Tag: government transparency

Government Data Flows Visualized

Today, I’m at the House Administration Committee’s Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. It’s become the annual confab for learning what the House is doing to improve transparency, for learning what the Senate is not doing to improve transparency, and to mix and mingle with others working on opening Congress’s deliberations to digital access.

In our 2012 study, Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices, we issued letter grades reflecting the quality of data the government makes available about its own deliberations, managment, and results, covering legislative process and budgeting, appropriating, and spending. The grading was based on criteria set out in an earlier study, Publication Practices for Transparent Government.

Grades are a way of showing the public, opinion leaders, and legislators what’s going on. For most areas, the grading study showed that access to data is relatively poor.

There is no question that people are working hard on things, and the House has consistently put in the most effort over the last few years. (The recently passed DATA Act now requires the administration to make an effort. Oversight and badgering will help ensure that it does.)

My contribution this year is a brief talk in which I’ll present what’s happening with data another way: by presenting a visualization of what’s happening with data flows—pictures!

Water is a good metaphor for data. Ideally, data would emerge at the source, like a spring, drinkable and ready for use. But very often, key information about government is not available as data at all. People have to pump it out of the ground, turning paper or PDF documents into usable data. Sometimes data isn’t in a format that’s truly useful. It’s undrinkable or “polluted.”

A lot of people in a lot of places are working to take data that is not ready for use and make it available. Our own contribution at Cato is the Deepbills project, which adds data to bills that allows computers to more readily access their meaning. Like a little water treatment plant. It’s not the only one.

It’s a big file (5.6 MB), but if you want, you can look through the PowerPoint. (Ignore the “Soup to Nuts” page—that’s a funny, funny joke, in my opinion, aimed at those who attended last year.)

Transparency and Liberty

John McGinnis has some kind words for work I oversee here at Cato in a recent blog post of his entitled: “The Internet–A Technology for Encompassing Interests and Liberty.”

As he points out, the information environment helps determine outcomes in political systems because it controls who is in a position to exercise power.

The history of liberty has been in no small measure the struggle between diffuse and encompassing interests, on the one hand, and special interests, on the other.  Through their concentrated power, special interests seek to use the state to their benefit, while diffuse interests concern the ordinary citizen or taxpayer, or in William Graham Sumner’s arresting phrase, The Forgotten Man. When the printing press was invented, the most important special interests were  primarily the rulers themselves and the aristocrats who supported them. The printing press allowed the middle class to discover and organize around their common interests to sustain a democratic system that limited the exactions of the oligarchs.

But the struggle between diffuse and special interests does not disappear with the rise of democracy. Trade associations, farmers’ associations and unions have leverage with politicians to obtain benefits that the rest of us pay for. As a successor to the printing press, however, the internet advances liberty by continuing to reduce the cost of acquiring information. Such advances help diffuse groups more than special interests.

The Internet is the new printing press, and we’re generating data here at Cato that should allow it to have its natural, salutary effects for liberty.

My favorite current example is the “Appropriate Appropriations?” page published by the Washington Examiner. It allows you to easily see what representatives have introduced bills proposing to spend taxpayer money, information that—believe it or not—was hard to come by until now.

In John McGinnis, we have a legal scholar who recognizes the potential ramifications for governance of our entry into the information age. Read his whole post and, for more in this area, his book, Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance Through Technology.

Legislative Data and Wikipedia Workshop—March 14th and 15th

In my paper, “Publication Practices for Transparent Government,” I talked about the data practices that will produce more transparent government. The government can and should improve the way it provides information about its deliberations, management, and results.

“But transparency is not an automatic or instant result of following these good practices,” I wrote, “and it is not just the form and formats of data.”

It turns on the capacity of the society to interact with the data and make use of it. American society will take some time to make use of more transparent data once better practices are in place. There are already thriving communities of researchers, journalists, and software developers using unofficial repositories of government data. If they can do good work with incomplete and imperfect data, they will do even better work with rich, complete data issued promptly by authoritative sources.

We’re not just sitting around waiting for that to happen.

Based on the data modeling reported in “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices,” and with software we acquired and modified for the purpose, we’ve been marking up the bills introduced in the current Congress with “enhanced” XML that allows computers to automatically gather more of the meaning found in legislation. (Unfamiliar with XML? Several folks have complimented the explanation of it and “Cato XML” in our draft guide.)

No, we are not going to replace the lawyers and lobbyists in Washington, D.C., quite yet, but our work will make a great deal more information about bills available automatically.

