New Report Recommends Changes in D.C. Open Government Policy
Fritz Mulhauser | January 16, 2022 | Last modified: January 17, 2022
Ideas for improving open government are in an end-of-year report from the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA). They include:
- extending the agency FOIA response deadline from 15 days to 20,
- setting a uniform email retention period (indefinite now),
- requiring ANCs to follow the Open Meetings Act (now exempt),
- creating a clear process for obtaining one’s own records held by the government (there is confusion now),
- requiring all electronic official communications such as texts and WhatsApp, not just email, to be retained (no rules now).
These are included in a “best practices” report from the Board, issued December 31, 2021. In addition to the recommendations, the report briefly discusses the past year’s highlights such as effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in closing meetings to in-person attendance and suspending FOIA processing deadlines.
The five-member board is appointed by the D.C. mayor and confirmed by the D.C. Council. It appoints directors and oversees two units, Office of Government Ethics and Office of Open Government:
- The ethics office has the larger workload (and almost all the two dozen staff), to enforce financial disclosure and other ethics rules applicable to elected officials, government employees, and lobbyists.
- The open government unit enforces the Open Meetings Act and has general oversight of the Freedom of Information Act as implemented by over 80 executive agencies.
The report also discusses the District’s open data policy. That is set by mayoral order and carried out by agencies under direction of the Chief Data Officer in the Office of the Chief Technology Officer.
The D.C. Council Committee on Human Services in its BEGA budget report last July noted the Best Practices Report had not been issued in some years and should be restarted, adding it’s required by law and is “important for policymakers when considering necessary ethics and government transparency reforms.”
Several of the recommendations echo advocacy over many years by the Open Government Coalition, such as bringing ANCs under the Open Meetings Act, defining a clear first-person request procedure, and assuring retention of all electronic communications.
The report’s ideas show a welcome reflective and forward-looking side of the board and its two units not often on view in the crush of daily business.
The report is brief, and the proposed changes need further background, evidence, and discussion before the necessary changes in law can be drafted and considered in public hearings. That work is unlikely in the current year.
The Council oversight hearings on agency performance are just beginning and continue until March 4, followed by budget hearings and votes on a schedule that runs until late May. Then, time will be short for new legislation before attention is distracted by election-year activity including a primary election June 21. Open this year are the posts of mayor, Council chair and six Council members (two At-Large and Wards 1, 3, 5 and 6).
If you have ideas for improving policy or practice about access to open records, open meetings, or open data in the District of Columbia, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.