Agency Operations and Expanded Public Access: What’s in the FY 2014 Omnibus?

January 22, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

On Friday night President Obama signed the $1.1 trillion omnibus FY 2014 appropriations bill (H.R. 3547) into law. The comprehensive spending plan designates funding for every government agency and, with a 72-26 vote in the Senate and 359-67 margin in the House, passed both chambers of Congress easily.

Those agencies whose services are integral to providing access to government information managed fairly well in the budget deal. The Government Printing Office (GPO) maintained their 2013 funding level of $119 million. The Library of Congress is provided with $579 million, a decrease of $8 million below the Fiscal Year 2013 enacted level.  The Electronic Government Fund received a boost in funding from recent years to $16 million. The Fund will also retain its budgetary independence, despite the House Appropriations Committee’s proposal to merge it with another fund and cut their combined funding.

In a victory for open access advocates, the omnibus bill also included language that requires federal agencies under the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education with research budgets of $100 million or more to provide the public with online access to articles resulting from federally funded research within 12 months of publication in a peer-reviewed journal. The agencies covered would ensure that more than $31 billion of the total $60 billion annual U.S. investment in taxpayer-funded research is now openly accessible.

The language in the omnibus affirms the strong precedent set by the 2009 National Institutes of Health’s Public Access Policy and 2013 White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Directive on Public Access.

AALL continues to support the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) (S. 350, H.R. 708), which would strengthen the language in the omnibus bill by requiring that taxpayer funded articles be made available through a central database no later than six months after publication. Using our Legislative Action Center, you can contact your members of Congress today to ask them to support FASTR.

Following a series of short-term spending deals, sequestration cuts, and the September government shutdown, AALL was pleased to see the omnibus package address funding through Fiscal Year 2014. This budget agreement is an important step toward bipartisanship and provides greater certainty in agency operations. The uninterrupted operations of agencies like GPO and LC are essential to informing the American public about their government and promoting a healthy democracy.


House Oversight Hearing is Renewed Call for Records Management

September 11, 2013

By Elizabeth

Yesterday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (HOGR) again turned its focus to federal records and transparency laws in a hearing titled “Preventing Violations of Federal Transparency Laws.”  Witnesses included four current and former senior administration officials who have been publicly linked to compliance problems for their use of personal or nonofficial email accounts to conduct official business. Archivist of the United States David Ferriero also testified.

The hearing raised important questions about agency compliance with the Federal Records Act and Presidential Records Act, especially in light of President Obama’s 2011 Memorandum on Managing Government Records and subsequent Managing Government Records Directive to modernize records management policies and practices in the digital age. The Directive requires agencies to transition to electronic recordkeeping “to ensure transparency, efficiency and accountability” and sets forth concrete steps and actions for agencies to take under a broad timeline. It also requires that records officers obtain additional training and establishes a formal records management occupational series to raise the profile of records managers.

The recently released 2012 agency Records Management Self-Assessments (RMSA) show some progress in meeting the Directive deadlines; while the majority of agencies still score in the Moderate to High Risk categories for compliance with statutory and regulatory records management requirements, the National Records and Archives Administration (NARA) reports that there is movement upward in scores within these categories. Agencies have increased their permanent electronic records transfer activity using NARA’s the Electronic Records Archives, and many agency records management staff now report participating in the design and development of electronic systems. More than two-thirds of agencies report taking steps to improve the integrity and usability of electronic records, including designating an agency official at the assistant secretary level to take responsibility for records management. Still, agencies’ approaches to preserving their official electronic records are inconsistent at best.

In his testimony, former White House Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin wrote, “Government recordkeeping now confronts an era in which employees have a vastly expanded, and expanding, menu of personal and social communication channels.”  With personal email addresses, social networking sites, and the ability—or necessity— to work from home on nights and weekends, agency staffs are facing new questions about proper recordkeeping in the digital age. Many of the witnesses in yesterday’s hearing pointed to a lack of training on proper recordkeeping practices and cited technological challenges for their misconduct. Ferriero recognized the “challenges we all face in managing the vast and growing numbers of email records” in his testimony and appealed for a new “culture around records” with agency compliance becoming a top priority.

HOGR has reported favorably two bills (H.R. 1233 and H.R. 1234) introduced by Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) to update the Federal Records Act and Presidential Records Act and promulgate regulations governing federal agency preservation of electronic messages. AALL has long been concerned about the lack of adequate records management, particularly of electronic records, and urges Congress to support these bills. We commend the Obama administration and NARA for taking proactive steps to fix a broken and oft-neglected records management system, but urge a renewed focus on full agency compliance.


