It’s Official: The OPEN Government Data Act is Now the Law of the Land

by Michelle Martineau

The OPEN Data Act passed the US House and Senate with rare bipartisan support

What does it mean for local agencies and the public at large?

On January 14, 2019, President Trump signed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking (FEBP) Act into law. A key component of FEBP is the OPEN Government Data Act, which passed the US House and Senate back in December with rare bipartisan support.

This new legislation has been years in the making and codifies key pieces of President Obama’s 2013 Open Data Policy Memorandum. In addition to the broader initiative to improve government transparency and drive citizen engagement, the OPEN Government Data Act also promises to increase the accessibility and usability of government information for other key stakeholders including journalists, academics, and entrepreneurs in both the public and private sector.

OPEN is actually an acronym that stands for Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary, and under the new law federal agencies are now required to publish all non-sensitive government information online in a machine-readable format. That’s good news for everyone, especially researchers and developers looking for data to fuel innovation.

For the record, the “non-sensitive government data” we’re talking about generally includes information on weather, traffic, census, budgets, and more. More importantly, it’s data that taxpayers actually paid to develop and fund. In short, the public financed this information, and now the law says they’ll finally have free and easy access to it.

Making government data not only accessible, but machine readable is key because it means it’s searchable and therefore more actionable.  A 2017 letter of support for the legislation signed by more than 80 businesses, industry groups, civic organizations, and transparency advocates argued that opening up data to people in both the public and private sectors would effectively drive development of “new tools and services that address some of the country’s most pressing economic and social challenges.”

Until now, many government agencies simply scanned documents and posted PDFs to their website to comply with Federal Open Information Act (FOIA) requirements. While this checked the transparency box, it didn’t make the data easily searchable or particularly useful. With this new legislation, that’s about to change — for good.

While the new guidelines specifically apply to federal agencies, the implications are far-reaching. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that open and transparent government is no longer merely aspirational. For democracies here and abroad, government data is increasingly open by default. And, there’s ample evidence to show that this global sentiment is being embraced at the local level as more cities and towns endeavor to establish and hone an online presence to better engage busy constituents.

In fact, over the last three years ClearGov has built free public-facing pages for 20,000+ local governments showcasing government data in easy-to-understand infographic-style profiles. And, hundreds of towns and school districts in 20 different states have since claimed their profiles, expanding them to include valuable commentary and relevant peer comparisons. Some are even building out project pages that enable residents to view budgets, blueprints, timelines and more for capital improvements, new construction, and other initiatives. Residents can even subscribe to receive updates automatically every time the data changes.

While OPEN data is now officially the law of the land, it’s not likely the transparency police will be enforcing it any time soon. However, it does set the bar for clear governance — and there’s no going back. It’s time to start sharing public-owned data with the public, and making it easy to understand and actionable.

Three Steps to Set the Stage for Better Transparency

by Michelle Martineau

An interview with Terry Mutchler, transparency hall of famer

NOTE: In November of 2018, the digital news publication Route Fifty published an edited version of the following commentary by ClearGov CEO Chris Bullock. With the federal OPEN Government Data Act officially signed into law just last week, this seems like the perfect time to revisit Chris’ timely interview with Terry Mutchler, transparency advocate and former executive director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records.

The demand for transparency in government is as old as our democracy. In fact, the founding fathers spelled it out in the Declaration of Independence:

“He has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.”

If you skip past the section of the declaration that you had to memorize as a kid, you’ll find a less-quoted list of grievances against King George III. That’s where Thomas Jefferson calls out colonial governors for clandestinely moving the meeting sites of assemblies and limiting access to public records.

Fast forward 242 years and transparency advocates like Terry Mutchler continue to fight the powers that be in the revolutionary pursuit of public access. And — given the current climate of distrust in our democracy and the proliferation of “fake news” — the need for an informed and educated citizenry has arguably never been greater.

Fatiguing them into compliance

Mutchler, the former executive director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records (OOR), has made transparency her life’s mission. And, in a recent interview, the newly minted hall of famer summarized the drive toward open government this way, “If ‘fatiguing them into compliance’ doesn’t describe today’s environment, nothing does.”

She was recently inducted into the National Freedom of Information (FOI) Coalition’s State Open Government Hall of Fame. It’s a long and cumbersome title for the annually bestowed national honor, but it’s fitting when you consider that there’s nothing concise or easy about getting government agencies to show you their checkbooks.

