“Open Data” is Great, But it Doesn’t Mean “Open Information” or “Open Government”

It’s got a bomb-throwing headline —  “Why the open data movement is a joke” —  but a controversial blog post by Canadian Tom Slee makes many important points. His follow up post, on the  “Open data movement,” further refines his argument and is worth a read by anyone interested in using the internet to open up government and empower the citizenry.

Our group is part of a coalition of civic groups and technologists in the NYC Transparency Working Group, which successfully campaigned for the New York City open data law. There’s a lot to like in our new open data law, and it has the potential to do many things for many stakeholders, from tech start-ups to policy analysts to advocates to city bureaucracies. More broadly, it is a step towards changing public expectations about the nature of government digital information, and whether it belongs to the government or the public — or better yet, both.

However, the open data law is only one of many efforts to harness the information revolution for the public benefit, and there many misconceptions about what it will and will not do. This is where the debate that Tom Slee sparked comes in. The NYC open data law calls for posting regularly updated public data sets consisting of lists, charts and tables; not “narrative data,” not reports, not budget updates, not analysis, not contracts, and not the myriad of digital information that sheds light on what city government is actually doing. NYC’s law does not call for the disclosure of all digital information releasable under New York’s expansive Freedom of Information Law. Nor does it actually compel agencies — including the notoriously secretive NYPD — to disclose anything.

Again, the NYC open data law is strong work, and we are going to bust our tails to help make it work. Among other things, it is part of encouraging a change of heart and perspective within city government. But it, like other open data laws and initiatives, are a facet of open government, not open government.


Money in Politics for the Week of April 30th

1. In a radio interview this week, Gov. Cuomo renewed the call for statewide campaign finance reform, decrying the corrosive effect that super PACs and high contribution limits continue to have on electoral politics in Albany. “The power of money in the Capitol is unbelievable,” Gov. Cuomo said. Cuomo has pledged to implement a public financing system similar to New York City’s small donor matching program, as well as to improve enforcement of state campaign finance laws, close campaign finance loopholes and lower contribution limits.

2. The debate over public financing has begun in the state Senate, with the introduction of new legislation by Senator Eric Adams, which would establish a public financing program, create an independent enforcement counsel in the State Board of Elections, lower contribution limits and improve disclosure of independent political spending.  At a press conference called by Senate Democrats, Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson told reporters that public campaign finance would dilute the influence of moneyed interests and enhance the power of small donors. Sen. Tom Duane added that Gov. Cuomo’s support is crucial for a bill’s passage, observing that the governor’s track record on marriage reform and pension benefits is clear evidence that “when he puts his mind to something, he can win.”

3. Reform groups including Citizen Action New York gathered in Albany on Monday to protest the outsized influence of the natural gas industry on the state legislature’s approach to hydrofracking, noting that the industry has contributed more than $1.3 million to state legislators in an effort to buy support for the controversial practice. Sierra Club representative Robert Ciesielski cited a study by Common Cause that the governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, had received over $1.6 million in political donations from the industry—a figure that, given the current state of New York’s campaign finance laws, lobbyists in Albany could well surpass.

4. On Wednesday, Fair Elections for New York held a screening in Albany of “Pricele$$,” a new documentary on the influence of money in politics that includes interviews with former Gov. Mario Cuomo and former U.S. Representative Dan Maffei (D—NY), who is currently running for the seat he lost in 2010. Filmmaker Steve Cowan posted full transcripts of his interviews with Cuomo and Maffei on the film’s website, which include Maffei’s observation he supports public campaign finance “because it means the only people we’ll have to worry about in our day are the taxpayers and constituents in our district, and that’s what we’re supposed to do.”

NYC to Livecast Council Hearings — Meanwhile State Doesn’t Do Hearings for Important Bills

The New York City Council, with the mayor’s active help, will soon be livecasting and archiving all of its numerous committee hearings. Meanwhile in Albany, Governor Cuomo derided a reporters question about introducing campaign finance legislation for the public to see.

“You can take the public relations track of appearing to do something and I can put out my bill and rant and rave about it or I can actually get something done…I normally don’t put out a bill when we can actually get an agreement and pass something.”

This contrast between city and state once again reveals how abysmally low expectations are for basic democracy in Albany. In the New York City council — and other functioning democracies —  bills are introduced well before a vote and debated and discussed in committee hearings. In Albany,  our governor tells reporters that it’s “ranting and raving” to introduce legislation so it can be seen and understood by the public and members of the legislature.

The governor’s remarks are incredibly cynical, and are an embrace of “Three men in a room” back room deal making. They also directly contradict the recommendations in the Brennan Center’s famous “dysfunction” reports. Those reports are centered around the importance of the legislative committee process.

Brennan’s Still Broken: New York State Legislative Reform 2008 Update includes five recommendations.

1. Strengthen standing committees so that debate is robust and rank-and-file members can
force a hearing or a vote, even over the objections of the committee chair
2. End the leadership stranglehold on bills coming to the floor.
3. Allow ample opportunity for adequate review of all bills.
4. Provide all members with sufficient resources and opportunities to fully consider legislation
5. With respect to all of the above, make records of the legislative process transparent and easily
accessible to the public via the Internet.