Brewing over IG Access to Agency Records

June 26, 2018

A tangle between VA management and the IG there has morphed into a larger dispute over access to agency information sought by auditors and investigators–an issue that dates back many years and that already has resulted in enactment of several changes in law designed to compel agencies to cooperate.

The dispute at the VA began with a request for access to records in the office of accountability and whistleblower protection–an office created last year that among other things is to receive whistleblower disclosures and refer them to the appropriate office, potentially including the IG, for investigation. IG Michael Missal said he wanted review whether VA management had made referrals to it in all appropriate cases, among other reasons it cited for accessing the database.

However, acting VA secretary Peter O’Rourke balked, saying the request “infers some ill intent” by that office in its dealings with the IG; he also told Missal that even though IGs are largely independent of agency management, “I am your immediate supervisor.”

Missal then complained to Congress that the VA was refusing to provide “information necessary for us to perform our investigative work” and laying out the sequence of events. In turn, Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee called O’Rourke’s letter “an explicit attempt to intimidate” the IG and to hamper its work.

Walz and Jon Tester of Montana, his Senate counterpart, also raised the issue to the IG council, whose complaints to Congress about similar behavior by numerous agencies led to enactment of laws including one in 2016 emphasizing the right of IGs to timely and independent access to agency records. They asked the council for its views on the independence of IGs and the “importance of agency compliance with requests from an IG.”

Online tool expands access to information

June 20, 2018

According to WacoTrib, about a third of the nation’s population can now browse location-specific information about health and the factors that drive it, through a service Waco helped the pilot.

City Health Dashboard has worked for the past year with the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District and Prosper Waco, along with three other cities, to develop a tool intended to inform leaders in the 500 most populous U.S. cities about how factors including education, wealth and location connect to health.

The Department of Population Health at New York University launched the pilot with Waco; Flint, Michigan; Kansas City, Kansas; and Providence, Rhode Island, with 26 measures and, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has expanded cityhealthdashboard.com to include 36 measures for 500 cities, according to the website.

Health is about more than going to the doctor, health district spokesperson Kelly Craine said. It is also about everything between doctor’s visits, she said. The site offers various metrics on social and economic factors, physical environment, health behaviors, health outcomes and clinical care. The transparency alone is important, Craine said. The site details where and when information was collected, she said.

“It goes really deep,” Craine said. “Get on there and explore it. For the numbers people, they just go crazy over it.” One of the major strengths of the site is that it presents data specific to neighborhoods or ZIP codes and allows comparisons between cities or neighborhoods, said Brittany Fitz-Chapman, Prosper Waco’s data, and research director.

“Everyone involved is a super data nerd like me,” Fitz-Chapman said. “At the bottom of every page is a tip and caution section to make sure you understand this data is an average over three years, or, make sure you understand different components of the data. It really kind of walks you through all the components of the data to help the user understand what they’re looking at.”

This Bill Will Improve Official Access to Information

June 10, 2018

According to Scoop, Maungakiekie MP Denise Lee has introduced a private members bill that would enable elected members of local authorities to perform their duties more effectively by providing them greater access to official information.

Ms. Lee, who is also the National Party spokesperson for Local Government (Auckland) says the bill creates a system that will bridge the information gap between Mayors and other elected councilors.

“My bill, the Local Government Official Information and Meetings (Rights of Members) Amendment Bill, removes many of the barriers faced by members of a local authority when requesting information,” Ms. Lee says.

“It reduces the required response time and limits the reasons that can be used to withhold information, while also introducing safeguards around the use of that information.

“Under the current system, councilors are treated like any other member of the public when trying to access official information. The flow of information is often very tightly controlled from the Mayor’s office – and the recent report on a new stadium from Auckland Council is just one example of how Councillors are often kept in the dark about important decisions.

“When Councillors are forced to go to the Ombudsman in order to access information it is clear the system is broken, and this bill will fix it. Councilors are responsible for making the big decisions on behalf of their constituents, but they can’t do that without having access to all the relevant information.

“My bill is about empowering Councillors to better perform their duties, which will lead to better outcomes for the public,” Ms. Lee says.

Access Information Assault in Iran

June 3, 2018

According to Human Rights Watch, the Iranian judiciary’s blocking of the messaging application Telegram is an unjustifiable restriction on freedom of expression and access to information, Human Rights Watch said today. With more than 40 million users, Telegram had become the main social media platform for Iranians.

On April 30, 2018, Mizan Online News Agency, the judiciary’s news agency, reported that the prosecutor of the second branch of Tehran’s Culture and Media Court had ordered all internet service providers to block access to Telegram and its website, effective immediately. On the morning of May 1, the Iranian Students News Agency, ISNA, reported that the mobile operators Iran Cell and RighTel had begun blocking users’ access to Telegram.

“Iran is again stifling access to information to try to make its problems go away, but censorship should never be used to protect leaders from scrutiny,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch McdVoice. “Blocking Telegram is just another stain on Iranian authorities’ already dismal record on freedom of expression.”

The Culture and Media Court prosecutor said that Telegram had created a “safe haven” for “international terrorist organizations,” permitting the coordination of Iranian protests in late December 2017, and early January, 2018, as well as the deadly attacks claimed by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) at Ayatollah Khomeini’s shrine and the Iranian parliament in Tehran on June 7, 2017. The attackers killed 17 people and injured dozens more.

The judiciary also said that Telegram has helped enable crimes including “disruption of national unity,” “improper data collection,” insulting the sacred,” “acting against national security,” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

On December 31, during protests that led to widespread demonstrations in several parts of the country, Iranian authorities temporarily blocked Telegram and the popular social media application Instagram. President Hassan Rouhani ordered Telegram unblocked on January 4 and Instagram on January 13.