No one knows that better than Mutchler who ten years ago single-handedly built Pennsylvania’s independent office of open records from the ground up. Before she even had a budget or a building, she set up a makeshift office in the back of a dismantled library and, with a copy of the state’s new open records law in hand, began interviewing stakeholders and writing the policies and procedures that paved the way for the level of transparency the state currently enjoys.

Mutchler is a former AP award-winning journalist and a current practicing partner at Mutchler Lyons, the nation’s first firm focused exclusively on transparency law. She’s also something of a self-proclaimed openness geek as evidenced by her ability to quote lesser-known passages from the Declaration of Independence at the drop of a hat.

We asked for her expert take on the Sisyphean task of nudging local officials into compliance. Here’s what she had to say about where municipalities stand today and where they should focus their energies for the long-term.

Reframing the argument: Imagine you’re a credit counselor

Sure, transparency is the bedrock of democracy, but to frame the idea in a way that makes modern sense, Mutchler likens the role of municipal official to that of a credit counselor. She explains, “the first thing a credit counselor tells their client is that you can’t budget or make sound financial decisions for your family unless you actually know where you stand.”

As keepers and executors of the public purse, it behooves local leaders to get their constituents to understand what resources they actually have and how those resources are distributed. Until you get everything out on the table, you can’t effectively plan ahead. Yet, there’s often resistance on the part of municipalities to pony up the receipts when asked.

As a practicing attorney, Mutchler attests to the fact that few laws are as emotionally fraught as right-to-know laws. That’s because people on both sides go in with their guard up. The town clerk thinks the constituent is there to check up on him or her. And the constituent thinks the clerk is trying to hide something. So, the relationship tends to be adversarial from the get-go, but it doesn’t have to be.

Teaching officials to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with citizens, not toe-to-toe

When Mutchler first started at the OOR, she and her modest staff of three managed to conduct some 1500 presentations across the state. She says that every time they went into a town to train municipal officials the amount of record requests actually declined.

Mutchler suggests there are three steps clerks can take now to reduce friction and set the stage for better transparency:

1. Strip emotion from the equation: While a record request may feel personal, it’s not. The requestor wants to see the township’s checkbook, not yours. When you remove emotion and err on the side of openness, you immediately reduce the friction. She advises clerks to adopt a presumption of openness, meaning that they should presume the record is open and then check to see if there’s a legitimate reason to withhold it.

2. Formalize the request process: One way to strip the emotion from the task is to make it routine. Create a structure and put forms in place so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you get a request.

3. Put it online: Once you’ve built a form and a process, put everything on your website — including your records. The more information you can make accessible, the less you’ll have to manually track down. Plus, you’ll have fewer requests to field if you empower citizens to effectively serve themselves.

All of this may sound overwhelming to public officials who are already overworked and underpaid, but there are actually new ways for municipalities to be more transparent with their records without incurring additional work.

Mutchler says there are companies out there now who can help local governments do the heavy lifting. Turnkey platforms like ClearGov, for example, make it easy to share financials with constituents in a way that’s not only easy-to-understand but also helps to drive public trust, understanding, and engagement. According to Mutchler, “trying to be transparent without taking advantage of new technology is like clearing the roads by hand with a shovel instead of using a plow.”

Positioning Pennsylvania for the long-term

Today, with the open records leg of the stool firmly in place, Mutchler says Pennsylvania officials will need to attach two more legs to build government transparency that’s stable and sustainable for the long-term. She explains that to continue on this trajectory, they’ll next need to revisit laws around record retention and open meetings.

Mutchler says the existing record retention law that’s on the books in Pennsylvania hasn’t been updated since 1929, “not since blackberries were still on a bush,” she quips.

Today, municipalities struggle to manage not only physical documents but voluminous electronic records as well. There’s just way too much data to tackle transparency without factoring technology into the equation. Furthermore, someone has to decide how long governments should be required to store all those records. These are just a few of the myriad issues that still need to be researched and resolved.

As far as open meetings go, the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act currently requires agencies to “deliberate and take official action on agency business in an open and public meeting.” They also have to notify the public in advance so people “can attend, participate, and comment.” The founding fathers would be proud. Right now, the OOR does not enforce the Sunshine Act, but it does provide training on the law.

Mutchler declares it may take 10–15 years to get all three of these pieces to fall into place, but when they do, Pennsylvania will lead the country in transparency and serve as a model for open government everywhere. Spoken like a true hall of famer.

