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.

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.”