Tag: data

Will the Administration Make a Run at Transparency?

Last fall, I reported that the Obama administration lagged the House of Representatives on transparency. The conclusion was driven by a study of the quality of data publication regarding key elements of budgeting, appropriating, spending, and the legislative process. (Along with monitoring progress in these area, we’ve been producing data to show that it can be done, to produce a cadre of users, and to simply deliver government transparency at a less plodding pace.)

There are signs that the administration may make a run at improving its transparency record. Buried deep in the FY 2014 budget justification for the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service, it says that funds will support “government-wide data standardization efforts to increase accuracy and transparency of Federal financial reporting.” That means the public may get better access to where the money goes – outlays – in formats that permit computer-aided oversight.

In parallel, a Performance.gov effort called the Federal Program Inventory says that, in May of 2014, it will publish a Unique Federal Program Inventory number (pg. 4-5) for each federal program, along with agency IDs and bureau IDs. This may be the machine-readable federal government organization chart whose non-existence I have lamented for some time.

If this sounds jargon-y, you’re normal. Think of federal spending as happening on a remote jungle island, where all the inhabitants speak their own language. On Federal Spending Island, no visitor from the U.S. mainland can understand where things are there, or who is saying what to whom.

True machine-readable data will turn Federal Spending Island into a place where English is spoken, or at least a some kind of Federal Spending-English dialect that makes the movement of our tax dollars easier to track.

The Data Says Open-Ended Spending Bills Are Common

Let’s start with a little civics lesson: Congress spends money through a two-step process. Spending must first be authorized. That’s called an authorization of appropriations. Then, in a second step, the money is actually appropriated. There are exceptions, but on the whole this is how spending works. Authorizing bills go to authorizing committees, and appropriations bills go to the appropriations committees. When both do their thing, money gets spent. It’s good to keep an eye on.

In our project to generate better data about what Congress is doing, we’ve “marked up” over 80 percent of the bills introduced in Congress so far this year, adding richer and more revealing computer-readable data to the text of bills. That’s over 4,000 of the 5,000-plus bills introduced in Congress since January. We’re to the point where we can learn things.

I was surprised to find just how often the bills that authorize spending leave the amounts open-ended. A recent sample of the bills we’ve marked up includes 428 bills with authorizations of appropriations. Just over 40 percent of them place no limit on how much money will be spent. They say things like “such sums as may be necessary,” leaving entirely to the appropriations committees how much to spend. (There are many bills with both defined amounts and open-ended spending. To be conservative, we treated any bill having limited spending as not unlimited.)

This leads me to two related conclusions. First, authorizations of appropriations being a potential brake on spending, this surprisingly common practice is part of Congress’s fiscal indiscipline. The members of Congress and Senators who introduce such bills and vote to authorize open-ended spending are avoiding their responsibility to determine how much a program is worth to us, the taxpayers.

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.

Three Lessons from the Increasingly Irrelevant Annual Wiretap Report

The 2011 Wiretap Report was released this weekend, providing an overview of how federal and state governments used wiretapping powers in criminal investigations. (Surveillance for intelligence purposes is covered in a separate, far less informative report.) There’s plenty of interesting detail, but here’s the bottom line:

After climbing 34 percent in 2010 the number of federal and state wiretaps reported in 2011 deceased 14 percent. A total of 2,732 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2011, with 792 authorized by federal judges and 1,940 authorized by state judges…. Compared to the numbers approved during 2010 the number of applications reported as approved by federal judges declined 34 percent in 2011, and the number of applications approved by state judges fell 2 percent. The reduction in wiretaps resulted primarily from a drop in applications for narcotics.

So is the government really spying on us less? Is the drug war cooling off? Well, no, that’s lesson number one: Government surveillance is now almost entirely off the books.