 

Join the conversation: Register to attend a live Q&A with Gov. Martin O’Malley January 23rd

by Michelle Martineau

Former two-term governor and pioneer of data-driven governing, Martin O’Malley

It’s not every day that you get to pick the brain of a former governor and pioneer of data-driven reporting and management systems for local governments, but next Wednesday you’ll get your chance.

Mark your calendar and reserve your virtual seat at the table now for “The New Realities of Public Leadership – A Live Q&A with Martin O’Malley.” On Wednesday, January 23rd at 3:00 PM (EST), ClearGov CEO Chris Bullock will sit down with the former two-term mayor of Baltimore and two-term Governor of Maryland to talk best practices for civic leaders in the age of misinformation.

Given today’s politically charged climate, it’s worth noting that the conversation will draw upon O’Malley’s vast experience in running governments by the numbers and not his party affiliation, as ClearGov’s mission to help democracies work better is strictly nonpartisan.

O’Malley’s experience in the public sector spans three decades and includes eight years serving as a city councilor, so he’s well versed in the challenges confronted by civic leaders at the city, state, and local level. He’s also an avid proponent of transparent, data-driven governing and a founding practitioner of CitiStat, an innovative statistics-based tracking system that he debuted in Baltimore and later evolved for statewide use as Governor. The cutting-edge program won Harvard University’s Innovations in American Government Award in 2004 and is now used by hundreds of governments across the country and globally.

O’Malley currently sits on the board of directors for ClearGov and shares the company’s passion for empowering public leaders to better communicate, connect, and engage with their constituents. Of course, with more ways than ever for the public to access, consume, and disseminate information, today’s leaders face a whole new set of challenges.

In the last decade or so, there’s been a profound shift in the way we as a society get and share news. The internet, social media, and smartphones have all played a role in the democratization of data. Today, more people than ever not only enjoy — but have come to expect — unfettered access to a near-infinite stream of information (accurate and otherwise).

While this new reality poses unique challenges for civic and school leaders, the opportunities far outweigh the risks. The most successful leaders will be those who learn to leverage Information Age technologies to inform better decision-making, drive transparency, and ultimately build public trust.

In an ebook published earlier this month, Governor O’Malley identified best practices for how to not only adapt in an increasingly hyperconnected world, but actually thrive and help your community to prosper in ways never before possible.

In a live Q&A with the Governor on Wednesday January 23rd, we’ll pick up where the ebook leaves off. Register now to secure your space at this live event. Even if you can’t attend, sign up now and we’ll send you a recording of what promises to be an insightful discussion about the challenges of public leadership in the era of “fake news.”

 

ClearGov named to GovTech 100 list for 2019 — 4th year in a row!

by Jena Skivington

2019 GovTech 100ClearGov is honored to be recognized as a GovTech 100 company for 2019. The annual list compiled and published by Government Technology magazine shines a spotlight on the top businesses committed to making a difference in state and local government agencies.

“We’ve made the prestigious list every year since we first opened our doors in 2015,” said CEO Chris Bullock. “And, we’re proud to be included among the top 100 again in what’s become an increasingly competitive space driven by innovators and trailblazers.”

In a feature article introducing this year’s top 100, Government Technology associate editor Ben Miller notes that 2018 was a remarkably active year in the GovTech market, fueled by mergers, acquisitions, and venture capital investments. Miller writes, “one thing has been made quite clear in the past year — if one asks whether investing in a gov tech company can really be profitable, the answer must now be ‘yes.’”

That comes as no surprise to ClearGov as we not only doubled our client base across 20 states last year but also raised an additional $2.25M through a second seed round of financing back in May. The oversubscribed round attracted both new investors and existing backers who upped their stake in ClearGov.

“We’re currently leveraging this latest infusion of capital to scale our sales and client services teams, bring more new products to market, and further advance our mission to help local governments be more efficient and effective,” said Bullock. To learn more about the 2019 GovTech 100 and the growth trajectory for companies that made the list, check out Ben Miller’s article.

Click here to view the full list of winning GovTech 100 companies for 2019.

Fighting Misinformation with Facts

by Chris Bullock

Why the 2018 word of the year is a call to action for public leaders

Download “The New Realities of Public Leadership”

In case you missed it, lexicographers at Dictionary.com recently revealed their word of the year for 2018: misinformation. According to an article announcing the designation, “misinformation” is not just one of the more highly searched terms of 2018, it’s a “call to action.” Coincidentally, it’s also the impetus behind a new ebook designed to help public leaders better educate and engage with their constituents.

