Opening Up Open Government
Horvit, Mark, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal
I have some reservations about open government.
I realize that sounds nuts coming from the guy running IRE. But hear me out.
Last month I participated in the Media Access to Government Information Conference, hosted by the National Archives and sponsored by the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University. It was a chance for journalists and government officials to get together and talk about issues surrounding open records.
I learned a great deal during the daylong meeting and met some government officials who are working to make data and documents more available to the public.
But I also heard a disheartening theme emerge from some speakers and audience members, who talked about a shift in emphasis from handling open records requests to the open government initiative.
No doubt, that effort is vitally important. If agencies at the federal or state levels voluntarily make data and documents publicly available, that benefits everyone.
But several times during the day, speakers or audience members came back to the idea that the open government initiative somehow lessens the importance of open records laws. FOIA has problems? No need to worry about that, because data is being made available for you without the need to ask for it. Repeatedly, the wonders of such "proactive release" were proclaimed.
Maybe that would be OK if open government initiatives really opened government. But as we've seen during the past couple of years, in too many cases that's not what happens.
The Obama administration launched with a promise of making government data more available. That has occurred in some important ways. But too often agencies make select databases - or only portions of those databases - publicly available. And oftentimes, the data can be interacted with only by using interfaces built by the government that don't include back key elements.
That's not open government. It's selective access, and the greatest problem is that the access is being selected by those who control the information.
Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, noted that while there have been many positive signs since Obama promised greater transparency, "something isn't quite right . …