granting interested citizens (and journalists) access to government records. Emails, policy documents, and research are all openly accessible to the public under the city's Sunshine Ordinance -- but someone has to make sure city government plays by the rules. That's where the task force comes in. Continue>>>
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June 9, 2014 7:00 AM

Last month, web designer Sean Wittmeyer and colleague Wojciech Magda walked away with a $25,000 prize from the state of Colorado for designing an online tool to help businesses decide where to locate in the state.

The tool, called "Beagle Score," is a widget that can be embedded in online commercial real estate listings. It can rate a location by taxes and incentives, zoning, even the location of possible competitors -- all derived from about 30 data sets posted publicly by the state of Colorado and its municipalities.

The creation of Beagle Score is an example of how states, cities, counties and the federal government are encouraging entrepreneurs to take raw government data posted on "open data" websites and turn the information into products the public will buy. Continue>>>
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June 9, 2014 6:59 AM

Yesterday I filed a lawsuit against the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department. I intend to persuade the government to release records that will reveal how it dealt with the imprisonment of Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal, and myself in Iran from 2009 to 2011. The three of us were arrested near the Iranian border while on a hike in Iraq's Kurdish region, which we were visiting on a short trip from Sarah's and my home in Damascus. Sarah remained in prison for 13 months, and Josh and I for twice as long. For the two years that I was in prison, I wondered constantly what my government was doing to help us. I still want to know.

But my interest in these records is more than personal. Innocent Americans get kidnapped, imprisoned, or held hostage in other countries from time to time. When that happens, our government must take it very seriously. These situations cannot be divorced from politics; they are often extremist reactions to our foreign policy. Currently, Americans are being detained in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Cuba, and other countries.

What does our government do when civilians are held hostage? Sarah's, Josh's, and my family, like others in similar situations, were regularly assured by our leaders—all the way up to the Secretary of State and the President—that they were doing everything they could, but our families were rarely told what that meant. Why is this information so secret, even after the fact? It is important to know how the government deals with such crises. Is there a process by which the government decides whether or not to negotiate with another country or political group? How does it decide which citizens to negotiate for and which not to? Are the reassurances the government gives to grieving families genuine, or intended to appease them? Do branches of government cooperate with each other, or work in isolation? Continue>>>
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June 9, 2014 6:57 AM

A state watchdog group says Philadelphia City Council willfully ignored Pennsylvania’s open-meetings law this past week by gathering behind closed doors — not once, but twice.

On Wednesday, a majority of City Council members met behind a locked door in the office of City Council president Darrell Clarke (top photo). Clarke emerged later and admitted they were discussing city business — specifically, how to come up with more taxpayer dollars for the school district. But Clarke insisted the session did not violate the state Sunshine Act because council members broke up into smaller groups in separate areas within his office.

Kim de Bourbon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, says even if Clarke’s shuttling tactic didn’t violate the letter of the Sunshine Act, it violated the spirit of the law. Continue>>>
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June 5, 2014 12:32 PM

In its own polite, Midwestern fashion, The Des Moines Register is mad as heck and is not going to take it anymore. After Iowa officials refused to release records showing alleged abuses by state employees, the paper is pursuing dual lawsuits to force the records into public view. In one case, the Register is even suing the state’s new public information board, formed expressly to address years of complaints about records transparency.

The legal moves, coupled with related efforts at coalition-building, are part of an avowedly more assertive posture by the paper to shift the state’s political culture toward openness—a stance that is welcomed by open-government advocates in Iowa, even if its prospects for success are uncertain.

One of the suits, filed against the Iowa Department of Public Safety, seeks police records of an incident last fall in Worth County in which an inmate was Tasered multiple times and died while in custody—a death that the state medical examiner ruled a homicide. The other suit involves a 2012 video that shows an employee at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo slamming a female inmate’s head against a wall; the employee has been fired and the home has been closed, but the state has refused the Register’s requests to release the video on the grounds of protecting the alleged victim’s confidentiality, and the Iowa Public Information Board ruled in the state’s favor by a vote of 6-3 in February. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:39 AM

California voters handily approved ballot measures Tuesday requiring that local governments pay the cost of making their records and meetings public. Proposition 42, which amends the state constitution to require that governments pay for complying with state transparency laws, led with 60 percent of the vote after 1.8 million ballots counted. It was backed by the state Democratic and Republican parties, taxpayer advocates and labor unions.