So, what exactly is “misinformation” and why should you care? The online dictionary defines it as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.” And last year, the dissemination of false information achieved unprecedented global reach. In an interview with the Associated Press, Dictionary.com linguist Jane Solomon explained that, “The rampant spread of misinformation is really providing new challenges for navigating life…”

Those challenges affect us all — citizens and public leaders alike. In a video produced by Dictionary.com, a diverse panel of experts and activists weighed in on the word of the year, the implications going forward, and why it’s incumbent upon all of us to fight the propagation of false information, both online and in our daily discourse.

Edward Wasserman, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, summed it up this way,  “Falsity has now increasingly been woven into the fabric of what political discourse looks like, which makes it harder and harder for citizens to sort out what the fact base is on which they base their judgements about policy and about social directions.”

In an age when anybody and everybody has a platform and a story to tell, it’s increasingly difficult to discern fact from fiction, or in the current vernacular, truth from “fake news.” Even news outlets pick up on false information, or at least the sentiment reacting to it.

All of this conspires to erode public trust in institutions and more specifically in government. In fact, public trust in government right now is near an all-time low. In the 60 years since the National Election Study began measuring such things, trust has been on a steady downward trajectory. According to the Pew Research Center, only 18 percent of Americans today say they trust the government to do what is right.

This new reality can be particularly daunting for public leaders — especially local leaders — looking to build consensus and support in their communities. So, how do we rebuild trust, advocate for truth, and combat the toxic spread of misinformation? In a time when perception is reality, public officials — like business owners, entrepreneurs, and even private citizens — need to step up and control their narrative.

You need to tell your story before someone else does. Building an open and transparent online presence is the first step. For public leaders, your 2019 call to action is to become a source of truth in your community by fighting the proliferation of fake news with facts.

Are you ready to kick off the new year by resolving to use data to drive discourse? ClearGov can help.

We recently partnered with Martin O’Malley — two-term mayor of Baltimore and and two-term governor of Maryland — to create a free best practices guide for civic leaders trying to navigate the new realities of governance in this age of misinformation.

Widely recognized for his innovative, data-driven approach to policy and administration, O’Malley has earned a reputation as a pragmatic and effective public leader committed to empowering fellow public servants with the tools and insights they need to better communicate, connect, and engage with their communities. To find out how you can start leveraging the power of the internet and other information technologies to drive transparency and ultimately build public trust and consensus, download The New Realities of Public Leadership now.

ClearGov Makes Top 25 List for Best Companies for Perks & Benefits Through Comparably

by Chris Bullock

ClearGov is honored to be in the top 25 for the Comparably Award for Best Companies for Perks & Benefits! We pride ourselves on fostering a company culture, that promotes a work hard, play hard attitude. 

ClearGov’s story started in 2015 when serial entrepreneur, Chris Bullock, had a simple question – “where do my tax dollars go?” What started as a question, has turned this startup into a million dollar business who prides itself on creating a community of more informed, data-driven and modern government entities.

ClearGov is dedicated to creating an exceptional culture for their employees that promotes the same values as our product lineup – transparent and accountable leadership. Our company was founded upon these six core values; be clear, be trustworthy, be considerate, be positive, be better, and be fun. 

We also make sure to provide benefits for our team that keeps them motivated and excited to be part of this community. Core benefits include competitive pay, medical, dental, vision, 401K, life insurance, and an unlimited vacation policy.

Added perks include access to a free gym, indoor putting green (and putting competitions, of course!), company sponsored happy hours, free parking, monthly events, quarterly team outings, chili cook-offs, salsa making competitions, and even a company-wide day of service.

At ClearGov, we work hard and play hard. Our team members are a vital part of this community that continues to drive this company’s rapid growth.

To learn more about open positions at ClearGov, click here! Or check out our team’s Instagram feed, @cleargov.  

ClearGov Recognized Among New England’s Top Innovators

by Chris Bullock

We are excited to announce that ClearGov has been nominated for the 2018 New England Innovation Awards.  Established in 1986 by the New England Business Association, the Innovation Awards recognize those companies that have transformed their innovative ideas into a product or service that delivers proven value to customers.  The Program has recognized almost 200 companies from a wide variety of companies in fields such as technology, manufacturing, service, non-profit, and retail/distribution.

