Agenda for 2019-21

Open Government Priorities Shifted in 2020

The text below recounts priorities and Coalition actions in recent years. The Coalition beginning in March 2020 added two goals:

  • maintaining the most open government possible as D.C. government takes emergency actions during the pandemic, and
  • increasing police transparency as a key response to rising concern about over-policing and irresponsible use of force.

Accordingly, the Coalition’s latest action has included:

  • protesting secret daily “coordination” meetings of the mayor and D.C. Council at the start of the pandemic;  
  • publicizing growing FOIA backlogs and advocating after seven months for ending the emergency measures that eliminated deadlines for request and appeal processing;
  • supporting emergency legislation requiring fast release of police videos of shooting deaths and other serious uses of force and advocating for better access to other police video and to police complaint and other misconduct investigations (including researching police video and records access policy elsewhere);
  • advocating for open development of any contact-tracing technology such as cellphone apps;
  • publicizing technical limits in the design of virtual hearings that reduced public access to Council committees’ FY21 budget proceedings;
  • publicizing D.C.-funded charter schools’ refusal to answer questions about receipt (or not) of pandemic bailout funds;
  • advocating for public access to virtual court proceedings as courthouses closed because of the virus;
  • commending D.C. agencies for early publication of data on infection status of key employee groups (police, jail guards, etc.) and institutions.

Details of the above are in posts to the Coalition blog, archived elsewhere on this site.

Better open government laws, including adding coverage of charter schools to public records and open meetings laws

The Coalition has proposed full rewrites of the open government laws in past years and may do so again if there seems to be legislative interest. Much improvement is needed, and unhelpful changes need to be rejected. A specific advance the Coalition supported (and won) is to require charter school boards to follow open meetings law. It remains to require charter schools to respond to requests for records under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Only the Public Charter School Board, the central authorizer, is now covered by FOIA.

Action steps in 2019 and 2020:

  • We invited charter teachers to talk at our March 2019 Sunshine Week “Summit” on the problems of nondisclosure by their schools’ boards and management that have turned teachers into FOIA advocates. Also on the Summit program, Coalition board member (and former president) Kevin Goldberg interviewed Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). Allen chose our forum to announce he would introduce legislation to add charters to those bodies covered by D.C. FOIA. Our testimony to the Council in June and October 2019 explaining why charter school transparency is important is here and here. We testified also in the spring to the Public Charter School Board as it considered modest improvements in public access to information. Te Council voted in 2020 to require chatter schools’ boards to comply with the Open Meetings Act, but did not address FOIA access.
  • We also published data on other states’ very routine application of public records and open meetings laws to charters to support our advocacy.
  • We collaborated with journalists and bloggers writing on charter-related topics with assistance in locating records using the D.C. FOIA. A compilation of many uses of FOIA by the press is elsewhere on this site.
  • The Coalition and other community partners successfully opposed FOIA amendments from the Chairman of the D.C. Council offered quietly during the last stage of the annual budget process in May 2019. The proposal would have narrowed documents that could be requested, in response to Council staff concerns about burden. The proposal was later withdrawn and never considered. Our blog coverage, with links to other materials, is here.

Better access to information for Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners

About 300 elected commissioners serve two-year terms to represent their districts (of about 2,000 residents) on 40 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. The ANCs’ main job is to be their neighborhood’s official voice in advising the District government (and Federal agencies) on actions that affect their neighborhoods.

Although they are not required to follow the ANCs’ advice, District agencies are required to give the ANCs’ recommendations “great weight.” And District law says that agencies cannot take any action that will significantly affect a neighborhood unless they give the affected ANCs 30 days advance notice. This includes zoning, streets, recreation, education, social services, sanitation, planning, safety, budget, and health services.

For volunteer commissioners, without staff support, staying informed is a huge task. Several commissioners have asked the Coalition to review their situation and advise how they can get the government information they need to do their job.

Transparency of ANCs themselves is a continuing topic of interest also. Commissions have existed since the earliest D.C. Council created them in 1975 as called for by Congress in Section 738 of the 1973 Home Rule Act. They have had their own longstanding rules, which were left undisturbed when the Council in 2011 passed the Open Meetings Act establishing new general rules for most other public bodies. The Act required a report by the relevant Council committee on whether to bring ANCs under the OMA, but as far as we know none was never submitted.

Because the Open Meetings Act is a better statement of Council intent, the Coalition has advocated for applying it to ANCs for years.