Proposition 42 had its origins in a backlash against Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature after they approved a $96.3 billion state budget last year that loosened requirements for local governments to comply with the records and open meeting laws because the state would not reimburse them for the costs. They restored funding and rallied behind Proposition 42 to make sure the episode is never repeated.

Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat who authored the ballot measure, credited bipartisan support and newspaper editorials for the victory. "Apparently California voters greatly value open and transparent government and believe that local agencies do not need a financial incentive to provide it," he said. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:38 AM

While many of our nation’s problems are quite clear, the way our government addresses them is too often a black box—opaque and closed to all but insiders and lobbyists.

But the White House has taken a remarkable–if small–step toward bringing greater transparency to the legislative process. For the first time, it has used the GitHub social coding website as a forum for discussing and ultimately changing government policy. With one GitHub “pull request,” it modified the Project Open Data policy document, which spells out how government agencies are supposed to open up access to their data. This represents the fusion of open source software and government policy that open-government advocates have long predicted. And it might be a sign of things to come as others—the city of San Francisco, and the New York state senate, to name a couple—bring collaborative government into the light.

Late last week, Haley Van Dyck at the Office of Management and Budget submitted a pull request that suggested small changes to Project Open data that clarify how agencies think about open source and public domain software. Pull requests are a Silicon Valley innovation. They’re typically used by software developers on GitHub to suggest and discuss changes to code. But they’re also a good tool for tracking changes to complex legal documents, even government regulations. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:36 AM

The publication of a new report from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) prompts a quick look at the progress of the Obama administration’s US Open Data Action Plan.

That has its roots in the June 2013 pledge made at the Open Data Charter meeting of G7 leaders to publish a roadmap for improving use of open data as well as Obama’s executive order requiring federal agencies to make government data open and machine readable by default.

The NASCIO report, States and Open Data: From Museum to Market Place – What’s next?, looks at what has occurred across the US and offers some recommendations on how to advance state government open data initiatives and begin moving to a next level of maturity, which it calls the strategic stage. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:35 AM

Senate File 1770 had already received unanimous support in the House and the Senate. Known as the Timberjay bill, it would require that all government contracts with private business be subject to the Minnesota Data Practices Act, even if that open access is not specifically identified in the contract.

Last week Gov. Mark Dayton signed that bill, demonstrating that he understands and agrees with the public’s right to open access to government data.

Dayton did veto a portion of the bill that would fund a study by the Office of the Legislative Auditor to learn how secure state systems are at protecting and transmitting data. He said it’s not fiscally responsible to appropriate an ongoing amount of money without articulating the cost to perform the new duties outlined in the law. Also excluded from the notice requirement until June 30, 2015, are health plan companies, managed care organizations and county-based purchasing plans. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:34 AM

Mount Pleasant city officials announced last week that commissioners will interview finalists for the vacant city manager position on June 24. City officials still have not released the names of the finalists, even after receiving a formal request under Michigan’s public records law by Central Michigan Life.

Interim City Manager Nancy Ridley is the only finalist who has been publicly named. Ridley and City Clerk Jeremy Howard said the other finalists have asked that their names remain confidential until just prior to the interviews. “It is in the public’s interest to know who the finalists are – one of them will be running the city,” said Central Michigan Life Editor In Chief Ben Solis. “It is impossible for us, or city residents, to investigate their backgrounds, previous work history and what they can offer to Mount Pleasant if we don’t even know their names.”

CM Life made a formal request for the names of the finalists using the state’s Freedom of Information Act, a state law that allows citizens access to public records. A FOIA request asking for the applications of the finalists was delivered to Ridley on May 27 following a city commission meeting. Ridley declined to provide the information and stated to Solis at the meeting that the city would deny the newspaper’s request. On May 28, Howard stated in the formal request denial that the information is exempt from FOIA. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:33 AM

Sometimes it takes a simple redistricting lawsuit to show us the funny side of the state Capitol. Redistricting, the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional and legislative boundaries, isn’t something that’s the stuff of big laughs.

But the lawsuit accusing legislative leaders of improperly drawing some congressional districts — chiefly for Republican gain — has dug up enough evidence to show that politicians’ talk about government in the sunshine is a big joke. “It was an extremely open and transparent process,” Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, after giving testimony in the redistricting lawsuit, deadpanned to reporters.

Too bad he wasn’t intentionally self-mocking. Legislative leaders are essentially incapable of being “extremely open.” They make a show of sunlight. But time and again they cut deals in shadow that result in fait-accompli votes on major items like, say, the $77.1 billion budget. Continue>>>
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