And to build society’s capacity “to interact with the data and make use of it,” we’re hoping to work with the best outlet for public information we know, Wikipedia, making data about bills a resource for the many Wikipedia articles on legislation and newly passed laws.

Wikipedia is a unique project, both technically and culturally, so we’re convening a workshop on March 14th and 15th to engage Wikipedians and bring them together with data transparency folks, hopefully to craft a path forward that informs the public better about what happens in Washington, D.C. We’ve enlisted Pete Forsyth of Wiki Strategies to help assemble and moderate the discussion. Pete was a key designer of the Wikimedia Foundation’s U.S. Public Policy Initiative—a pilot program that guided professors and students in making substantive contributions to Wikipedia, and that led to the establishment of the Foundation’s Global Education Program.

The Thursday afternoon session is an open event, a Wikipedia tutorial for the many inexperienced editors among us. It’s followed by a Sunshine Week reception open to all who are interested in transparency.

On Friday, we’ll roll up our sleeves for an all-day session in which we hope Wikipedians and experienced government data folks will compare notes and produce some plans and projects for improving public access to information.

You can view a Cato event page about the workshop here. To sign up, go here, selecting which parts of the event you’d like to attend. (Friday attendance requires a short application.)

With All Due Respect, Mr. President, That Is Not True

Conor Friedersdorf notes that stay-at-home mom (and video blogger) Kira Davis asked tougher questions of President Obama on a recent Google+ “hangout” than Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes ever asked. You can watch the exchange in this video starting at the 35:10 mark.

In response to Davis’s question about transparency, President Obama said:

This is the most transparent administration in history, and I can document how that is the case. Everything from—every visitor that comes into the White House is now part of the public record. That’s something that we changed. Just about every law that we pass, every rule that we implement, we put online for everybody there to see.

With all due respect, Mr. President, that is not true.

Now, the White House has put visitor logs online. I was initially unimpressed with the achievement, but I do believe it took a good deal of effort, and there’s no discounting that. Perhaps it symbolizes how low the baseline for transparency has been. And alas the practice may have simply moved meetings out of the White House.

But it is not accurate to say, “Just about every law that we pass … we put online for everybody to see there.”

As a campaigner, President Obama promised to put every bill Congress sent him online for five days before signing it. As I recently reported again in a post called “Sunlight Before Signing in Obama’s First Term,” that was the president’s first broken promise, and in the first year of his administration he broke it again with almost every new law, giving just six of the first 124 bills he signed the exposure he promised. Over his first term, by my count, he gave less than 2/3rds of the bills he signed the promised sunlight.

And many important and controversial bills don’t get sunlight. (The post office renamings always do.) Recent bills denied promised sunlight include the controversial FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization and the “fiscal cliff” bill. Obamacare did not get sunlight—the president signed it the day after Congress presented it to him.

The first three laws President Obama has signed in the 113th Congress have not gotten the promised sunlight.

The Obama administration has taken some small pro-transparency steps, but far from what’s possible, and the House of Representatives is making the greater headway on transparency. President Obama has not put “just about” every bill sent him online. So, in the words of a stellar think tank here in D.C., “With all due respect, Mr. President, that is not true.”

Very Good, House—Keep it Comin’

Yesterday, I shared my doubts about the prospect of getting budget and organizational data from the White House. Today, I’m happy to report genuine progress on open data from Congress.

The Government Printing Office announced today that it will be making House bills available in XML format and in bulk through FDsys, GPO’s Federal Digital System. House bills now join other material on GPO’s bulk data page.

If you’re like me, following that link gives you some idea of what’s there, but clicking through any further gives you no idea how to use it any more than other copies of bills. That’s OK, because the kids with the computers do know how to use it. And they can take well structured, timely data reflecting the proposals in Congress and turn it into various information services, applications, and web sites that make all of us better aware of what’s happening.

I believe the public has an Internet-fueled expectation that they should understand what happens in Congress. It’s one explanation for rock-bottom esteem for government in opinion polls. Access to good data would help produce better public understanding of what goes on in Washington and also, I believe, more felicitous policy outcomes—not only reduced demand for government, but better administered government in the areas the public wants it. (If you’re a reader of a certain partisan bent, you might appreciate the idea that the era of passing bills to find out what’s in them will end.)

Upon the release of my Cato Policy Analysis, “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices” I characterized President Obama as lagging House Republicans in terms of transparency. Today’s development helps solidify Republicans’ small lead. The GPO release says the initiative comes “[a]t the direction of the House Appropriations Committee, and in support of the task force on bulk data established by House report 112-511.”

