Today President Obama issued two eloquent orders with the following subject lines: "Freedom of Information Act" and "Transparency and Open Government". Published on the first full day of his presidency, they constitute a sweeping manifesto about how he wants to govern at the Federal level. Those leading municipal government in this country-- mayors, commissioners, and department heads-- would do well to read closely. Change is coming.
In the first memo, he writes that "the Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails." He goes on to "direct the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to update guidance to the agencies to increase and improve information dissemination to the public, including through the use of new technologies..."
And here's some real music:
"The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely."
The second memo is less wonky and more Constitution-like, making three broad statements about what government "should" be: transparent, participatory, and collaborative. On the last point, he writes:
"Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector."
The speed and the decisiveness with which the President acted on these issues is stunning. The policies that spring from these documents will directly benefit all Federal-level openness initiatives.
At EveryBlock, we focus on what's happening at the block level in cities across the country. Pretty much every day, we make specific requests to city agencies for basic information-- like what crimes have been committed, what restaurants have been inspected, what building permits have been issued, what holes in the ground are being fixed.
Most cities publish some (or even a lot) of this data as a matter of course. And we've been able to convince some agencies to publish some data in other cases. But the standards, formats, and policies for the publication of data vary widely from city to city. As for actual FOIA requests, we've heard all of the same stiff reasons for denial that have become cliche for open government advocates. The presumption is rejection, not disclosure.
To the mayors of every city in the United States, the message is clear: Nearly 67,000,000 people voted for Barack Obama on Election Day. Many of them are voting in your city, too. More than a million people went outside in Washington, DC to hear and see this President get inaugurated. Today, hundreds of thousands of them returned home to your cities, your neighborhoods, your tax bases. There's no reason to expect less of you than we've gotten from our President. Change is coming.