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Bigger budget for transparency needed

dcogcadmin | May 1, 2015

  Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s proposed budged does not allocate enough money to ensure transparency in the D.C. government, Thomas M. Susman told the D.C. Council Judiciary Committee April 30.

  Susman, founding president of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, said “It is disingenuous for the Council and the Mayor to continue to give lip service to promoting transparency in the District’s government while depriving the Office of Open Government of the resources it needs to perform its job. Even worse, it portends disaster for an Office that is doing more than any other in the District of Columbia to promote the open-government policies espoused by the Council and Mayor.

  “It is now time to provide adequate staffing to the Office of Open Government. Every year the District loses millions of dollars in staff time, attorneys’ fees, and redundant reporting. D.C. should take this opportunity to invest the small amount of money necessary to empower the OOG to do its job fully. It is both fiscally responsible and a matter of good government.”

  “We count among the District government’s notable open-government accomplishments four important actions that the Coalition has vigorously advocated practically since its inception: reform of the Open Meetings Act; routine FOIA and OMA training of D.C. agency personnel; creation of the Office of Open Government; and establishment of a central FOIA portal for the District”, Susman said. But, he added,  “There is much to be done for the citizens of the District to reap the benefits of each of these actions. Not coincidentally, future progress in each of these areas depends heavily on the efforts – and resources – of the OOG, which has a sole mission of advancing open government in D.C. Unfortunately, and I might even say shamefully, those resources are woefully lacking.

  “Since it opened its doors in April 2013, the OOG, under the able leadership of Traci Hughes, has achieved a number of remarkable accomplishments:

  • Participating in training of government officials on FOIA and OMA requirements;
  • Promoting valuable ideas in the OOG annual ‘Best Practices’ report;
  • Reviewing open government activities in all executive agencies as part of the Mayor’s Open Government Advisory Group;
  • Gaining endorsement from the former mayor for open government principles in his 2014 Transparency and Open Data Directive;
  • Creating a unified on-line calendar of meetings for all public bodies to use, publishing rules for receiving and deciding complaints, and requiring training of public bodies in the OMA’s requirements; and
  • Shepherding the creation of a central portal to receive, track, and archive requests for records under the DC FOIA.

  “Yet the OOG has not been given the resources it needs even to scratch the surface of other responsibilities within its contemplated FOIA portfolio, which include mediating disputes between access requesters and government bodies and issuing advisory opinions in response to requester appeals.

  “Clearly the FOIA and OMA performance of District agencies remains inadequate: FOIA delays and erroneous denials remain common; not all agencies participate in the FOIA portal; and many public bodies are lax in their OMA obligations to publish meeting notices, agendas, grounds for closing meetings, and full meeting records. And ‘open data’ remains a concept on the drawing board, rather than an integrated part of agency recordkeeping and transparency.

  “Achieving open government requires more than good intentions and flowery rhetoric. The DCOGC’s Open Government Action Plan provides a blueprint for making concrete progress toward greater transparency in D.C. It proposes steps the Council and executive branch can take to improve access to public records, expand access to the meetings of public bodies, and increase availability of open data.

  “The most effective focal point of these actions in the executive branch is the Office of Open Government. The starting point is ensuring an adequate FY 2016 budget for that Office, which should be earmarked separately from BEGA. And that budget should include, in addition to the Director and IT position currently authorized, three attorneys and a paralegal to perform both the existing responsibilities and carry out new tasks of oversight, training, and monitoring for violations of the law.

  “When initially creating the OOG in legislation first proposed by Councilmember Cheh and later incorporated in a bill authored by then-Councilmember, now Mayor, Bowser, the Council anticipated an annual budget of $472,000 to employ a director, a staff attorney, and an administrative staff member. Yet the current budget allocates under $270,000, which is not enough to support the positions that are critical to fulfilling the Office’s current responsibilities for training agency personnel, monitoring agency compliance, and overseeing and implementing the central FOIA portal.”