House Transparency Slated to Improve

Perhaps my mean grading has contributed to nascent competition between the Republican House and the Democratic administration for the transparency prize. Last Friday, the House Administration Committee adopted standards that “require all House legislative documents be published electronically in an open, searchable format on one centralized website.”

At a September Cato Capitol Hill briefing, I rated Congress on the quality of the data it publishes reflecting its membership, activities, documents, and decisions. Its grades weren’t that good. At a briefing last week, I graded the data about federal budgeting, appropriations, and spending, which is largely an executive branch responsibility. Those grades weren’t very good either.

Able and dogged transparency advocate Daniel Schuman at the Sunlight Foundation has a good write-up up the House’s move to produce good data—he and Sunlight certainly did their part to encourage it—though I’ll quibble with one particular. The adoption of the document—a two-page outline of what should be standardized, and not a standards document itself—was not really “a tremendous step into the 21st Century.” It was an outline of a course to improved transparency. 21st-Century transparency.

What is required to produce that transparency? My recent paper “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” sought to establish guideposts for publication of data that will foster public access to meaningful information about what happens in Washington, D.C. The practices, in ascending order of importance and difficulty, are: authority, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability.

Putting all documents on a single site will enhance authority. People will know where to look, and what source to trust. In our rough grading system, we weighted the simple practice of authoritative publishing at 10% of the total grade.

The second practice, availability, means ensuring that the data is complete, that it remains permanently in the same location, that it is not proprietary itself, and that it is not in a proprietary format. This is likely to be fulfilled by adherence to the Committee’s language and basic good practices. Availability we weighted at 20% of the total grade.

Machine-discoverability is when data is identified and located consistent with a variety of good practices going to the naming and locating of Internet resources. It’s weighted at 30% of the total grade in our system for rating data publication. It is likely that the House will develop good practices, but it will be important to watch and see that it does.

Machine-readability is the most important part of transparency. It means publishing data so that the logical relationships among elements are clear, and so that computers can automatically detect the semantic meaning of the documents and data they examine.

This is where the House Administration Committee’s release is least clear. Documents like bills and committee reports could be published so that each reference to existing law, to federal agencies, bureaus, and programs, to newly authorized spending, and to a variety of other items and entities are automatically discoverable in the document.

You should be able to do a quick search, rather than labor for hours, to see what bills affect the Labor Department. You should be able to see every dollar authorized or appropriated in every bill, nearly instantly. The data should be a foundation for dozens of sites and services that disseminate iformation in different ways to different audiences.

Here’s hoping that the House Administration Committee’s standards drive all the way to machine-readability. It will be a step into the 21st century if the House provides data the Internet can use and that the Internet-connected public very much wants to see.

Coming through with robust machine-readability will handily take the transparency mantle from President Obama, who promised transparency as a campaigner, but who was not produced the vibrant, different government people wanted. As I noted in a write-up last week, the administration has some low-hanging transparency fruit that could bring its grades up decisively. House Republicans are first out of the gate.