We’ll have to force government to be more transparent

Open data – perhaps one of the nerdier and more obscure topics we discuss with some regularity on SGW – is clearly the future of government information. The clumsy, time-consuming ask-and-approve public records request system is the past. It’s a creaky old way of doing things that is due for an update.

Proacatively publishing government data and communications may be the future, but that doesn’t mean most governments will embrace it. This is not a “lead a horse to water” situation. Open government advocates and allied legislators will have to force action.

Congressman Derek Kilmer (D-WA 6th) is part of a bipartisan effort (which also involves Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, one of the Senate’s brightest) to require federal agencies to move toward open data. He is sponsoring the OPEN Government Data Act to compel change.

The OPEN Government Data Act would not only require agencies to release data proactively, it would stipulate that the data be released in machine-readable formats. That way, the information can be easily used by anyone, preventing game-playing by agencies or proprietary formats that aren’t of use to the public.

The open data movement isn’t just about moving toward “the future.” The changes proposed by Kilmer and others are necessary because our present system isn’t working well. The current Freedom of Information Act-based system is slow and cumbersome. Agencies have incentive to slow-roll requests when there is info they don’t want the public to know. Forcing the issue can require years of expensive lawsuits.

It’s too soon to say how open the Trump administration will be, but President Obama’s wasn’t great. Despite pledging to be the most open administration in history, leaks were aggressively investigated, the government tried to force reporters to reveal sources, and FOIA requests were frequently gamed.

Any ask-and-approve system, like FOIA or our state’s public records act, is open to certain abuses. Files can be “lost” and requests delayed on dubious grounds. Getting to the truth can take a long time.

Open data doesn’t solve all of these problems, but it does take away avenues to delay and obstruct. By moving to a system that is open by default, more of what government does in your name and with your tax dollars will be known, and it will be known sooner. That’s reason enough to wish Kilmer and his open government allies success in this effort.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.