GovTrack endorses this bill because it codifies the practices of open government data that we helped to pioneer. For more information, see a letter of support that we signed onto.
Data.gov was launched in 2009 as a public repository for data about the federal government, including budgets, revenues, and more. But the website has fallen short of some of its initial promises regarding scope and usability. And many fear the Trump administration could interfere with or restrict open data.
A 2013 President Obama executive order attempted to accomplish some goals regarding the website and transparency, but like all executive efforts, those moves could be reversed by succeeding presidential administrations. That’s especially true for an administration like President Trump’s, which has opposed many elements of government transparency, from refusing to release his tax returns to closing the White House visitor logs.
What the bill does
New legislation would solve this problem by codifying Obama’s executive order into law, which cannot simply be reversed by subsequent administrations, and would add some additional reforms. The Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act would require almost all government information that is subject to public release to be available at the website Data.gov for unmediated and free of charge access.
It would also require the information to be “machine-readable,” which means that any numbers and information could be searchable and sortable. That’s as opposed to, for example, a scanned PDF of a page.
Lastly, it would establish a “presumption of openness,” in which the default assumption is that any government data should be available to the public unless prohibited by an exemption in another law. (To a much lesser extent, this was already the case under the 1960s-era Freedom of Information Act.)
What supporters say
Supporters argue that in the digital age, there’s no excuse for preventing government data that should be online and easily accessible from being just that.
“Our goal is to make data more open to the public and more efficiently used by government agencies,” House lead sponsor Kilmer said in a press release. “Making open data standard practice will create a more responsive government and help everyday Americans. It saves taxpayer money and gives innovators new tools to help fuel breakthroughs. I’m proud to be a part of this effort to empower positive change for our government, citizens, and businesses.”
There appear to be few if any vocal opponents, as a previous version passed the Senate during the December 2016 lame duck session by a unanimous consent voice vote, indicating a lack of serious opposition.
[Note: GovTrack signed onto a letter of support endorsing the OPEN Government Data Act on April 5.]
Odds of passage
The Senate version has attracted four cosponsors, two Republicans and two Democrats, and was reported by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee on May 17. The House version has attracted 12 cosponsors, 10 Democrats and two Republicans, but has not yet received a committee vote.
A previous version passed the Senate during the December 2016 lame duck session by a unanimous consent voice vote, but never received a House vote.