The administration has plenty of capacity to retake the lead, of course, and could do so quite easily. I’ll call it like I see it, doing my best to reflect consensus among the transparency community as to the quality of data publication, when we return to grading the data produced by various organs of government in another year or so.

Did you think this praise would come without garnish? It’s like you don’t know me at all.

Obama Lags House Republicans on Data Transparency

For the last two years, we have been working on the question of data transparency. In a paper last fall called Publication Practices for Transparent Government, we examined what it takes to foster transparency. And we started informally grading the quality of data put out by Congress and the administration. First, it was legislative data, which, as I reported here, needs improvement. (Also see our Capitol Hill briefing.) Then it was budget, appropriations, and spending data. In that area, “needs improvement” is an understatement. (And another Capitol Hill briefing.)

Now we are in a position to formally grade the quality of data coming out of the government. And the interesting finding, to be formally released on Monday, is that President Obama lags House Republicans in transparent data publication. The paper is called “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices.”

Obama is the president who ran in 2008 on strong promises of transparent government. Within minutes of his taking office on January 20, 2009, the Whitehouse.gov website declared: “President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history.”

His first presidential memorandum, issued the next day, was entitled “Transparency and Open Government,” and it declared:

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

That hasn’t really happened.

President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing campaign promise— his pledge to post laws to the White House website for five days of public comment before he signed them—was his first broken promise. It went virtually ignored in the first year of his administration.

But it wasn’t a lack of energy and creativity that derailed the transparency project.

It was a subtle “shift in vocabulary” in the open government effort. Instead of data about the core of government that made Obama’s campaign claims so attractive, data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results, the administration delivered data the government collects and warehouses about everything under the sun.

There is still no machine-readable organization chart for the federal government. The agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects of government—its basic building blocks—don’t have identifiers people could use to track the government with the aid of their computers. That is why, as you can see above, the administration gets very poor grades on its data publication practices.

Meanwhile, the Congress has plodded forward with data publication reforms that, although minor, represent progress. The House leadership, for example, produced docs.house.gov, at which it makes available the bills coming to the House floor in a format that can be automatically read and disseminated.

A follow-on, beta.congress.gov, will eventually replace the THOMAS Web site. THOMAS was revolutionary for its time, but ideally a basic web interface and bulk data access will make for a robust legislative information environment.

Congress’s grades are better than the administration’s, though nobody can argue that the job is done.

The report summarizes things this way:

Between the Obama administration and House Republicans, the former, starting from a low transparency baseline, made extravagant promises and put significant effort into the project of government transparency. It has not been a success. House Republicans, who manage a far smaller segment of the government, started from a higher transparency baseline, made modest promises, and have taken limited steps to execute those promises.

Transparency: Obama Lags House Republicans

Maybe President Obama made a mistake during the 2008 campaign, promising great strides in government transparency as he did. Because he hasn’t delivered them.

House Republicans, on the other hand, started from a better place than President Obama, made modest claims about how they would improve, and took some steps in the direction of improvement.

This makes it pretty easy to say that the president lags House Republicans in terms of transparency.

This afternoon, I presented at an Advisory Committee on Transparency panel about how well government data is published. You can see the grades I delivered to the right and below.

When the burst of transparency effort that began in 2008 started flagging, I figured we should probably come up with something measurable. Over the last couple of years, we’ve created models of what legislative processes would look like if they were published as really good data. We’ve done the same with budgeting and spending information.

Next, we’ve been assessing how well that data is currently published. See my previous reports here and here. Some of it is the responsibility of Congress. Some is the responsibility of the White House. And some of it is a divided responsibility. The little “Capitol” and “White House” icons tell you which.

How well is all this data published? Not well at all.

The worst of it is probably this: There is still no machine-readable federal government organization chart.

What that means is that there aren’t distinct identifiers computers could use to help us in organizing our oversight of the government. That makes it really, really hard to oversee the government. It makes it hard to gather what agencies, bureaus, projects, and programs are affected by the bills in Congress.

You know how easy it is to shop on Amazon or eBay? It should be that easy to keep track of what’s going in Congress. But the data isn’t there. That’s a failure of President Obama’s, who claimed he would deliver transparent government.

So here are the report cards we’ve produced, illustrating how Congress and the White House are doing on publishing data. None of the grades are very good, but where Congress has weak grades, the Obama Administration’s grades are horrible. The conclusion? Obama lags House Republicans on transparency.

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