The trouble, as Andy Greenberg of Forbes explains, is that we’ve got analog reporting requirements in a digital age. The courts have to keep a tally of how often they approve traditional intercepts that are primarily used to pick up realtime phone conversationse—96 percent of all wiretap orders. But phone conversations represent an ever-dwindling proportion of modern communication, and police almost never use a traditional wiretap order to pick up digital conversations in realtime. Why would they? Realtime wiretap orders require jumping all sorts of legal hurdles that don’t apply to court orders for stored data, which is more convenient anyway, since it enables investigators to get a whole array of data, often spanning weeks or month, all at once. But nobody is required to compile data on those types of information requests, even though they’re often at least as intrusive as traditional wiretaps.

From what information we do have, however, it seems clear that phone taps are small beer compared to other forms of modern surveillance. As Greenberg notes, Verizon reported fielding more than 88,000 requests for data in 2006 alone. These would have ranged from traditional wiretaps, to demands for stored text messages and photos, to “pen registers” revealing a target’s calling patterns, to location tracking orders, to simple requests for a subscriber’s address or billing information. Google, which is virtually unique among major Internet services in voluntarily disclosing this sort of information, fielded 12,271 government requests for data, and complied with 11,412 of them. In other words, just one large company reports far more demands for user information than all the wiretaps issued last year combined. And again, that is without even factoring in the vast amount of intelligence surveillance that occurs each year: the thousands of FISA wiretaps, the tens of thousands of National Security Letters (which Google is forbidden to include in its public count) and the uncountably vast quantities of data vacuumed up by the NSA. At what point does the wiretap report, with its minuscule piece of the larger surveillance picture, just become a ridiculous, irrelevant formality?

Lesson two: The drug war accounts for almost all criminal wiretaps. Wiretaps may be down a bit in 2011, but over the long term they’ve still increased massively. Since 1997, even as communication has migrated from telephone networks to the internet on a mass scale, the annual number of wiretaps has more than doubled. And as this handy chart assembled by security researcher Chris Soghoian shows, our hopeless War on Drugs is driving almost all of it: for fully 85 percent of wiretaps last year, a drug offense was the most serious offense listed on the warrant application—compared with “only” 73 percent of wiretaps in 1997. Little surprise there: when you try to criminalize a transaction between a willing seller and a willing buyer, enforcement tends to require invasions of privacy. Oddly, law enforcement officials tend to gloss over these figures when asking legislators for greater surveillance authority. Perhaps citizens wouldn’t be as enthusiastic about approving these intrusive and expensive spying powers if they realized they were used almost exclusively to catch dope peddlers rather than murderers or kidnappers.

Speaking of dubious claims, lesson three: The encryption apocalypse is not nigh. As those of you who are both extremely nerdy and over 30 may recall, back in the 1990s we had something called the “Crypto Wars.” As far as the U.S. government was concerned, strong encryption technology was essentially a military weapon—not the sort of thing you wanted to allow in private hands, and certainly not something you could allow to be exported around the world. Law enforcement officials (and a few skittish academics) warned of looming anarchy unless the state cracked down hard on so-called “cypherpunks.” The FBI’s Advanced Telephony Unit issued a dire prediction in 1992 that within three years, they’d be unable to decipher 40 percent of the communications they intercepted.

Fortunately, they lost, and strong encryption in private hands has become the indispensable foundation of a thriving digital economy—and a vital shield for dissidents in repressive regimes. Frankly, it would probably have been worth the tradeoff even if the dire predictions had been right. But as computer scientist Matt Blaze observed back when the 2010 wiretap report was released, Ragnarok never quite arrives. The latest numbers show that investigators encountered encryption exactly 12 times in all those thousands of wiretaps. And how many times did that encryption prevent them from accessing the communication in question? Zero. Not once.

Now, to be sure, precisely because police seldom use wiretap orders for e-mail, that’s also a highly incomplete picture of the cases where investigations run up against encryption walls. But as the FBI once again issues panicked warnings that they’re “going dark” and demands that online companies be requried to compromise security by building surveillance backdoors into their services, it’s worth recalling that we’ve heard this particular wolf cry before. It would have been a disastrous mistake to heed it back then, and on the conspicuously scanty evidence being offered during the encore, it would be crazy to approach these renewed demands with anything less than a metric ton of salt.

Why Data Transparency?

