Tag: aneesh chopra

Is Government Transparency Headed for a Detour?

With a year in office, and perhaps under some pressure to deliver on promises of transparency and change, the White House went on a little PR offensive this week. It rolled out a blog post and a video claiming the transparency successes of the administration’s first year. A lot has gone on, and it’s worth a review. It’s also worth noting some signals that the government transparency project could be heading for a slight detour.

In the video — a little infomercial-y, but tolerable and interesting — federal chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra cites several examples of government use of technology. A system called ISDS Distribute helps the government monitor flu outbreaks, for example, akin to Google.org’s Flu Trends. Chopra touted the benefits of machine readability and the Agriculture Department’s release of data about a thousand most commonly eaten foods. (I’m not sure if this is it, but if not it’s probably something similar. Someone like Mike could use it to build a site that is further along than 1996’s state-of-the-art.) And Chopra discussed the platforms they are building at apps.gov to help agencies draw on the participation and engagement of the public. Putting aside how these illustrate the federal government’s distended role, these are all fine things.

White House ethics counsel Norm Eisen cited the release of visitor records as “one of the big innovations in the White House” over the past year. (Good, yes. But “big”?) Eisen dodged the question about why health care negotiations are not on C-SPAN.

In response to a question about putting federal advisory committees online, Chopra told of a recent meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers for Science and Technology, which was telecast live on the web and archived.

Finally, Chopra touted the planned January 22nd roll-out of data feeds from every federal agency under a recent open government memorandum — three “high-value data sets” per agency. In working toward this, Chopra said, “the conversation is all about what would help you do what you do better.  How can we advance our shared goals of reducing disparities in health care, improving our commitment  to renewable energies, advancing our collective educational results?”

This language and some of the examples cited in the video cause me to worry that the transparency effort may be heading for a detour. Rather than substantive insight into government management, deliberations, and results, we might get a lot of data-oriented play-toys.

According to the memorandum:

High-value information is information that can be used to increase agency accountability and responsiveness; improve public knowledge of the agency and its operations; further the core mission of the agency; create economic opportunity; or respond to need and demand as identified through public consultation.

That’s a very broad definition. Without more restraint than that, public choice economics predicts that the agencies will choose the data feeds with the greatest likelihood of increasing their discretionary budgets or the least likelihood of shrinking them. That’s data that “further[s] the core mission of the agency” and not data that “increase[s] agency accountability and responsiveness.” It’s the Ag Department’s calorie counts, not the Ag Department’s check register.

The kind of substance the transparency community expects is well represented in a  report issued jointly by the Center for Democracy and Technology and OpentheGovernment.org in March of last year. It’s called “Show Us the Data: Most Wanted Federal Documents,” and it asks for access to important research and governmental process information with the capacity to generate real insights into government and its operations.

Interesting data that the agency has collected or produced may be just that — interesting — but the heart of the government transparency effort is getting information about the functioning of government. Once we have these core elements of transparency captured, other data are absolutely good to have. But let the starting point be the workings of agencies themselves.

To help focus agencies on releasing the data that is high-value for genuine government transparency, I plan to examine the three data-streams each agency releases and grade the agencies on whether their releases provide insight into agency management, deliberations, or results.

As I examine the agency’s data feeds, I’ll use their proximity to true government transparency to assign them a letter grade, awarding them three points for each feed that has to do with management, deliberation, or results. These numerical scores — 9, 6, 3, or 0 — I’ll translate into grades: A, B, C, or D. (Nobody fails when the criteria only came out a week in advance.) F is reserved for agencies that don’t produce feeds.

This rubric for rating the data that agencies release seems reasonably objective, and a decent measure of which agencies are really responding to the demand for transparency and change, and which are pushing interesting data out as a smokescreen against deeper insights and reform. Hopefully, this effort at focusing agencies on true high-value data will see some uptake among my colleagues in the transparency community (if I haven’t alienated them with my endless harping on President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing promise). Watch this space for agency grades shortly after the release of the feeds.

Federal Job Creation

The board game Monopoly first took off during the Great Depression. A different game has become popular during today’s Great Recession. In this game, politicians race against high unemployment to create jobs in order to save their own. The players (politicians) have unlimited tax and borrowing authority, and can call upon friendly economists to help them maneuver. The players even get to keep score, although the media can penalize shoddy scorekeeping. Ultimately, voters will decide which players win and lose in the fall elections.

Okay, I’m being facetious. But as politicians continue to throw trillions of dollars at the economy in a vain effort to create jobs, and the media continues to go along with it by obsessing over meaningless job counts, the entire spectacle has become surreal. If government job creation is a game, the losers have been the taxpayers underwriting it, as well as the employers (and their employees) who are closing shop, laying off workers, or not hiring because of uncertainty over what big government schemes will be next.

Two news articles point to this “regime uncertainty” being generated by Washington.

First, the government’s chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, received a somewhat hostile reception at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas according to the BBC:

“The government doesn’t spur innovation or entrepreneurship. The government often gets in the way,” said Mr. [Gary] Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) which stages CES.

It [CEA] also had little support for President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus act calling it “panic spending” and warned of the growing federal deficit.

