Coalition’s Budget Testimonies Cap Council Hearings Season
Fritz Mulhauser | April 12, 2022 | Last modified: April 18, 2022
The D.C. Open Government Coalition has asked the D.C. Council for six investments to build transparency:
- Fund improvements in Advisory Neighborhood Commissions’ records management and FOIA response
- Fund surge staff to clean up backlog of over 300 FOIA appeals
- Fund tech infrastructure for digital records management so agencies can find FOIA-requested items and comply with proactive publication law
- Fund user-friendly updates to software used in DC FOIA request portal
- Fund new DC Archives building so it’s not just a warehouse of dusty files but welcomes and educates public users of historic records
- Fund 21st century transparency task force to reimagine access to records, meetings, and data in the new digital era
The D.C. Council held more than a hundred hearings since February for public input on government agencies’ work last year and the budget for the coming fiscal year that begins October 1.
Following 56 performance oversight hearings in January-February, the mayor’s proposed budget arrived in mid-March. That was the focus of a second series of 48 hearings. Revised budget figures and related reports are voted on by each committee on April 20-21; full Council budget votes will be May 10 and 24.
The Coalition earlier testified in detail on agencies’ implementation of open government requirements under difficult circumstances of the pandemic and virtual work. Challenges included suspension of deadlines and delays in FOIA processing, outdated software for online FOIA request processing, massive backlog of appeals of denials, poor records management at Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, and failure to publish records online as DC FOIA requires to make requests unnecessary.
Details of those seven oversight testimonies are in earlier Coalition blog posts here (portal, appeals, and FOIA enforcement), here (records management and FOIA at ANCs), and here (secrecy proposals in the Medical Examiner office, new Archives needs, and failure to publish opinions in OAH).
Coalition Budget Testimonies Target Six Agencies
The six more Coalition testimonies in March and April covered specific agencies’ budget needs to correct the performance problems:
- Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (on FOIA and records management), Committee on Government Operations & Facilities; written statement here, oral testimony video here, testimony at 0:10:57.
- Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel (on backlog of unprocessed FOIA appeals), Committee on Housing & Executive Administration; written statement here, oral testimony video here at 3:49:31.
- Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, Office of Open Government (on FOIA management broadly, new task force proposal, and expansion of Office of Open Government), Committee on Human Services; written statement here, oral testimony video here (first witness)
- Office of the Chief Technology Officer (on FOIA portal), Committee on Government Operations & Facilities; written statement here, oral testimony video here at 0:19:50.
- Office of the Secretary (on D.C. Archives), Committee on Housing & Executive Administration; written statement for the record here (no oral testimony)
- Office of Administrative Hearings (on publication of opinions), Committee on Government Operations & Facilities; see separate blog post here with detailed readout; written statement is here. The hearing video is here, with Coalition testimony at 0:16:20. Chairman Robert C. White’s significant discussion with Chief Judge Currie about the publication issue begins at 2:31:20.
Coalition Proposes Transparency Task Force
In a new proposal, the Coalition asked the Council to initiate a broad review, joining the Office of Open Government in calling on the Council fund a Transparency Task Force. It would work for some months, with a dedicated staff, and members from the public, experts, and representatives from the Council and the D.C. government executive branch.
The new effort could be like the 20-member Police Reform Commission the Council established in 2020 that was funded and staffed to report in March 2021
The task force would have a broad mandate to provide recommendations on how to re-envision transparency in the District. Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), chair of the Committee on Human Services that has jurisdiction over the Office of Open Government, discussed the idea with Coalition witness Bob Becker at the budget hearing on the Office of Open Government. The work would include:
- updating FOIA and open meetings laws
- redesigning public records management (the archives hold no digital records yet)
- improving executive enforcement of the laws
- assuring legislative oversight and budgeting for all-important tech infrastructure that underpins transparency
Details of the task force concept are in the Coalition’s statement here for the Committee on Human Resources. The D.C. Director of Open Government, Niquelle Allen, had called for one such task force concept, especially for FOIA improvement, in her February 22, 2022, oversight testimony, saying:
The D.C. Council should move forward with reforming D.C. FOIA. The law needs to evolve to reflect a digital government. In order for the D.C. Council to reform D.C. FOIA in a meaningful way, it must bring all of the parties in the District government that are responsible for District government records and transparency together. Within the government that includes OOG, the Office of the Secretary (D.C. Archives), the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel (Appeals), the Office of the Chief Technology Officer), to name a few. It should also receive input from experts and stakeholders from outside of the government that frequently utilize D.C. FOIA and interact with D.C. government. That includes journalists, attorneys, academicians, and D.C. resident stakeholders. I strongly suggest that the D.C. Council assemble a Task Force to reform D.C. FOIA and to specifically recommend changes to D.C. FOIA law.
Task force usage affords the Council the opportunity to have the best-suited people at the table to tackle the issue at hand, resulting in higher quality output with the input of public and private stakeholders. Investing in this endeavor and ensuring that the task force members possess the skill sets and interests to the specific task of reforming the D.C. FOIA law will provide the Council with modernized FOIA legislation that will better serve the public good. It will also provide the opportunity for more meaningful public discourse around the issue, as such a task force should be empowered to receive comments from the public on D.C. FOIA. I hope the Committee would consider creating this task force.
Emails before April 20 to the D.C. Council committees supporting open government funding requests discussed above are always helpful. Contact the committee chairs here:
Brianne N. Nadeau, Committee on Human Services (BEGA-OOG), firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert C. White Jr., Committee on Government Operations & Facilities, email@example.com (ANC, OCTO, OAH)
Anita Bonds, Committee on Housing & Executive Administration (OS, MOLC), firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have ideas for the future of transparency in the District, write us at: email@example.com.