(Photo by Flickr user Justin Grimes, used under a Creative Commons license)
At Technical.ly’s Rise conference next week, two D.C. speakers will be discussing the growth of the open government movement: Code for DC co-organizer Matt Bailey and Sunlight Foundation policy associate Alisha Green.
That’s maybe because D.C. has grown as an epicenter for the movement.
The district was perhaps the first municipal government to adopt an open data policy, according to the Sunlight Foundation. Throughout the country, 47 local governments have now crafted open government plans — a number that’s nearly tripled since last year.
But Green, an open gov expert at Sunlight, told us last week that changing the laws won’t suffice. Local open gov plans have often been found to be wanting in implementation, and municipalities have not always delivered on promises to meaningfully reform their approach to transparency.
That’s why when D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray promulgated a new open government plan in July, groups like the Sunlight Foundation, Code for DC and the D.C. Open Government Coalition united in applauding the order’s intention but deploring its practical limitations.
There’s another disgruntled open gov advocate in the district. Traci L. Hughes, the inaugural director of the D.C.’s Office of Open Government and a former board member of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, told Technical.ly that the government might be on the right transparency track, but still has ways to go.
The mayor’s plan aims to streamline all agency FOIA requests into a single system. Eventually, Hughes hopes to see a “robust” public access library populated by all FOIA documents. “And every government website would have an open government page,” she added.
But at this point, only some district agencies have obtained a license to the system, while others are still lagging behind. Many bristle at change, responding to FOIA requests with CDs and holding onto individual departmental cultures. “Many of the district government agencies are very much paper-based,” said Hughes.
The centralized system would also allow agencies to coordinate on overlapping FOIA requests and reduce costs. Up to now, she added, “everything was very disjointed.”
Hughes has been in office since April 2013, but she’s still not really in charge of rolling out the mayor’s plan. Traditionally, FOIA was overseen by the Office of the General Counsel. Now the yearly FOIA requirements — the agency reports on FOIA requests — are sent to the Office of the Secretary. At this stage, she said, “my office provides advisory opinions.” It’s run by two people — including Hughes.
But she’s hoping that the next mayor who will take office in January will be willing to set a new course. “The culture shift starts from the top,” she said. After all, she added, “it’s the public who owns that information, in theory.”