Civil Society Groups Issue Progress Report on Open Government NAP

January 14, 2015

By Elizabeth Holland

A collection of civil society groups, convened by OpentheGovernment.org and including AALL, has released the second of three progress reports on the U.S. government’s 2014-2015 National Action Plan (NAP) as part of the international Open Government Partnership (OGP). As you recall, the White House set forth 23 new or expanded commitments in open government in its second NAP, released in December 2013.  This one-year progress report, which comes at the mid-point of the current NAP, finds that the U.S. government remains on track to meet the majority of its commitments. The progress report assesses commitments in three areas: commitments where there is substantial progress; commitments where there has been some progress, but concerns remain; and commitments where there has been no progress. Most commitments fall into the middle category. It appears, the report concludes, that more progress has been made on those commitments which are being implemented with the active engagement of civil society than on those where implementation lacked civil society’s regular and collaborative engagement.

Commitment areas of interest to AALL members include improving the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); agency open government plans; modernizing records management; reforming government websites; and national security classification. Progress in each of these areas has been mixed. For instance, while both the Office of Information Policy (OIP) and Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) have taken steps to collaborate with civil society on FOIA commitments like consolidated online FOIA services and the creation of a FOIA Modernization Committee, progress has stalled on improving FOIA training and developing a common regulation. With regards to open government plans, we were pleased to see that the majority of agencies met the June 1 deadline to update their plans and more than a dozen agencies that were not specifically required to develop plans continue to participate in the initiative. However, several large and/or important agencies failed to publish updated plans, including the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has yet to publish an updated plan since its first version was issued in 2010. On classification issues, civil society groups met with =the Classification Reform Committee, chaired by National Security Council staff, and shared their recommendations in a follow-up letter, but have yet to receive a response. The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) held a public meeting on the declassification of Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) on nuclear activities, though no progress on FRDs has been otherwise achieved.

As the report concludes, we “are hopeful that the US government’s engagement with civil society will continue to increase in both frequency and depth so the US may take full advantage of the Open Government Partnership’s opportunities.”


Federal Advocacy: The Year in Review

December 17, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

The 113th Congress has come to a close, marking the end of a historically unproductive and largely dysfunctional term. While political and economic factors created new advocacy challenges in 2014, AALL members rose to the occasion and helped to achieve real progress on several of the Association’s Public Policy Positions. Here’s a roundup of action on our priorities in the past year—including several lame duck developments.

GPO Gets a New Name

The recently passed “CRomnibus” spending bill for Fiscal Year 2015 (H.R. 83) included slight increases in funding for the Government Printing Office and the Library of Congress, as well as one particularly noteworthy policy change: it re-names the Government Printing Office as the Government Publishing Office. Throughout the year, AALL members worked in support of the Government Publishing Office Act of 2014 (S. 1947) to provide GPO with a name that more accurately reflects the agency’s role as the “official, digital, secure” source of federal government information in the digital age. S. 1947 was reported by the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration but never received floor time. Instead, the bill text— which also changes the titles of the public printer and deputy public printer to “director” and “deputy director” and replaces gender-specific terms with gender-neutral ones— was rolled into the spending bill and passed into law.

FOIA Reform Phased Out

Though both the House and Senate cleared their respective bills to improve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 2014, the FOIA Improvement Act (S. 2520) will not become law this year. After clearing a challenge from outgoing Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), the Senate bill moved to the House last Monday. Despite what appeared to be solid approval in the House, leaders in that chamber failed to put the measure on the calendar before their members adjourned for the year. The bill would have established a “presumption of openness” with government information, codifying President Obama’s 2009 directive to federal agencies. Congress is likely to revisit the issue next year.

Updates to Presidential and Federal Records Acts Enacted

This year, President Barack Obama signed into law H.R. 1233, the Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments of 2014. This set of amendments is the first statutory change to the Federal Records Act since it was passed in 1950 and implements the important modernization of the definition of a federal record to include electronic records. It also makes several updates to the Presidential Records Act to improve access. Among several key provisions, the new law codifies the procedures by which former and incumbent presidents review presidential records for constitutional privileges and establishes a reasonable standard for release of records.

Elimination of Indexes Avoided

When the House passed the Federal Register Modernization Act (H.R. 4195) in July, AALL advocates stepped up their advocacy efforts to defend the statutory requirement to print the Federal Register and Code of Federal Regulations and produce indexes for these resources, which would have been eliminated by the bill. Sharing anecdotes about the usefulness of these texts and their indexes in print helped the Government Relations Office to engage with Senate staff about our concerns. The bill died in the Senate.

Privacy Safeguards on Back Burner

Efforts to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and reform the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance practices were both stalled in 2014 amid contentious party divisions. The Senate blocked consideration of the USA FREEDOM Act  (S. 2685) in December, despite support from the White House, Director of National Intelligence, Senators from both parties, tech companies, and a wide coalition of organizations for the bill to curb domestic surveillance practices. Critics of the legislation said they preferred to use the June 2015 reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act to enact reforms. A similarly popular bill, the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 1852) to update ECPA, gained 272 co-sponsors this year but was never awarded floor time because one federal agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission, worked to keep the bill from coming to fruition. While AALL is disappointed that both efforts fizzled out, we look forward to the renewed opportunity to advance important privacy protections for individuals and library patrons in the new Congress.


FIRST Act is Setback for Public Access

March 13, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

Today, the Subcommittee on Research and Technology of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology reported H.R.4186, the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act. AALL strongly opposes the bill as written. Introduced this week by Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) (the chairmen of the full committee and subcommittee, respectively), the FIRST Act would impose significant barriers to the public’s ability to access the results of taxpayer-funded research.

