President Obama Needn’t Go to SXSW…

In his weekly address last Saturday, President Obama touted the importance of technology and innovation, and his plans to visit the popular South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. He said he would ask for “ideas and technologies that could help update our government and our democracy.” He doesn’t need to go to Texas. Simple technical ideas with revolutionary potential continue to await action in Washington, D.C.

Last fall, the White House’s Third Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America included a commitment to develop and publish a machine-readable government organization chart. It’s a simple, but brilliant step forward, and the plan spoke of executing on it in a matter of months.

Having access to data that represents the organizational units of government is essential to effective computer-aided oversight and effective internal management. Presently, there is no authoritative list of what entities make up the federal government, much less one that could be used by computers. Differing versions of what the government is appear in different PDF documents scattered around Washington, D.C.’s bureaucracies. Opacity in the organization of government is nothing if not a barrier to outsiders that preserves the power of insiders—at a huge cost in efficiency.

One of the most important ideas and technologies that could help update our government and democracy is already a White House promise. In fact, it’s essentially required by law.

Publication of spending data in organized, consistent formats is required under the terms of the DATA Act—the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act—which the president signed in May 2014. To organize spending data, you must have data reflecting the governmental entities that do the spending.

We’ve studied the availability of data from the federal government that reflect deliberations, management, and results, and we reported in November 2012 on the somewhat better progress on transparency in Congress compared to the administration.

Our Deepbills project added computer-readable code to every version of every bill in the 113th Congress, showing where Congress mentioned agencies and bureaus, proposed spending money, or referred to existing law. It would have been that much better were there an authoritative list of what the units of government are.

President Obama noted in his weekly address that improving the government along these lines has been a goal of his since before he was elected. Given the need and the potential, the achievements he cites wouldn’t get a victory lap out of the starting blocks. But there is still time to deliver on a transparency promise by publishing an authoritative, machine-readable organization chart as the administration promised just last October.