Obama’s Open Government Imperatives Must Trickle Down to Cities

    by Daniel X. O'Neil
    January 21, 2009

    Today President Obama issued two eloquent orders with the following subject lines: “Freedom of Information Act” and “Transparency and Open Government”. Published on the first full day of his presidency, they constitute a sweeping manifesto about how he wants to govern at the Federal level. Those leading municipal government in this country— mayors, commissioners, and department heads— would do well to read closely. Change is coming.

    In the first memo, he writes that “the Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.” He goes on to “direct the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to update guidance to the agencies to increase and improve information dissemination to the public, including through the use of new technologies…”

    And here’s some real music:


    “The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.”

    The second memo is less wonky and more Constitution-like, making three broad statements about what government “should” be: transparent, participatory, and collaborative. On the last point, he writes:

    “Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.”

    The speed and the decisiveness with which the President acted on these issues is stunning. The policies that spring from these documents will directly benefit all Federal-level openness initiatives.


    At EveryBlock, we focus on what’s happening at the block level in cities across the country. Pretty much every day, we make specific requests to city agencies for basic information— like what crimes have been committed, what restaurants have been inspected, what building permits have been issued, what holes in the ground are being fixed.

    Most cities publish some (or even a lot) of this data as a matter of course. And we’ve been able to convince some agencies to publish some data in other cases. But the standards, formats, and policies for the publication of data vary widely from city to city. As for actual FOIA requests, we’ve heard all of the same stiff reasons for denial that have become cliche for open government advocates. The presumption is rejection, not disclosure.

    To the mayors of every city in the United States, the message is clear: Nearly 67,000,000 people voted for Barack Obama on Election Day. Many of them are voting in your city, too. More than a million people went outside in Washington, DC to hear and see this President get inaugurated. Today, hundreds of thousands of them returned home to your cities, your neighborhoods, your tax bases. There’s no reason to expect less of you than we’ve gotten from our President. Change is coming.

    Tagged: everyblock FOIA obama open government
    • I hope obama can dig us out of this hole. So many of the world biggest companies are on edge. Which way they fall could depend on how good a job obama does

    • Thank you for the work at Every Block. It’s an awesome idea and a very nice execution.

      I’ve always felt that as journalists are looking for context, you are supplying exactly that for every region you cover. It may not be “interesting” in the conventional term of “news worthy.” But watching crops grow is not that “news worthy,” until something really breaks and the harvest fails.

      A question: is there a possibility of syndicating a PDF ready for Print version as a service to regional papers? Sort of like AccuWeather for social capital.

    • How much do you think cities and towns should budget to spend on what we might call “electronic openness,” and what should their attitude be toward for-profit businesses using that data?

      Wonder what the National Weather Service does in this arena; plenty of for-profit businesses based on their work, do any of them have to recontribute for what it costs to provide access?

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