Open Government Progress in D.C. Council FY24 Budget
Fritz Mulhauser | June 21, 2023 | Last modified: July 6, 2023
Next year’s District of Columbia budget includes some dedicated funding and lots of advice to agencies for improved public access to government data and records, much of it resulting from the community and Open Government Coalition testimony and recommendations, according to legislative committees’ budget reports. Budgeting is complete with final votes last Tuesday (13).
- websites must be added for Advisory Neighborhood Commissions still without them,
- plans are to be made for digitizing government records, a step essential for retrieving 21st-century government actions, and
- the planned D.C. Archives facility is fully funded after years of unrealistic cost figures.
The Coalition has noted some heightened attention to open government as board members spoke at over a dozen hearings this spring to present data and analyses on ten agencies’ performance of legal obligations to open records and meetings. See earlier blog posts on ten oversight hearings here, published March 8, 2023; and on five budget hearings here, published April 23.
Open government advocacy was challenging this year for several reasons, new and old:
- new committee chairs following the 2022 election were just getting up to speed for five of the ten agencies the Coalition discussed, while
- Council decisions continue in committee silos, so on all but the biggest topics there is no way to highlight pain points across the agencies and gain consensus on needed performance improvements (and related funds), such as technology for 21st century meetings and records access.
For example, MPD already gets the most FOIA requests, denies many, leaves hundreds unfinished each year (and, as a result, defends the most appeals and lawsuits). Yet no staff were added (either in the mayor’s budget or in the Council) to handle the expected new workload to cope with requests for police discipline files (thousands of pages and hours of videos in an officer-involved death) opened by the police reform statute that survived a dramatic congressional gauntlet.
Nor did the mayor budget for the Office of Police Complaints to build the new database on sustained misconduct complaints going forward, also established by the police reform law and due in a year. The work will take place (guided by an advisory committee that will include the Coalition), but only thanks to a special $127,000 transfer from the Committee on Transportation, chaired by Charles Allen, to his former Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.
And the massive digitization project? Another unfunded mandate.
This bigger-picture problem has for several years fueled the Coalition’s advocacy for a Government Information and Transparency Commission of executive, Council, and community experts. Like the police reform commission, such a body would be charged by a statutory authorization to consider broad questions of goals and resources and better decision making.
Leaving information policy and investment decisions to individual executive branch agency heads or Council committees means living with the fact of life — a political calculus likened to a “race to the bottom” (spending as little as possible to save for flashier priorities) with small incentive to weight broad benefits of a more informed and engaged community. Coalition witnesses spoke about the commission idea at stops on the advocacy circuit while also delving into our annual list of smaller-scale topics.
In response to Coalition and community advocacy, we are delighted to acknowledge Council committee directions as follows:
- ANCs — noting “unprecedented investment” in recent years by the Council in staff, software, and equipment to assist the commissions, the Housing Committee (Robert White, chair) requested strategic plans for the Office of ANCs and completion of websites still needed in some ANCs (no central site covers activities at the 46 commissions). Unfortunately, no direction addressed the longstanding FOIA compliance issues.
- FOIA backlog – repeating last year’s pressure, the Executive Administration & Labor Committee (Anita Bonds, chair) directed the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel to complete appeals of FOIA denials on time and report back quarterly (since the office did neither when asked a year ago and backlogs are again climbing beyond 100).
- Digitizing records – the Executive Administration & Labor Committee also directed the Office of the Secretary to “initiate and commence the digitization of all Agency records across the District government” (with advice from the Office of Open Government on “best practices” for this daunting task).
- Review FOIA and Open Meetings policy and regulations – the Executive Administration & Labor Committee directed the Office of Open Government to evaluate where we are with the key open government laws; a sign we hope of willingness to consider comprehensive rewrites as the Coalition has stressed for years.
- D.C. Archives plans – the Public Works & Operations Committee (Brianne Nadeau, chair) directed the Office of the Chief Technology Officer to work with Archives planners so that storage and use of digital records will be adequate in the new building; and the Executive Administration & Labor Committee endorsed the mayor’s proposal to add funds to the capital budget so facility plans can meet today’s costs; it also renewed last year’s direction for increased public input into the plans (endorsing the decision-making meeting model known as “charrette”).
- User help at city administrative hearings office (OAH) – the Public Works & Operations Committee also restored resources cut by the mayor but needed to assure continued work on technology upgrades. Those will allow tens of thousands of users without lawyers to get basic help to use the office and to readily find opinions on past cases like theirs (progress was scant in recent years despite Council directions that included consultation with the Coalition that has yet to happen).
- Transit Police body-cam video access – the Committee on Transportation & the Environment (Charles Allen, chair) noted WMATA issued an access policy this spring after much prompting (but with zero public engagement); it does allow requests for video (after cameras start this summer) but the committee quoted the Coalition on other shortcomings needing attention — which the committee promised to provide in the coming year.
Unfortunately the above kinds of directions buried in Council report language are widely ignored in the D.C. executive branch (just as with congressional committee directions to the federal executive, as noted in a prior post).
The lesser weight to committee report language highlights the importance of actually legislating—converting ideas into law. Only legislation passed by the Council (with at least seven votes at each of two readings), approved by the mayor (or if vetoed, repassed with nine votes), and sent for congressional review, has the force of law. (Committees have five members, so they can report with as few as the chair and two others signing on.) A vast number of detailed changes in law related to the budget are rolled into one final bill called the Budget Support Act, whose passage ends the budget cycle—this year, with over 70 subparts and 150 pages, approved June 13.