“The government is often a barrier,” said Mr. Shapiro. “High taxes and regulatory bureaucracy are barriers.”

Mr. Chopra’s response was typical of the political-bureaucratic mindset:

He said the US government was planning a summit with a number of chief executives from the “most innovative companies in the country to directly advise us to make government more efficient and more effective”.

Ah, another summit.

In the other article, the CNBC headline says it all: “Many Reluctant to Hire Because of New Taxes, Rules.” The article makes it clear that what businesses don’t need is another orchestrated summit:

The prospect of increased federal and state regulation and taxes has been particularly disruptive to the hiring plans of small- and medium-sized businesses, which have historically generated about two-thirds of the nation’s jobs. “I don’t really see the private sector hiring much in the next few months,” says Brian Bethune, an economist at Global Insight. “For the small-business sector there is just too much uncertainty about what happens beyond 2010.”

In reporting that its small business optimism index fell for the second straight month in December, the National Federation of Independent Business Tuesday said members’ No. 2 reason for not expanding payrolls was the prospect of government policy initiatives…”We’re hearing it more and more from our membership,” says Bill Rys, the NFIB’s tax counsel. “At the federal level, there’s uncertainty about tax rates, health care costs, energy costs. You also have what’s going on at the state and local levels, with new fees and taxes. They’re reluctant to jump back in.”

Unfortunately, instead of heeding the business community’s message, the Obama administration is focusing its energies on tinkering with the game’s scorekeeping. From ABC News:

The Obama administration has taken some heat and mockery for using the nebulous and non-economic term of jobs being “saved or created” by the $787 billion stimulus program.

So it’s gotten rid of it.

In a little-noticed December 18, 2009 memo from Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag the Obama administration is changing the way stimulus jobs are counted.

The memo, first noted by ProPublica, says that those receiving stimulus funds no longer have to say whether a job has been saved or created.

“Instead, recipients will more easily and objectively report on jobs funded with Recovery Act dollars,” Orszag wrote.

In other words, if the project is being funded with stimulus dollars – even if the person worked at that company or organization before and will work the same place afterward – that’s a stimulus job.

The American people are rightly growing tired of this nonsense. But it’s important that they understand that the idea of government job creation was flawed from the get-go. The government cannot simply wave a magic wand and create jobs without making private sector jobs disappear at the same time because of higher taxing and borrowing. There is no free lunch with government.

#OpenGov and the Road from Serfdom

i-want-to-believeLike Jim, I watched this morning’s Open Government Initiative launch with an eyebrow reflexively arcing skyward. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe, but it’s not just the track record that gives me pause; it’s the tension in one of Vivek Kundra & Aneesh Chopra’s answers to a pointed question that came in from the Web: How do you actually implement this? How do you get all the agencies on board, persuade (or compel) them to open up, embrace openness, and free their data?  Because the public pitch is that the great benefit of open government is accountability, which requires information that may reflect badly on an agency and generate bad publicity to be released. But since they’re limited in their ability to enforce this on an alphabet soup of agencies, the pitch to leaders within government is: Imagine how cool it would be to have the entire population as your clickworkers.  So transparency is carrot and stick in one—a carrot stick, if you will: Take a nibble between thrashings, it’s delicious! This is not totally crazy, since there will probably be data whose release opens an agency to greater scrutiny, but still benefits them on net because it lets some tasks be offloaded to the cloud. But insofar as those two things come apart, it’s not hard to guess which one agencies will want to focus on, and the mandate to ensure “data quality” makes a good stock excuse for withholding.

I don’t want to be entirely cynical, though, because openness—as I’ve harped on before, and as Jim often stresses—can be an important structural limitation on government.  And if I can riff for a moment, I think it’s worth distinguishing two aspects of “limited government” through the lens of the argument F.A. Hayek makes in his seminal The Road to Serfdom. Very crudely, the idea goes something like this: As government takes on responsibility for ever more complex forms of planning, via a growing tangle of interdependent rules, it becomes increasingly difficult for that power to be checked  by democratic mechanisms.  Expansion in the scope of state authority goes hand-in-hand tends to be associated with more centralized, opaque, and autocratic exercise of that authority, compounding the disempowerment of ordinary citizens. Call them, if you want to be dramatic, the Orwell problem and the Kafka problem, respectively. But state functions that are not amenable to democratic oversight by the crowd may be amenable to peer-produced oversight by the cloud. Libertarians focus—with good reason—on limiting the scope of state power, which we might think of as a kind of external boundary.  The internal boundaries are at least as important. But folks who are centrally concerned about limited government don’t often choose a career in the federal bureaucracy, and the ones who get elected to office, let’s face it, often lack the skill and disposition for the nitty gritty details of governance.

One implication of this is that a more open and networked government, if it ever does come about, may demand a disorienting cultural shift of libertarians—where on top of the big political-philosophy level ideas, it begins to behoove us to pick a pet agency and get interested in the profoundly unsexy details of how it operates. It lacks the frission of taking to the streets quoting Paine, to be sure, but at least engagement no longer demands more pernicious incentives—either venal or, heaven forfend, idealistic.