The Open House Project from The Sunlight Foundation

Open House Project Retrospective

October 14th, 2008 by John Wonderlich · 3 Comments

We’ve come a long way since I wrote the following in the project’s first press release:
“Since the value of our recommendations increases along with the expertise of those contributing to our project, we’re looking to the greater community to help identify attainable reforms,” said John Wonderlich, who is organizing the project with Matt Stoller. “By inviting input from stakeholders normally outside the legislative process, the House leadership has taken a first step in promoting an informed citizenry.”

As we prepare for some of our next steps, it’s time to review some of the progress we’ve seen since releasing our reform recommendations as laid out in the Open House Project report:

Legislation Database:

(Report Chapter )

We’ve seen two large developments on this recommendation. First, the proposed report language for the Legislative Branch Appropriations has language directing the Library of Congress to explore solutions to providing data level access, as described in this email to the Open House Project Google Group. Second, the Library of Congress has published instructions for creating permanent links to some legislative documents, as described in this blog post.

Preserving Congressional Information
:

(Report Chapter )

The recommendation that Congress preserve digital information is among the most complicated, since so many different bodies are involved in this work, and because the challenges presented by the proliferation of digital information are so vast.

First, we started researching and attending meetings of the Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress, which serves as a perfect entry point into all of the work being done on congressional preservation. This quicky led me to dig up an old document, S-Pub 102-20, which surveyed all congressional information and its archival circumstances.

We’ve weighed in on NARA’s role in preserving digital content, watched the development of the Electronic Records Archive, and publicized the existing digital archives. The National Archives (and its Center for Legislative Archives) face a huge challenge in dealing with electronic records preservation, and we’re continuing to closely follow GPO’s new FDSys program, potential evolving roles for the FDLP, public private partnerships, the new Library of Congress initiative, and non-profits like public.resource.org that can help fulfill government’s role in preservation.

Congressional Committees:

(Report Chapter )

To get congressional committees to post more information online, we’ve created several ad-hoc recommendations to the community at large, and also as advice to individual committees. Shortly after we created an xml standard for committee feeds, we discovered that the Senate had begun posting committee feeds (in XML on this page ), and that the House Rules committee had started posting a feed of Special Rules and Amendments as they’re posted.

CRS Reports:

(Report Chapter )

As we’ve watched the CRS report bill get introduced and wend its way through the Senate, I’ve posted a few comprehensive updates, and we continue to promote the valuable work of CRS employees and service provided by OpenCRS.com. While convincing congressional staff to release CRS reports can be daunting, we’re getting access to most recent reports through OpenCRS, whose database recently topped 14,000 reports. A solution may be in hand soon, as the Senate considers a web-based channel that would grant constituents access to the reports.

Franking:

(Report Chapter )

In what we’ve described as an unqualified victory, the House and Senate have both seen comprehensive reform to their Web Use Restrictions. A review is available here. We also clarified the degree to which the Speech or Debate Clause applies to congressional staffers working online, here. Now comes the fun part: seeing what staffers come up with.

Citizen Journalism Access:

(Report Chapter )

I don’t have any updates regarding citizen journalism credentialing. Hopefully this will be addressed to some degree in the upcoming Congress!

Clerk of the House:

(Report Chapter )

The Clerk of the House has been busy getting up to speed with the new requirements of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, with its many new requirements placed on the clerk. This chapter is immensely complex, and could use additional work with the offices of the Clerk and the Legislative Resource Center to coordinate between their implementation and the needs of comsumers of this information.

On the upside, many of the new resources are going online, such as lobbying disclosure records, and broader public access is being pursued with the GPO, and with votes, as evidenced by Senator Lieberman’s remarks about access to votes data.

Congressional Record:

(Report Chapter )

After identifying the problem of an occasionally inaccurate Congressional Record, we identified that enforcement lies with the Ethics Committee, itself recently reconsidered. Inaccuracies could be better tracked, and a call for better enforcement of the accuracy (“typographical or grammatical”) requirements could be taken up.

Congressional Video:

(Report Chapter )

While bulk access to congressional floor and committee video hasn’t yet been established, the franking reforms at least allow Members to post their own videos.

Another strong candidate for reform in the 111th Congress, bulk access to congressional video will take a few small but well coordinated moves from House leadership and the CAO.

Coordinating Web Standards:

(Report Chapter )

After identifying a shortfall in technology coordination efforts within Congress, we suggested more effective authority, perhaps through an Office of Technology and Transparency. While this hasn’t happened, we’ve become much better acquainted with the bodies that oversee congressional technology — the Committee on House Administration, the Speaker and Minority Leaders, the Joint Committee on Printing, the House Systems Administrators Association, House Information Resources, the Library of Congress, and many more.

The same pending Appropriations Report language referenced earlier contains a request that congressional resource managers (those listed above) report on the current state of IT management across Congress.

This is an ideal first step towards coordinated technology planning, and we hope the language is included in an eventual Appropriations bill.

So that’s where we’ve come in terms of the Report’s recommendations.

One of the most important developments to arise in the wake of the OHP report, however, is the sustained community of activists and insiders who are constantly working to open up government. The Open House Project has quickly grown relevant outside its defined scope, and shows the real need for a collaborative space outside government.

We’ve had a large number of other successes that have arisen from the Open House Project community:

Helping pass starter funding for the OTA, advocating for release of the data behind CONAN, taking stands on executive branch issues (like OLC memos and IT authority ), picking fights with the GAO when appropriate, and working with the various individuals and organizations that make up the open government movement.

While I can’t give a comprehensive list of what the community has acheived, it’s important to recognize that there’s something important and valuable going on, and that a public email list with even a little bit of institutional approval can go a long long way.

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