Some Successes, Room for Improvement on E-Gov

September 20, 2012

By Elizabeth

Ten years after the passage of the E-Government Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-347), a new GAO report finds federal agencies have yet to address key areas to improve citizen access to government information and services. While the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and other agencies have taken significant steps to comply with the act—including releasing guidance, coordinating reporting, and assigning leadership responsibilities—further action is necessary.

As stated in the report, the E-Government Act of 2002 was “enacted to promote the use of the Internet and other technologies to improve citizen access to government information and services, improve government decision making, and enhance accountability and transparency.”  With the tenth anniversary of the act’s passage approaching, Congress asked GAO to assess OMB’s and agencies’ efforts to fulfill the act’s requirements on leadership and organizational responsibilities and evaluate agencies’ progress with the designated improvements.

GAO reports some progress, as agencies have implemented many federal products and processes to promote electronic delivery of government services and information. For example, the act required creation of the first central portal for government information, USA.gov. In addition, the act improved public access to the rule-making process through Regulations.gov (though AALL members raised concerns about the site). Agencies have also made strides in tracking customer satisfaction with federal websites and are integrating best practices for electronic government into their operations and policy guidance.  OMB and agencies have made it easier to access, use and preserve government information by organizing website content and implementing electronic records management, and have issued policies on protecting the privacy of individuals’ personal information on government websites.

Still, in order to fully support e-government and e-lifecycle management, agencies must make changes in several areas. The GAO’s chief criticism is that OMB and other agencies have not established sufficient metrics to track e-gov programs’ successes or their compliance with the law’s intent. Agencies were not required to report on all of the act’s provisions over the past decade. For instance, from Fiscal Year 2006 to Fiscal Year 2009, agencies did not have to report on how they enhanced public participation by electronic means for development and issuance of regulations. OMB has not detailed to Congress which provisions it’s not reporting nor has it given the reasons for excluding them.

Further, OMB has yet to establish a government-wide online repository for federally funded research and development projects that’s searchable by the public. Citizens can now access consolidated government information through sites such as Data.gov, which helps the public find, access, and download non-sensitive government data and tools in a variety of formats.  But while steps have been taken to improve transparency and participation through federal websites, GAO has raised concerns with the accuracy and reliability of this information.

In order to fully comply with the act, GAO recommends that in its annual report to Congress OMB identify which provisions have not been reported and why, establish a federal research and development repository and website, and issue guidance on agency participation in this site. AALL helped to formulate the language of the E-Government Act of 2002 and has been an active proponent of the increased transparency and privacy requirements the act requires. We support the recommendations of GAO to OMB and encourage OMB and all agencies to take the steps necessary to fully comply with the e-government requirements.


OpenTheGovernment’s 2012 Secrecy Report

September 14, 2012

By Elizabeth

Earlier this week, OpenTheGovernment.org released the latest edition of their annual Secrecy Report. This year’s report reveals mixed marks for the Obama administration’s open government policies, highlighting both positive developments and room for improvement.

Several signs of progress of are of note. For example, the government processed more Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in 2011 than the previous year and brought the average cost of fulfilling a FOIA request down by more than $2. So far in his term, President Obama has not once cited executive privilege to deny Congressional requests for information, and the administration has also declassified previously secret defense information, some of which has not been declassified since the end of the Cold War.

However, there are still causes of concern around the administration’s level of secrecy, especially in light of the President’s bold promise of “unprecedented transparency.”  FOIA requests, the report noted, rose 5 percent from fiscal 2010 to 2011, and agencies processed 644,165, or 8 percent, more than the previous year— yet the backlog grew by 20 percent, reaching 83,490. It’s likely that the National Declassification Center will not meet its goal for declassifying old records on time. And while the volume of documents marked “Classified” continues to grow, there has been little assurance or reason offered for the decision that the information properly needs such protection.

The 2012 Secrecy Report includes a look at the limitations of the data the government currently makes available.  From the press release from OpenTheGovernment.org:

Missing and misleading data have a very real effect on the public’s ability to trust that the government is using taxpayer monies wisely, and that it is following its own policies. “Good information is essential for the public to know what interests are influencing government policies, and more,” said [Dr. Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org]. “Partial and mis- information, however, erodes accountability and prevents the public from having an informed debate about critical national issues.”

AALL is a founding member of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of 80+ groups advocating for open and accountable government. We’ll be joining a live Twitter chat with the report’s contributors on Tuesday, September 18th from 4–5 p.m. EDT. Follow us at @AALL_GRO and join the conversation with #secrecy12.


