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Recommendations to the General Services Administration for the Fourth National Action Plan for Open Government

by Joshua New

Recently, the Center for Data Innovation submitted recommendations to the U.S. General Services Administration for the fourth U.S. National Action Plan for Open Government—the biennial commitments the United States makes to the Open Government Partnership, an initiative in which 75 national and 15 subnational governments have pledged to “promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

Prior commitments in U.S. National Action Plans have rightfully emphasized the importance of open data for transparency, accountability, responsive government. The Center made four recommendations for how the U.S. government can expand its commitment to open data and increase the accessibility and usability of open data. Specifically, we recommend the U.S. government: increase the usability of Census data, support a legislative mandate for open data, improve reporting of police use of force, and support legislation requiring the disclosure of beneficial ownership data.

  1. Increase the Usability of Census Data

The Census Bureau should improve the usability of its data so that members of the public can more easily access and analyze it.

The Census Bureau’s economic and population data is an invaluable public resource that enables data-driven decision-making at all levels of the public and private sectors. This data is publicly available in open and machine-readable formats, and the Census Bureau maintains a suite of data analysis and visualization tools, however it can nonetheless be difficult for even moderately sophisticated users to access and interpret the data. Uncovering specific data points in Census data often requires a user to have considerable expertise to manipulate a raw dataset to identify relevant data. The Census Bureau has previously recognized the importance of making its data more useful to members of the public, launching the Opportunity Project to serve as a platform for crowdsourced, easy-to-use data analysis and visualization tools focusing on economic opportunity. The Census Bureau should expand on this concept by developing user-friendly data exploration tools for more of its most popular datasets.

  1. Support a Legislative Mandate for Open Data

The White House should work with Congress to pass legislation codifying federal open data requirements.

Federal open data policy in the United States is built on executive actions, particularly President Obama’s May 2013 executive order, “Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information.” However, these policies are simply operating procedures for the executive branch and not law, meaning that federal agencies have no legal responsibility to publish open data. The lack of legally defined open data requirements creates uncertainty about the extent to which the federal government will remain committed to and responsible for opening its data to the public or refining and improving open-data efforts over time. Bipartisan members of Congress already recognized the importance of codifying federal open data requirements and have introduced legislation to do so.

  1. Improve Reporting of Police Use of Force

The Department of Justice should develop standards and best practices for reporting data about police use of force and officer-involved shootings, and tie compliance with these standards to local police department’s eligibility to receive material support from the federal government.

The federal government does not require local police departments to report incidents of police use of force or officer-involved shootings, despite the value this data would provide the criminal justice system. The Department of Justice has previously announced its intention to collect this data, but police departments have no requirement or incentive to provide this data. The Bureau of Justice Statistics should develop clear standards for collecting and reporting data on police use of force and officer-involved shootings, and the Department of Justice should stipulate that if police departments want to continue receiving the hundreds of millions of dollars of funding and equipment that the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies award to state and local police agencies every year, they have to adopt these standards and practices and report their data to demonstrate their commitments transparency and accountability. Given how substantial this funding is—New York City received $179 million in 2014 from just one Department of Homeland Security program—police departments would likely be much more proactive about sharing their data.

  1. Submitted as an addendum to an existing recommendation: Support Legislation Requiring the Disclosure of Beneficial Ownership Data

The White House and the Department of the Treasury should work with Congress to pass legislation requiring states to collect and disclose beneficial ownership data.

The Department of the Treasury indeed should enact its proposed rules from 2014, however these rules have several shortcomings and the executive branch should do more to strengthen beneficial ownership disclosure rules. The rules would require financial institutions to request beneficial ownership data from shell companies they do business with. But there would be no method to verify this information, the rules would only apply to shell company dealings with financial institutions, and they would have no bearing on the state laws governing the formation of these shell companies.

To address these gaps, Congress has previously attempted to pass bipartisan beneficial ownership disclosure legislation, however the bill counterproductively allowed states to restrict public access to this data. If no states are required to make this data publicly available, it is unlikely that any, particularly those eager to court new businesses, would voluntarily adopt stricter disclosure rules. The White House and the Department of the Treasury should nonetheless recognize that the political will to pass such legislation exists, and engage Congress to pass legislation requiring states to collect beneficial ownership data and disclose it as transparently as possible.

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