“ClearGov prides itself on providing innovative solutions that help local government agencies better leverage data to become more effective and efficient,” said Chris Bullock, CEO of ClearGov.  “So, we are especially honored to be chosen for consideration for this prestigious award.”

The New England Business Association has selected 200 local companies for consideration and will be announcing 20 finalists on mid-April.  The 20 Finalists will each have 3 minutes to present to the entire group of judges, our Partners, our Board members, and other invited guests.  The Gala Awards Presentation and Dinner will be held in early May where the winners will be announced at a formal dinner presentation.

 

ClearGov hits the GovTech 100 list for the third consecutive year

by Jena Skivington

Each year, GovTech Magazine compiles a list of the most innovative and influential companies focused on serving governments. ClearGov is proud to be hitting that list for the third consecutive year, alongside many successful and innovative leaders in the space.

“We’re thrilled to be recognized by GovTech again this year,” said Chris Bullock, CEO of ClearGov. “The gov tech industry is evolving and we are honored to be acknowledged alongside these leaders in our space.  We couldn’t be more excited about the year to come and some exciting new announcements for ClearGov, including our recent partnership with former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who joined our board this month.”

The GovTech100 feature article highlighted the industry’s rapid growth as an established market segment with massive potential for investors and entrepreneurs, especially within software. Companies have changed the way data is used and stored, how quickly tasks are accomplished in the day to day, and how efficiently a government can run its operations. It’s an exciting time in gov tech, and it’s only the beginning. Click here for the full article.

Click here to see the full list of GovTech 100 companies.

ClearGov Ranks 7 on ELGL’s Top 50 Companies Working With Local Governments

by Chris Bullock

ClearGov topped the list at number 7 for the Haverford Choice awards from ELGL’s top 50 companies working with local governments.

The ClearGov Insights™ platform allows local governments to easily communicate their budgets to residents, and compare that information against similar peer communities.

“We are really excited to be in the top 10, alongside some really impressive organizations for the Haverford Choice awards,” says Chris Bullock, founder and CEO of ClearGov. “We love what ELGL has been doing to connect and educate the industry, and feel honored to be a recipient of this award.”

ELGL mentions their criteria for the award on their site: “The ELGL Evaluation Team used three criteria in selecting and ranking the top 50 companies: number of nominations received by each company (50%), comments submitted on each company (25%), and input from ELGL Evaluation Team (25%).”

Check out your local government’s transparency page here: www.cleargov.com.

Ben Berkowitz Joins ClearGov Advisory Board

by Chris Bullock

CEO of SeeClickFix Provides Extensive Expertise in GovTech Industry

Hopkinton, MA (June 6, 2016)  – ClearGov, a leading municipal transparency and benchmarking platform, announced today that Ben Berkowitz, CEO of SeeClickFix has joined its Advisory Board.  In this role, Ben will advise the ClearGov executive leadership team on its go-to-market strategy and product development.

“Ben Berkowitz is a pioneer in modernizing government technology systems.  We see many parallels in SeeClickFix’s business model and, as such, we are confident his experience will help accelerate our rapid growth and our ability to revolutionize government transparency and efficiency,” said Chris Bullock, CEO of ClearGov.

SeeClickFix is a communications platform for citizens to report non-emergency issues and governments to track and manage their response.   SeeClickFix and ClearGov are both focused on providing cloud-based software solutions to local municipalities that positively impacts our daily lives.

“ClearGov is a unique service provider in fields that I care deeply about – government transparency, accountability and efficiency.  The company’s ability to transform confusing government financial data into easy to use information is impressive and is already helping officials identify opportunities to improve operations, which is a mutual goal,” said Ben Berkowitz.  He pointed to ClearGov’s go-to-market strategy and said “it resonated with the approach we took at SeeClickFix to grow a large citizen and government network. That experience will help me advise ClearGov to similar success and I’m confident that local communities and the public will be better for it.”

About ClearGov

ClearGov transforms city and town financial statements into accessible, easy-to-understand infographics to help citizens better understand how their tax dollars are being put to use.  Local governments leverage ClearGov to more clearly communicate their financial performance in an effort to build citizen trust and participation through transparency. ClearGov also provides valuable municipal benchmarking intelligence to help government leaders make more informed and data-driven policy and budgetary decisions while opening the door wider to sharing best practices between municipalities.