ANCs are subject to the D.C. Freedom of Information Act. But their limited staff , decentralized record-keeping, and sometimes heated internal politics, have caused conflicts over the years about fulfilling FOIA requests. An Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, with an executive director appointed by the Council, is responsible for assisting commissions but also has limited resources.

Action steps in 2019: Several ANC commissioners joined in the Coalition’s Sunshine Week “Summit” in March and discussed their experiences. The D.C. Council has considered updating ANC legislation several times but did not take up transparency topics.

Monitoring D.C. Office of Open Government as new director and Board of Ethics take charge

The law was changed in 2018 to place the formerly independent Office of Open Government and its director under the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability. The Coalition feared these changes threatened the ability of the office to effectively enforce the Open Meetings Act, review agencies’ FOIA implementation, and generally provide leadership within the executive branch on open government topics. The Coalition opposed the changes but fortunately has noted no major effects in its monitoring.

Action steps in 2019-20:

  • The Coalition has kept in communication with the Office so that problems could surface, invited the director to Coalition board meetings and the Sunshine Week “Summit,” and monitored any agency use of the new statutory provision allowing for appeals of Office opinions. To our FOIA request, the office reported there were no appeals in Fiscal Year 2019.
  • The Office invited Coalition President, Thomas Susman, to join a panel of officials from Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel, Office of the Attorney General, and Executive Office of the Mayor to give users’ perspective at a “FOIA Forum” for D.C. employees in October 2019.
  • The Office has issued some important and controversial opinions. In August 2019 the Office held that meetings of Local School Advisory Teams are covered by the Open Meetings Act. These are long-time parent-teacher committees that recommend plans and budgets to D.C. Public Schools principals. The Office has followed up with opinions on individual schools’ noncompliance. The opinion was issued over strong disagreement of the public school system that had its own less-demanding meeting rules for the groups. Such independent review has been the hallmark of the Office in earlier years, and continuation is welcome.

Improving user experience in the online request process for public records (D.C. FOIAXpress)

The online “portal” used by thousands to request public records under D.C. FOIA has demonstrated shortcomings in the years since the District in 2014 selected a vendor’s software for the job. The Coalition planned testimony asking that the Council direct a review of the system and will work with the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) to see that user views are fully considered before the contract is renewed.

Action steps in 2019 and 2020:

  • The Coalition gave testimony titled “Portal Needs Overhaul” in February 2019 at the D.C. Council oversight hearing on OCTO.
  • The new Chief Technology Officer met Coalition advocates at the hearing, promised fast action, and her staff followed up with a briefing in the summer on corrective actions. (Slides are here.) The session showed improvements and long overdue attention by D.C. government to the troubled user interface for the D.C. public records request processing system.
  • The Coalition discussed changing the portal software. We stressed that other vendors have advanced the state of the art since the District originally chose a vendor without experience serving state and municipal clients. (For instance, we have seen other systems that will redirect requesters to other sources based on scanning the request with artificial intelligence-based systems at time of filing.) D.C officials have repeatedly made clear a change is not in the cards. “Staff familiarity” and sunk training costs seem weak reasons to continue use of outdated software for a significant public function affecting tens of thousands of requesters each year.

Evaluating the latest form of proactive government publishing – D.C. “open data”

Under a 2017 order from the mayor, the District has been cataloguing its data to decide which can be made public. Agencies took the first step, a data inventory and analysis of privacy issues in each data set, in 2018. The Coalition has reviewed the work at intervals and offered advice based on best practices in other cities, states, and the federal OPEN Government Data Act, enacted and signed by the President in January 2019.

Action steps in 2019-20:

  • The Coalition monitored the second annual report of the D.C. Chief Data Officer issued in Sunshine Week (March 2019) on implementation of the mayor’s open data order. Unfortunately, the report shows hundreds of datasets evaluated a year ago as ready to publish are still not available. Agency delays are unexplained. That pattern continued in the third report in March 2020 (see discussion here).
  • “Open data” includes a public dataset of agency processing of FOIA requests, which is welcome. Analysis in past years has been hampered as only data tables in PDF form were available as part of the report required under the statute and submitted to the Council by February 1 for the prior fiscal year. (See 2018 version here and 2019 here.)
  • Coalition board members also met with users of large datasets to collect views on the open data policy and user experiences with D.C. agency responsiveness to requests for data. A number of points for useful followup emerged.
  • The Coalition also initiated liaison with a new State Chief Data Officers Network housed at the Beeck Center at Georgetown University. The network may be a source of insights to inform the D.C. open data effort.