Redesigned ODNI Website Aims for Greater Transparency

August 15, 2012

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) recently unveiled changes to its website that aim to increase transparency.

Created with an open source content management system, the overhauled site seeks to provide more accurate, up-to-date information to the public and bolster the office’s web presence.  Featured changes include links to all intelligence community members, video, photographs, podcasts and subscription content from throughout the intelligence community. Meanwhile, back-end updates “provide a scalable and flexible architecture to empower innovative, efficient distribution of key information while reducing the costs of future investments,” according to an ODNI news release.

While the new ODNI site does not focus on mobile technology, progress has been made by members of the intelligence community. In response to the growing use of mobile devices, the Central Intelligence Agency launched a new mobile site last week. Readers can now access mobile-friendly versions of CIA.gov materials on small screens.

The new ODNI site does focus on web 2.0 tools like Facebook, reflecting the agency’s aim to make its content available to a broader audience. The efforts of ODNI’s federal, state, industry and global partners are highlighted on the site for greater reach and transparency.

A laudable step towards increased transparency, the ODNI site redesign is not yet complete. Additional features and content will be added in the coming months, including archived congressional testimonies and other relevant news from before 2005. In all, the new site is worth a look and indicative of a trend we hope the intelligence community at large will continue.


New White House Digital Government Strategy Offers Promise, Raises Concerns

June 4, 2012

On May 23, the White House launched its new Digital Government Strategy, an initiative aimed at improving the way government agencies utilize new tools and technologies to serve the public. The plan lays out clear-cut procedures for making public information open and machine readable within one year, allowing Americans to engage with their government more easily.

In a memorandum introducing the new strategy developed by the Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO), Steven VanRoekel, President Obama directs each major federal agency to make two of their key services available on mobile devices within the next 12 months and to make “applicable” government information open and machine-readable by default. The strategy intends to “ensure that agencies use emerging technologies to serve the public as effectively as possible” and will require agencies “to adopt new standards for making applicable Government information open and machine-readable by default.” The memo calls on agencies to publicly report on their progress.

Further, the strategy promises to “transform Data.gov into a data and API (application programming interfaces) catalog that in real time pulls directly from agency websites,” as summarized in a blog post by VanRoekel. An excerpt from the report explains:

Rather than thinking primarily about the final presentation—publishing web pages, mobile applications or brochures—an information-centric approach focuses on ensuring our data and content are accurate, available, and secure. We need to treat all content as data—turning any unstructured content into structured data—then ensure all structured data are associated with valid metadata. Providing this information through web APIs helps us architect for interoperability and openness, and makes data assets freely available for use within agencies, between agencies, in the private sector, or by citizens.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will formulate a government-wide policy pertaining to API and systems will be required to support access to high-value open data. The report also outlines plans to set up a Digital Services Innovation Center to be carried out by the General Services Administration through a centralized effort to help agencies build out shared solutions for a “citizen-centric” approach to the web.

The scope of this new digital government strategy is laudable. The White House has put forth an ambitious and progressive strategy that has the potential to improve government transparency and accessibility. However, there are several omissions from the report that are cause for concern. Though leaders in producing, disseminating and preserving electronic information, the Government Printing Office and the Library of Congress are never mentioned in the report, and the National Archives and Records Administration is mentioned only once. NARA is charged with working with the Federal CIO Council and National Institute of Standards and Technology to “develop guidelines for standardized implementation of digital privacy controls and educate agency privacy and legal officials on options for addressing digital privacy, records retention, and security issues.”

Most troubling, the report puts forth a strategy for access to “high-quality digital government data” but does not address the need to ensure that the information is trustworthy, accurate, preserved and permanently accessible to the public, with explicit procedures to do so.

In all, the Digital Government Strategy is an important commitment by the White House to greater government transparency and more accessible information. However, to adequately create a digital government, the White House must take into account issues of the lifecycle of electronic information before it can offer a truly comprehensive solution.


The “Minor” Comment Submittal “Glitch” at Regulations.gov

August 31, 2009

From July 26th to July 30th of this year, two software defects at Regulations.gov prevented over 100 comments directed towards 11 federal agencies to be submitted. Aside from EPA and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Regulations.gov, itself, has not informed the public of what other agencies were affected by this “glitch.”

In addition to the software problem, the lack of transparency about this issue is very troubling. The failure to file a timely comment could have consequences in a rulemaking proceeding, and the combination of the software difficulties and the lack of openness do not inspire confidence in the system.

You can read more about the problem at http://www.nextgov.com/nextgov/ng_20090828_6883.php

[Submitted by Barbara Brandon, former AALL Government Relations Committee member]


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