House Leadership’s Transparency Leadership

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) wrote a letter to the House clerk calling for new data standards that will make Congress more open and accountable. Spot on.

The THOMAS legislative database was a huge improvement when it came online in 1995 at the behest of the new Republican Congress, but the Internet has moved on. Today, publishing text or PDF documents is inadequate transparency. It’s more important to make available the data that represent various documents and activities in the legislative process. “Web 2.0” will use that data various ways to deliver public oversight.

I’ll have much more to say in the near future, but here are the kinds of things get to full transparency, which the House leaders’ letter appears meant to imply:

  • Specific Formats: Documents and data must be published in specific formats that allow Web sites, researchers, and reporters to interpret and use text and data easily and automatically. The SEC recently began requiring businesses to report financial information in a format called eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL). This will improve corporate transparency and enable investors to make better decisions. The public should have equally good information about government.
  • Flagging/Tagging: Within these data formats, key information must be “flagged” or “tagged” to highlight the things that matter: spending proposals, agencies and programs affected by a proposed law, recipients of federal money, existing statutes that may be amended, and so on. Flagging/tagging will make the relevance of documents and information immediately apparent to various interests.
  • Bulk Access and Real-Time Updates: Documents and information must be available in bulk, so that new users have full access, and it must be updated in real time, so the public can “see” changes as they happen. It also must be version-controlled so the “story” of a policy’s formation or execution can be told. The public should never have to learn what is in a bill after it passes.
  • Authoritative Sources: The mishmash of data sources that now exist must be replaced by authoritative sourcing. Congress, the White House, federal agencies, and other entities must publish and maintain their documents and data. The public must know once and for all where the definitive versions of documents and data will be.

Disclosure—simply “putting bills online”—was the beginning of the legislative transparency project, not the end. The many transparency Web sites out there have the bills, but they don’t have the data they need to help the public get their government under control.

As I suggested some months ago, House Republicans are positioned to take the transparency mantle from President Obama and the Democrats. Web 2.0 thought leader Tim O’Reilly—no Republican cheerleader—has already called the race, Tweeting last week, “The ‘R’s in Congress are doing better on this than ‘D’s did.” Assuming action consistent with this letter, the House Republicans will indeed soon have the transparency lead.