D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray recently announced an effort to assist District residents in gaining reasonable access to government data and information.

Gray announced an open government initiative to create an Open Government Advisory Group, the re-launch of data.dc.gov website and a re-designed track.dc.gov website, where District residents and stakeholders such as the media, business and non-governmental organizations can track agency performance. The mayor said that he is working to fulfill a promise that he made to the voters when he was elected in 2010.

“From the beginning of the Gray Administration, we have created a climate of openness and transparency.  These new and improved initiatives will have a lasting positive impact on how the public interfaces and learns about the workings of the District government,” Gray said. “An open and transparent government translates into better government.”

Dorothy Brizill, the executive director of DC Watch, an organization that keeps an eye on government operations and practices for mismanagement and inefficiencies, and leaders of journalism groups in the city such as the District chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists have complained for decades about the difficulty in getting information from District government agencies.

The D.C. Council passed the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act in 1976 to mandate public access to government records of any District government agency. Years later, the council passed the District of Columbia Sunshine Act, which states that almost all meetings of District government bodies are open to the public.

The goal of Gray’s initiative is to make open government a largely online process. Residents and stakeholders can process FOIA requests and keep track of government performance online instead of filing paperwork for information.

There are 15 members of the advisory group, including leaders and representatives of District government agencies such as Traci Hughes, director of Open Government, Board of Ethics and Government Accountability and professionals outside of government such as Kathryn Pettit, a researcher with the Urban Institute and Robert Becker, a board member of the D.C. Open Government Coalition. Hughes said that she is pleased with Gray’s initiative.

“We are light years away from just a year ago,” Hughes said to Technical.ly, an online publication that deals with technology. She added that the mayor’s initiative will “create a more responsive, rather than reactive government.”

Hughes also hopes that the city’s next mayor embraces the Gray initiative. However, Brizill is uneasy about the mayor’s open government proposal and its timing.

“I question why Gray would launch such an ambitious initiative and establish it with an advisory group comprised primarily of appointed officials, since his term in office and this their tenure in their respective positions will end in January,” she said in an email to the AFRO. “Perhaps the initiative is more about Gray seeking to leave than the reality of the difficulty most people encounter when trying to get even the most basic information from the D.C. government.”

Brizill said that the Gray directive doesn’t include the growing, problematic use of private and personal email accounts to conduct government business “to circumvent recording important information from being recorded to a government computer service.”

Keith Perry, an attorney active in District politics, said that Gray’s initiative is a step in the right direction and can even be beneficial to Black residents.

“Open government is what our city has deserved for many years, especially Black people,” Perry said. “There have been many deals struck by government officials with developers that have been done from the sunlight. Black people need to know when those type of deals taking place they can be exposed.”

It is not clear whether the mayor-elect Muriel Bowser will keep Gray’s structure. Bowser has pledged that open transparent government will be a priority in her administration.

“As mayor, I will work to restore the public’s faith in our local government and push for one of the most open and transparent systems, so as to provide better and more efficient city services,” she said.