The annual budget process began with Council committee oversight hearings in February. It continued with committees’ review of the mayor’s $19B spending plan that arrived in March, leading to committees’ budget recommendations in reports voted in late April. The chairman’s consolidated budget was considered and amended in multiple sessions of the full Council in May and June—driven by the Home Rule Act requirement that the following year’s budget be decided no later than 70 days after the mayor’s proposal. (See “Council 101” explanation of the budget process here; another by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute here.)
According to the approved $17.5B budget for FY22 (the most recent full year), half the spending went to human services (29 percent in that year, including health and social services) and education (19 percent, including charter schools and public libraries). Public safety and justice (police and fire) got eight percent.
Citizens may feel at a loss to find a fact or decision about public spending (or the rarer possibility-raising new revenue), though D.C. wins prizes for its “budget presentation”—the clear layout of the mayor’s thick volumes of plans. Agency programs, staff, and budget numbers are indeed accessible in the books in brief. But beyond that, sources at best are scattered:
- some laws mandate exceptional transparency on details (such as spending at the school level or on police overtime);
- the D.C. Auditor and think tanks issue well-researched and thoughtful studies, and follow up on their recommendations; but there’s no easy source linking to all those on a topic;
- the press occasionally digs deep with investigative reporting, as shown by multiple outlets’ Housing Authority coverage in the last two years.
Yet finding answers remains daunting for any particular question, especially if the search is for analysis linking public expenditure options and results. Council committees’ written analyses for the record, digging into past performance and future needs in the form of annual budget reports, vary greatly. How committee recommendations become the Council chairman’s final proposed budget is less documented.
Performance measures and specific targets are negotiated inside the executive, between agencies and the city administrator annually. An earlier version of the process flowered in D.C. following a campaign promise of Adrian Fenty (mayor, 2007-2011), who as a youthful tech-oriented official admired similar efforts such as Compstat (in the New York City police department) and Citystat (city agencies in Baltimore under Mayor Martin O’Malley). Fenty’s CapStat director, Vincent Price, recalls how beginning the day after inauguration, the mayor met weekly in grueling single-issue sessions with multiple agency heads to look at data on progress and plan actions.
A Government Managers Accountability Act had passed even earlier (1995) requiring budget and performance plans and evaluations to be linked — it can still be found in the original form in D.C. Code (and added to in the 2000s, codified here), but it is all ancient history. As a white paper from the D.C. Auditor put it in 2019, “the basic building block of PBB [performance-based budgeting] as a management tool–requiring an agency to define its business and its strategy for achieving its goals–is no longer enforced.”
After this post was first published, the D.C. Auditor reviewed further the history of “lofty dreams” for transparent and purposeful budget development embodied in statutory requirements that have “long been discarded.” The occasion was testimony at a June 22 oversight roundtable of the Committee on Business & Economic Development, chaired by Council member Kenyan McDuffie (I-At Large) on the latest financial information system called DIFS. It was “live” in October, but apparently mostly for keeping the D.C. books. That’s of course no mean task, with almost $20 billion coming in and going out in a year.
But the Auditor pointed out DIFS stiil doesn’t help the Council and the public link the budget with plans, goals, and later results, despite over $100 million invested so far. It seems a “budget module” was canceled along the way but may be reborn. The Chief Financial Officer, Glen Lee, said at the roundtable that program budgeting works to the degree the executive and legislative branches want it to work.
Council committees ask for the data on agencies’ achievements on “KPI” (key performance indicators) at oversight time but the answers seem not useful, at least they are not often discussed.
Cynical observers of all such quantitative efforts, dating back to the PPBS or Planning Programming Budgeting System embraced by Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, say agency goals are rarely a stretch—designed instead just to be readily achievable, leaving actual spending to be driven more often by other factors.
There’s one good place to find all that is available on the budget: each year the Council’s Budget Director keeps a running page updated with links to dozens of budget documents as they become available from the mayor, individual agencies, Council committees and the chairman. The FY24 version is here.
Major puzzles the Council addressed in very public budget discussions for the coming Fiscal Year 2024, where scarce dollars forced tough choices, included
- what incentives will help spur downtown revitalization plans,
- what steps to take towards free or low-cost transit,
- rental housing concerns, including emergency assistance funds, eviction defense legal aid, and paying for administering complex rent stabilization law and proposed changes to protect renters.
For details of the Coalition’s FY24 budget proposals and committee responses, see this guide and summary in compact form (a 10-minute read), with links to the committee reports and the specific pages where Council budget and policy recommendations to agencies can be found.
If you have questions about how to find information about the D.C. budget, drop us a line at email@example.com, and we’ll try to help.
And don’t miss the Coalition’s next two community training sessions, Wednesday, July 12, 2023, at 6 p.m., Watha T. Daniel Neighborhood Library, 1630 Seventh St. NW, Room 1 (focus on digging into DCPS and public charter schools’ information) and Saturday, September 30, 2023, at 11 a.m., Anacostia Neighborhood Library, 1800 Good Hope Road SE, Ora Glover Meeting Room (focus on digging into police information). Further details are here.