Internet helps federal government accomplish transparency objective
Mar 16, 2013 (Tulsa World - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The Internet has made the federal government more transparent, according to the director of a group that uses technology to increase access to government data.
"There is a tremendous amount of information a citizen can get (online) by and about their government," said Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Sunlight Foundation employs the paid staff at Sunlight Labs.
Examples include information provided directly by the federal government and content businesses create using government data, such as Google and Bing mapping services' incorporation of U.S. Census Bureau geographic data.
"Sometimes you as a citizen don't need to be aware of all the ways open data impacts your life," Lee said. "We think that's great if people don't have to worry about engaging with government to get use of government data."
On President Barack Obama's first day in office, he sent heads of executive departments and agencies a memorandum on transparency and open government, stating that the administration "is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government."
The U.S. government website data.gov is a product of the administration's push for transparency. The website hosts a catalog that provides access to datasets such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Office's ease-of-use ratings for car seats.
Data.gov launched in May 2009 with a limited number of datasets, and a directive from the Office of Management and Budget required agencies to make at least three new "high value" datasets available by early 2010. Datasets are still being added to the website, and users can submit suggestions for data they'd like to see made available.
"There's been tremendous enthusiasm from the administration but not always the level of follow-through we'd like to see," Lee said of the Obama administration's transparency efforts.
The administration has not fixed inaccuracies on the government website that tracks federal spending awards, he said.
The Sunlight Foundation found more than $1.55 trillion in misreported federal spending data for fiscal year 2011 on USASpending.gov, according to the foundation's website.
USASpending.gov is intended to fulfill the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 requirement that the Office of Management and Budget provide the public with a single, searchable website of federal funding.
"In some cases the data isn't accurate because the agencies aren't reporting anything, and we want (the OMB) to crack the whip, but there is a lack of enthusiasm for even that," Lee said.
The Sunlight Foundation has reported on the website's inaccuracies for several years, but the data remain "as bad as ever," Lee said.
The House Oversight Committee introduced a federal spending transparency reform bill in 2011. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act passed the House, but the Senate did not vote on the bill, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
The Obama administration has made progress increasing transparency in terms of the proactive releases of data it encourages agencies and departments to make and the reduction in the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests, said Mark Caramanica, freedom of information director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Members of the public can make Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests for federal information to most entities in the executive branch.
However, the U.S. Department of Justice is as "aggressive as ever" in defending Freedom of Information Act request denials, Caramanica said.
The guidelines Attorney General Eric Holder issued in 2009 that openness is the federal government's default position on FOIA issues have not always been carried out, he said.
"I think that's not something we've seen here," Caramanica said. "With reporters, that's not something that's been fully embraced."
File a federal Freedom of Information Act request
Members of the public have the right to a wealth of U.S. government data and documents under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal law passed in 1966.
The public's rights under the Freedom of Information Act cover agencies within the executive branch.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is one of the organizations that offer an online resource for filing a Freedom of Information Act request. The nonprofit group's FOIA letter generator provides a basic outline users can edit online to meet their specific needs or download into a word processor. You can find it online at tulsaworld.com/foialetter
Suggest our next open government request
Are there local, state or federal government data or documents you'd like to see included in the Tulsa World's content Send us your suggestions for our next open records or Freedom of Information Act request. Email your recommendations to World Staff Writer Casey Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org with "open records" in the subject line.
Casey Smith 918-732-8106
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