WASHINGTON — Digital tools have shaped how the government stays accountable to the American people in 2016
On Tuesday at the Commerce Department, advocates for government openness said publishing data and maintaining electronic records are a driver of transparency and economic growth.
“How do we take the information that we have and improve people’s lives with it,” asked Nancy Potok, the deputy director of the Census Bureau. “What are the things we can do for people to get that information, combine it with other information, and really make a difference?”
As part of the annual Sunshine Week, a national initiative to stress the importance of open government and freedom of information, Commerce Department officials detailed their efforts to make the federal government more open to the public it serves.
Agencies such as the Patent and Trade Office, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Census Bureau have created data portals to make information they collect accessible to citizens, businesses and app developers.
“Our data plays a key role in the 21st century economy,” said Catrina Pervis, chief privacy officer and director of open government at Commerce. “It fuels innovation and increases economic competitiveness.”
For example, NOAA’s data about oceans and the climate are used by weather apps, oil and gas companies, airlines and even in the research and development process for new sunscreens, said Amy Gaskins, NOAA’s big data project director.
Sunshine Week this year arrives at an interesting time — 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, a pivotal law meant to open government books to the public. However, a report in the Washington Post maintains that FOIA is “broken.” Across the federal government, the backlog of unanswered requests for information rose by 55 percent, to more than 200,000.
Guest speakers from the National Archives and Justice Department said complex processes that dictate how agencies manage everything from databases to email inboxes are responsible for the backlog.
“A lot of agencies are going to need to gear up,” said Laurence Brewer, the chief records officer at the National Archives, talking about a new plan to manage email records. “And like a lot of OMB (Office of Management and Budget) directives, there is no money associated with doing this.”
“We all know the story about personal email and why we shouldn’t be using personal email,” added Brewer. “Don’t be like Hillary.”
In the last month, there’s been a renewed push on Capitol Hill to reform the Freedom of Information Act. A similar bill was stymied last year.
Numerous times at the “Sunshine” event, speakers referenced the Founding Fathers to advocate for the principle of open government.
“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both,” wrote James Madison.