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In This Issue: [click on the link to go to the corresponding section]
News from Coalition Partners & Others
I. Sen. Leahy to Help Oppose Secrecy Provision in DOD Authorization Bill
II. Agencies Need to Make Information Findable
III. Help Us Set Goals for US Gov'ts Open Government Plan
RSVP now to attend the Advisory Committee on Transparency's (ACT) next event "Making Whistleblowing Work." On the panel is Angela Canterbury, Director of Public Policy for the Project on Government Oversight - POGO; Carolyn Lerner, Special Counsel, U.S. Office of Special Counsel; Christian Sanchez, Border Patrol Agent, Customs & Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security; and Micah Sifry, Co-founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum. The event will be moderated by Daniel Schuman, Policy Counsel for the Sunlight Foundation. ACT is a project of the Sunlight Foundation.
On July 12, California Common Sense unveiled California's first-ever data transparency portal. The portal allows users to visualize and compare a range of financial data for California and nearly 40 other states around the country. Read the press release here.
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government (VCOG) will host its annual conference on October 29 at Monticello in Charlottesville. That evening there will be a gala tribute to Bob O'Neil, VCOG's founding president and the recently retired director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. Learn more about the gala here.
The Sunlight Foundation has launched a campaign urging Senators to voluntarily file their campaign finance reports electronically. Only a handful of Senators currently file electronically. The delay caused by paper filings allows donors to bundle contributions in the final, critical weeks of a campaign with absolute anonymity.
With the help of a whistleblower, the Center for Media and Democracy is shining a light on over 800 bills that were drafted through the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on ALEC Exposed. During ALEC events, state legislators from across the country meet with global corporations to develop "model bills" that reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge corporations. As reported recently on NPR's Morning Edition, there is little public disclosure about how ALEC functions and their events.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has agreed to offer an amendment that significantly improves a provision in the Senate Armed Services Committee-passed National Defense Authorization Act ( S. 1254) that would allow the Department of Defense (DoD) to withhold information that could be important for public health and safety. As written, Section 1044 of the bill authorizes DoD to keep secret information under an exceedingly broad and ill-defined rubric of "critical infrastructure information." Senator Leahy's proposed amendment would modify the provision to make it clear that DoD may use the authority to withhold only information that could substantially increase effectiveness of a terrorist attack and requires DoD to weigh whether or not there is an overriding public interest in releasing the information. A similar amendment by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) was passed by the House when they debated their version of the bill (HR 1540) on the House floor. Once the full Senate passes S. 1254, it will be sent to a conference committee to iron out differences between the two pieces of legislation.
II. Agencies Need to Make Information Findable
A couple of weeks ago, we made a case that the federal government could improve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process by increasing proactive disclosures. Giving the public information before anyone has to file a FOIA request for it is a win-win because the agency will not have to process as many requests and the public gets the information faster. In order to have the desired effect, however, the agency must both release useful information and make it findable. This issue came up last week when agencies responded to our most recent audit.
As we reported in our last newsletter, only six of twenty-nine agencies that have substantive open government plans are fully complying with directions issued by the Administration during Sunshine Week to make specific pieces of useful information available from the agencies /open pages. Some agencies took issue with not being given credit for making the information available somewhere on their website other than the /open page. We appreciate that they are following through on the Administration's directive at least in spirit, and are even more appreciative that they are reading/ taking the time to respond to public comments about their performance. We are not being sticklers about the /open requirement just to be mean; the requirement from the Administration is intended to make the information easier for the public to find it. Information is not truly publicly available if the public cannot find information at all on an agency's website, or if it is particularly hard to find.
In a similar vein, comments from agency personnel at a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Roundtable suggest that it is not uncommon for agencies to process FOIA requests for information that is already somewhere on the agency's website. Perhaps some of these requests come from people who do not have internet access, but is safe to assume that some of them come from people who did look for the information online, and just could not find it. This is not a good use of agency resources - especially in the face of looming budget cuts.
II. Help Us Set Goals for US Gov'ts Open Government Plan
As a part of the Open Government Partnership, the US has committed itself to consulting with the public and civil society organizations on the development of an Action Plan with concrete commitments on open government. This plan will be to be presented in September during this year’s United Nations General Assembly. To help coordinate efforts to influence the direction of the plan, OpenTheGovernment.org has set up two Google groups: one meant for individuals and the other for civil society organizations. Both groups require authorization to join. Please email us if you would like to join the discussion.