The FIRST Act flies in the face of the White House Directive on Public Access to the Results of Federally Funded Research and seeks instead to significantly limit public access to government-sponsored scientific research in several ways: Section 303 of the bill would restrict public access to articles reporting on federally funded research for up to three years after initial publication, a length of the time that would surely slow the pace of scientific discovery.  The bill would also allow federal agencies to link to final copies of articles, rather than archive full text copies for public use and long-term accessibility. The bill further fails to support provisions that allow for shorter embargo periods to publicly funded research results.

The FIRST Act clearly aims to reverse the President’s strong mandate for expanded public access, which was recently affirmed in the FY 2014 omnibus. It is not the open access reform we need.

Tell your lawmakers you oppose the FIRST Act and urge them to instead co-sponsor FASTR, the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (S. 350H.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.


DOJ Seeks Input for Third Open Government Plan

February 18, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

Federal agencies are currently developing their third open government plans per President Obama’s Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government and the Open Government Directive. As part of the process, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is seeking input and new ideas from the public for its plan. AALL’s Government Relations Office (GRO) and Government Relations Committee (GRC) are working together to submit recommendations to DOJ.

Previous DOJ open government plans included initiatives like creating of FOIA.gov and FARA.gov, posting its digitized legislative histories for public use, and establishing a quarterly Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reporting requirement.  The GRO and GRC participated in past audits of the plans, organized by OpenTheGovernment.org, and have worked closely with DOJ to ensure the plans were effectively implemented.

To submit input for DOJ’s next open government plan, send your ideas to AALL Director of Government Relations Emily Feltren at efeltren@aall.org by February 24, 2014.


AALL Again Urges Reform to Incorporation by Reference System

February 6, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

As detailed in Emily’s recent post, “Congress Considers the Scope of Copyright,” AALL has consistently urged for reform of the incorporation by reference system to allow for greater openness and transparency. Following up on our June 2012 request to the Office of Management and Budget, AALL signed on to a January 31 coalition letter to request the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) issue a final rule that goes beyond the meager changes in the Notice Of Proposed Rulemaking and requires that standards incorporated by reference in proposed rules and in final rules be available for free on the Internet.

As the letter states, AALL “strongly believes that standards incorporated by reference into federal regulations should be widely available to the public, without charge, and that such standards should be deemed in the public domain rather than subject to copyright restrictions.” Twenty groups signed on to the letter, which was sent in response to the OFR’s proposed rule  to amend regulations governing the approval of agency requests to incorporate material by reference into the Code of Federal Regulations.


Farm Bill Moves Forward Without Anti-Transparency Language

February 3, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

We’re pleased to the report that, after pressure from powerful members of Congress and the open government community, the farm bill moved forward last week without the proposed provisions to cut off public access to information about agricultural and livestock information.  On January 29, the House approved by a vote of 251 to 166 the Agricultural Act of 2014 (H. Rept. 113-333), the Senate-House conference report to replace the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, which expired on October 1, 2013.

Language originally included in the House-passed bill would have prohibited disclosure of information about any owner, operator, or employee of an agricultural or livestock operation. The public— particularly neighbors of such operations— requires access to information about the operations to ensure their health and safety. This language would have undermined the Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA) goal of transparency and extended personal privacy protections to corporate farms. On November 6, 2013, AALL joined more than 40 organizations in urging members of the conference committee on the Farm Bill not to include the harmful language.

AALL has joined several organizations on letters of thanks to Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressmen Elijah Cummings and Henry Waxman for their support and leadership in removing the provisions in the final version. We expect the conference report will be debated and voted upon in the Senate shortly.


White House Releases Ambitious Second National Action Plan on Open Government

December 13, 2013

By Elizabeth

Late last week, the White House released its second Open Government Partnership National Action Plan (NAP), setting forth 23 new or expanded commitments in open government for Administration to undertake in the remainder of President Obama’s term. The Open Government Partnership was established in July 2011 as a global effort to encourage transparent, effective, and accountable governance, with more than 60 member-nations today. The United States released its first Open Government National Action Plan in September 2011 and since that time, AALL has worked closely with a number of open government groups to evaluate its contents and implementation and to make recommendations for the second plan.

As we previously reported, the second NAP includes commitments to open data, increasing fiscal and corporate transparency, advancing citizen engagement, more effectively managing public resources, and modernizing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Other new and notable commitments include to “transform the security classification system” based on the principle that “classification must… be kept to the minimum required to meet national security needs….” To that end, the Administration will establish a new interagency Classification Review Committee as recommended by the Public Interest Declassification Board last year. On his Secrecy News blog, Steven Aftergood offers an analysis. New declassification tools, including new document analysis and monitoring systems, could help work through a massive backlog of requests. The inclusion of surveillance issues in the second NAP is also noteworthy in light of the Administration’s position on the Snowden leaks and NSA disclosure. In the plan, the White House pledges to “increase Transparency of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Activities” by releasing annual public reports on the government’s use of “certain national security authorities.” These reports will include the total number of orders issued during the prior twelve-month period and the number of targets affected by them. The Director of National Intelligence will also continue to review and, where appropriate, declassify information related to foreign intelligence surveillance programs, per the second NAP. Finally, the White House also pledges to consult with stakeholders and seek input from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to ensure an appropriate balance between the protection of privacy and national security interests.

While not revolutionary, the second National Action Plan is an important and ambitious commitment to transparent and accountable government. AALL applauds this next step and looks forward to working with the Administration and other open government advocates on the implementation of these ideals.


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