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Coalition to D.C. Council: New CFO Will Face Challenges Including Transparency

Fritz Mulhauser | June 28, 2022

The D.C Open Government Coalition warned the D.C. Council recently (16) that the nominee for the post of District chief financial officer, Glen M. Lee, has work to do if he’s confirmed. D.C. finances are uncertain (until people return to work downtown) and also public access to CFO information is too difficult, specifically:

  • information to guide FOIA requesters on the CFO website is wrong,
  • the form for submitting a FOIA request has unlawful and misleading elements, and
  • requests are not answered promptly (median response time last year was 20 workdays and one-third of requests waited over 26 days).

The good news, according to the Coalition analysis of the Mayor’s FOIA processing report, is that almost two-thirds of the 289 processed requests in the latest year were granted in full. That strongly suggests publishing more data in the first place would reduce FOIA work.

Furthermore, the Coalition pointed to two advantages the Office of the CFO has over the typical D.C. government agency in addressing issues in its FOIA processing. First, it’s an independent agency that can chart its own course with computers and software. Second, it has its own large IT staff to service the massive systems needed to handle details of the District’s $14B finances (around 100 people, according to the FY23 budget, in contrast to the main D.C. IT agency called OCTO that has 200 for the whole city’s needs).

Unlike the 50 or so D.C. agencies that must use FOIA processing software bought years ago, the CFO selected a new offeror, Armedia. That firm recently characterized itself this way–“a time of change is a good time to step up the game and think outside of the proverbial box…[since] modern FOIA software solutions will help agencies achieve more with fewer resources.”

Together these ingredients—definite FOIA problems, independent authority to make IT and software decisions, and ample professional staff–suggest the changes needed to improve the user experience with OCFO FOIA work should not be difficult.

In addition to fixing problems that remain even with their new-gen FOIA software, the Coalition urged the office to look ahead and consider the long-term efficiencies that will come from re-thinking how the public finds OCFO information it needs. (A path the Coalition has urged for all District government agencies to take.)

This is the obvious conclusion to be drawn since the vast majority of OCFO FOIA requests are granted in full. That is, the information the public needs is generally released without time-consuming legal debate over complex privacy exemptions. That makes sense for OCFO especially, as their records are chiefly numerical data, without personally identifiable details that elsewhere require segregation/redaction for privacy protection. The way to improve efficiency for the public and staff is to release more without need of any request.

Kenyan R. Mc Duffie, chair of the Council Committee on Business & Economic Development, ended by saying he hoped Mr. Lee, if confirmed, “will engage with the Open Government Coalition around some of the concerns they have raised.”

The Coalition hopes the same, based on the statement in Mr. Lee’s resume that he is “committed to implementing transparent financial processes that provide clarity to decision makers and the public.”

And Mr. Lee noted in testimony that in his current job as head of city finances in Seattle, Washington, he had experience with that state’s strong open government laws and their “aggressive” use by engaged citizens.

The Coalition’s written testimony is here. Video of the hearing is here, with oral testimony beginning at timestamp 1:46:26 and Q&A on transparency at 2:54:33.