At a recent Capitol Hill briefing on government transparency, I made an effort to describe the importance of getting data from the government reflecting its deliberations, management, and results.

I analogized to the World Wide Web. The structure that allows you to find and then view a blog post as a blog post is called hypertext markup language, or html. HTML is what made the Internet into the huge, rollicking information machine you see today. Think of the darkness we lived in before we had it.

Government information is not yet published in useable formats—as data—for the public to use as it sees fit. We need government information published as data, so we can connect it in new ways, the way the World Wide Web allowed connections among documents, images, and sounds.

And when you connect data together, you get power in a way that doesn’t happen with the web, with documents. You get this really huge power out of it.

Tim Berners-Lee was not thinking of wresting power from government when he said that, but the inventor of the World Web does a better job than I could of arguing for getting data and making it available for any use. We’ll look back on today with bemusement and surprise at the paucity of information we had about our government’s activities and expenditures.

Data Formats —> Public Oversight

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has a terrific op-ed piece on Internet-age government transparency in the Washington Examiner today:

If agencies used consistent data formats for their financial information, their financial reports could be electronically reconciled. It would be possible to trace funds from Congressional appropriations through agencies’ budgets to final use. The same data could flow automatically into USASpending.gov, without the errors and inconsistencies that make it unreliable today.

The idea is simple, if not easy to implement. Put government data in uniform formats, accessible to the public, and let public oversight work its will. Whether you prioritize good government, small government, or both, expect improvement.

John Berry: Angry about Federal Pay

The head of the federal Office of Personnel Management, John Berry, has become unhinged by a few recent critiques of federal worker pay. Berry is an Obama appointee who apparently views his role as being a one-sided lobbyist for worker interests, rather than a public servant balancing the interests of taxpayers and federal agencies.

Here is an 11-minute audio interview with Berry on Federal News Radio on Friday, where he lashes out at USA Today, Washington Times, and the Cato Institute. Berry is defensive, emotional, and unwilling to accept that new data might indicate a possible problem with the underpaid federal worker thesis that is constantly pushed by the unions.

What do I mean when I say he is unhinged? An investigation by the USA Today found that in 83 percent of 216 occupations examined, federal workers earned more than comparable private-sector workers. Here is Berry’s response when asked whether he thinks the USA Today analysis is a good one: “It is absolutely not! It comes straight out of the Cato Institute!” But, believe it or not, the nation’s largest newspaper is not part of some libertarian plot.

The most troubling aspect of Berry’s performance is his deliberate effort to wrap himself in the flag and deny that anyone should even ask questions about federal workers during a time of national security concerns. It is strange that an Obama administration official would so vigorously use the Bush administration tactic of “waving the bloody shirt.

Here are excerpts from the interview starting at 1:48 minutes and then 5:54 minutes (my transcription):

Interviewer: “There was a line in this [Washington Times] editorial, one of the first lines, it was the first line of the second paragraph, and that is: ‘Consider how much money a bureaucrat can make for successfully sitting at his desk for a year.’

Berry: …You know, this is the kind of, it’s just a denigration of public service and, and it is, there should be no place for it in our country… And to be denigrated and say that they’re bureaucrats sitting at a desk pushing paper there should be no place in American society for such hyperbole.

Interviewer: I wonder if this is something that comes because of the economy. Where is this upswell of anger coming from?

Berry: …And that’s why I just get steamed when I read something like this because it denigrates that incredible motivation, and like I said to denigrate those who even put their lives on the line day in and day out so that the rest of us and our children can be safe, there should be no place for it. And I think my hope is that a lot of people, not just me, will rise up and respond to this with the anger and the facts that it deserves. Because as long as people can get away with denigrating that level of service, then we are putting at risk the future of our country.”

Have you got Berry’s message? We simply cannot allow people to use their free speech rights to question the operations of government because that will undermine national security. So people need to “rise up” and get “angry,” grab their pitchforks, and head to the homes of anyone who dares question high government worker pay because it puts “at risk the future of our country.”

Good grief!

More from me on federal worker pay here.

(Thanks to Solomon Stein and Justin Logan)

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