Even with law, open government still depends on those in charge

With the passage of the OPEN Government Data Act, openness is now the default setting for federal data, but success still depends on buy-in at agencies.

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With the passage of the OPEN Government Data Act, open data is now the default setting for federal information. While open data advocates are excited about the changes, progress still depends on the executive branch and agency heads.

Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), one of the initial sponsors of the OPEN Government Data Act, touted the law as expanding the access to data making it machine-readable and easily searchable.

"It gives the data the government collects to the people who paid for it," he said, adding that increased accountability comes with increased information. Still, Kilmer acknowledged the law starts the process of opening government data.

"For the first time, you'll have someone at every agency whose job is evangelizing the importance of data," said Christian Troncoso, director of policy for the Software Alliance.

The bill also creates a chief data officers council, charged with addressing data governance across agencies. Christian Hoehner, policy director at the Data Coalition, said the CDO council will be "broader" in membership than the CIO and CFO councils, which consist of just CFO Act agencies.

The executive branch has aligned itself with some of these open data goals. Through the President's Management Agenda, the administration has prioritized data and data openness as a cross-agency priority goal. To that end, the Office of Management and Budget plans to roll out its Federal Data Strategy for public comment.

Nick Hart, director of the evidence-based policymaking initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the Federal Data Strategy will be the implementation vehicle "to tackle what this new law does."

"The point of that document is so that we can make use of government data," he said. "That is ultimately the goal.... The data strategy is going to be really important to make sure that this law and what we're seeing happens across government agencies are staying in sync."

Its timeline for release, though, is "unclear." OMB was one of the agencies directly affected by the shutdown, added Hart.

But there have been examples where action on open data has not matched rhetoric.

The United States recently missed a key deadline for participation in the Open Government Partnership, an international open data commitment, and its status in the agreement is currently under review. And if it does not submit an action plan by August, the U.S. will be deemed inactive.

There also remains resistance to what kind of data is released. At a Feb. 6 House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) criticized legislation that would expand campaign finance data as a violation of privacy. Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, when he was dual-hatting as the head of OMB and the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau, suggested taking down the online portal of complaints against bad behavior from the financial industry.

Alex Howard, an independent journalist and transparency advocate, noted that the partial releases of data can be used for politicized and weaponizing purposes, and what data is ultimately released is up to those in power.

"There's a difference between open government and open data," he said.

The number of acting and vacant positions across government, both at the heads of agencies and in tech-focused White House offices such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy, also pose a challenge in prioritizing open government, he said.

But now that the OPEN Government Data Act has passed, when it comes to accountability, oversight entities like the Government Accountability Office and agency inspectors general can report on agencies' progress -- similar to how they've done on the DATA Act -- to draw congressional attention, Howard said.

Ultimately, in situations where open data continues to lag, the legislative branch has a key role to play, said Hart.

"This is going to take a big congressional effort to do good oversight," he said.

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