Office of Open Government Director Traci L. Hughes' AINS FOIAXPRESS 2014 Users Group Conference Remarks

Traci L. Hughes, Esq., Director of the Office of Open Government gave the following remarks at the AINS FOIAEXPRESS 2014 Users Group Conference, Aug. 21, 2014.

Good afternoon.
It is somewhat ironic that I am standing her today speaking to all of you about FOIA.  
I became familiar with the Freedom of Information Act the same was as many of you: as an other duty as assigned.  I was working for a District government agency.  I went on vacation, and when I came back I inherited FOIA, and was expected to work miracles with a horrendous backlog.
So, my thanks to AINS for making all of our lives easier by streamlining FOIA and making it more efficient for government and for requestors.
The District of Columbia Office of Open Government is a relatively new office.  It was created in 2010, and moved under the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability in late 2012. I began this job in April of 2013, and although the city had made some effort toward greater transparency prior to my arrival, there had not been anyone solely focused on government transparency and the many nuances it implies.  
So, quite naturally, my office is where FOIA, open government and transparency meet – or collide – depending on one’s point of view.
Government has traditionally viewed access to information as linear: agencies create and maintain records, the public requests records via FOIA, and the records are produced (or not) under the parameters of FOIA. Never is the public consistently engaged or involved with the creation, storage, or output of agency-generated records or data.  
Access should be viewed as a continuum.  It is a coherent whole of government, citizen engagement, information and information platforms. They are intertwined, and there should always be a constant and open exchange.    
That is why it is critical that governments at the federal, local and municipal levels make a shift from reviewing stacks of documents and making redaction after redaction, to focusing on the large volume of data generated by the government.  Because in theory, much of that data is owned by taxpayers – including all of you.
The public should have the right to access, in multiple formats, information about their government at any stage. FOIA is just one tool, but can no longer be the only way citizens can pull back the curtain on government.  
The fundamental principle behind FOIA is the public’s right to know about the operations of its government. That right to know encompasses the right to access data.  
This certainly is not a novel concept. The federal government, and many cities across the country, have adopted policies intended to free up government data.  Open government offices are springing up everywhere as a result.
There is push and pull between transparency enthusiasts seeking access to everything, and government agencies and leaders releasing some things, but holding on tight to the information that would really hold them accountable.
But the tougher pill to swallow, it seems, is promoting sustainable data through civic engagement.  
Why not encourage government at all levels to think outside of the box, and provide means of citizen access at all stages of government, rather than through just the traditional means of FOIA, and regulation comment periods.   
If government is going to meet the needs of its citizenry, it must evolve and detach itself from such linear and regimented constraints. The ability of the public to touch government through FOIA is just one of many avenues leading to greater government transparency. 
Government on all levels is evolving. The 24-hours-a-day expectation of access to all forms of media has morphed into an expectation of instant access to information and data.  
The question we must ask ourselves in our evolving government is how do we elevate citizen engagement by providing access, means of outreach, and means of feedback that affords and encourages public participation in governance? And do it in a way that will grow with changing technologies, and in ways that will be efficient and cost effective for agencies.
I know from experience that there are many cost-effective ways to improve transparency. My office is an office of two people – me being one of them -- with an extremely limited budget. But building partnerships outside government has helped me to fill the knowledge gap that so often exists between what government is doing and what information residents want to give them greater assurance that their government is indeed open.  
The private sector, including non-profits and the civic coding community are on the front lines of a new era of public service, and they are redefining how government works, and demanding that we do better. That we think more broadly about good governance.  
I don’t code, and think in zeros and ones. But I do believe that it is the duty of government, no matter the level, to look beyond the legal permissions of FOIA and begin with the premise that transparency appeals just as much to our ethical and moral sensibilities, and an overall responsibility to the public we serve.  
Working with the coding community to do novel things like hosting all government-generated data on a common open-source platform; incorporating tools like Madison and Democracy O-S to facilitate real-time citizen engagement with legislators and government; and opening up our laws without copyright restraints.   
Governments in all cities should actively encourage the public to tap into data and to use that data to generate tech innovations that give birth to small business and bolster city services. New York  is by far considered the leader  in data transparency. But if we embrace partnerships with the civic coding community, there is no reason why the same cannot happen right here in D.C. and anywhere in the country.  
A truly effective government can no longer sit high and look low. It will be required to give in to the demands for a greater democracy by elevating citizen engagement and making the tools that facilitate that engagement our default.
Thank you.