Brito on E-Government Transparency

One of the most important tools for limited government is transparency. Transparency keeps government accountable by giving citizens the ability to monitor what government officials are doing and publicize instances where government officials abuse their authority.

Of course, government officials dislike transparency for precisely that reason, and they have often worked hard to limit the amount of information they make available. The Freedom of Information Act, which was passed in 1966 and given teeth in 1974, required government agencies to disclose information upon request from voters.

Some government officials have taken the opposite tack: instead of withholding information, they’ve released enormous quantities of poorly organized information, making it difficult for voters to sift through the material and find what they’re looking for.

Former Catoite Jerry Brito, now at the Mercatus Center, has written a fantastic paper describing the remedy for this tactic of government obfuscation. Jerry argues that government agencies should be required to release their data in structured formats suitable for easy manipulation by software tools. That would allow computer geeks to use software tools to organize the information and make it easily searchable. And that, in turn, would make it much easier for citizen-activists to sift through the available information and unearth relevant information about government activities.

Jerry points to several excellent examples of how structured data can improve government accountability. One is Washington Watch, a side project of our own Jim Harper, which gives voters a user-friendly way to keep track of what Congress is doing and discuss pending legislation with other voters. Another is opensecrets.org, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, that provides well-organized, searchable access to the FEC’s campaign contributions database. Creating opensecrets.org would have been prohibitively expensive if the FEC hadn’t made the raw information available in a reasonable electronic format.

Many more projects like this would be possible if government agencies made more public data available. I encourage you to check out Jerry’s paper to learn how it can be done.