Cato’s “Deepbills” Project Advances Government Transparency

It’s not the culmination–that will come soon–but a major step in our work to improve government transparency has been achieved. I’ll be announcing and extolling it Wednesday at the House Administration Committee’s Legislative Data and Transparency conference. Here’s a quick survey of what we’ve been doing and the results we see on the near horizon.

After president Obama’s election in 2008, we recognized transparency as a bipartisan and pan-ideological goal at an event entitled: “Just Give Us the Data.” Widespread agreement and cooperation on transparency has held. But by the mid-point of the president’s first term, the deep-running change most people expected was not materializing, and it still has not. So I began working more assiduously on what transparency is and what delivers it.

In “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” (Sept. 2011), I articulated ways the government should deliver information so that it can be absorbed by the public through the intermediary of web sites, apps, information services, and so on. We graded the quality of government data publication in the aptly named November 2012 paper: “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices.”

But there’s no sense in sitting around waiting for things to improve. Given the incentives, transparency is something that we will have to force on government. We won’t receive it like a gift.

So with software we acquired and modified for the purpose, we’ve been adding data to the bills in Congress, making it possible to learn automatically more of what they do. The bills published by the Government Printing Office have data about who introduced them and the committees to which they were referred. We are adding data that reflects:

- What agencies and bureaus the bills in Congress affect;

- What laws the bills in Congress effect: by popular name, U.S. Code section, Statutes at Large citation, and more;

- What budget authorities bills include, the amount of this proposed spending, its purpose, and the fiscal year(s).

We are capturing proposed new bureaus and programs, proposed new sections of existing law, and other subtleties in legislation. Our “Deepbills” project is documented at cato.org/resources/data.

This data can tell a more complete story of what is happening in Congress. Given the right Web site, app, or information service, you will be able to tell who proposed to spend your taxpayer dollars and in what amounts. You’ll be able to tell how your member of Congress and senators voted on each one. You might even find out about votes you care about before they happen!

Having introduced ourselves to the community in March, we’re beginning to help disseminate legislative information and data on Wikipedia.

The uses of the data are limited only by the imagination of the people building things with it. The data will make it easier to draw links between campaign contributions and legislative activity, for example. People will be able to automatically monitor ALL the bills that affect laws or agencies they are interested in. The behavior of legislators will be more clear to more people. Knowing what happens in Washington will be less the province of an exclusive club of lobbyists and congressional staff.

In no sense will this work make the government entirely transparent, but by adding data sets to what’s available about government deliberations, management and results, we’re multiplying the stories that the data can tell and beginning to lift the fog that allows Washington, D.C. to work the way it does–or, more accurately, to fail the way it does.

At this point, data curator Molly Bohmer and Cato interns Michelle Newby and Ryan Mosely have marked up 75% of the bills introduced in Congress so far. As we fine-tune our processes, we expect essentially to stay current with Congress, making timely public oversight of government easier.

This is not the culmination of the work. We now require people to build things with the data–the Web sites, apps, and information services that can deliver transparency to your door. I’ll be promoting our work at Wednesday’s conference and in various forums over the coming weeks and months. Watch for government transparency to improve when coders get a hold of the data and build the tools and toys that deliver this information to the public in accessible ways.