Tag: open government

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.

Open Government Research—-or Maybe Private Ordering

I came across an interesting information policy scuffle yesterday. It’s worth knowing about in general, and I’ll share my liberconoclastic view of things below.

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) has introduced a bill called the Research Works Act. The consensus is that it’s meant to keep government-funded research from being published for free. This would keep the publication of that research going through scholarly and scientific journals, neatly maintaining profits for an industry that society might not need while restricting public access to research the U.S. taxpayer paid for. (I have my doubts that the language of the bill actually successfully does that, but that’s inconsequential.)

Here’s a good opponent-side article on the bill. The Association of American Publishers likes the bill.

On a discussion list, Jonathan Band articulated how the business of government-funded research works. It’s helpful to know if you haven’t focused on this area before:

  1. Federal and state governments, directly or indirectly, pay salaries of researchers.
  2. Federal government awards grants for specific research projects. Average NIH grant is around $500,000.
  3. Researcher performs the research and writes a draft article about it.
  4. Researcher submits the draft article to publisher.
  5. Publisher requires the researcher to transfer the copyright in the draft article (for free) before it will touch the draft.
  6. Publisher emails the draft article to other researchers in the field.
  7. These “peers” review the article for free as part of their contribution to the field. (As noted in step 1, their salaries are paid by government.)
  8. The researcher revises the draft in response to the peers’ comments.
  9. Publisher does copy editing and publishes article. Publishers acknowledge that their costs per article are under $5,000.
  10. Publisher sells subscriptions to research libraries, which ultimately are largely government funded.

“In other words,” Band concludes, “the public invests $500,000 in the creation of the article, and the publisher invests under $5,000. Yet, the publisher recoups all the profits from the sale of the article. Profit margins for STM publishers exceed 40%.”

I’m inclined to share these concerns. It appears to be a classic example of regulatory controls—in this case, on information—creating supra-normal rents for a particular business sector.

My conclusion is a little different, though. You see, to me, what Band describes is a situation where researchers—who nobody is paying their own money to hire—are doing research that nobody is paying their own money to produce, which results in journal articles that nobody is paying their own money to read. Privatized profit from government-funded research is as anathema to me as the next open government advocate, but I would solve the problem by letting private ordering decide where research dollars go.

Is this a retrograde argument against research? Who could possibly be against research? Publicly funded research is like nutritious vegetables for a healthy modern society!

Well, I’m against researchers, research, and research results that nobody pays their own money for because it’s demanded by political actors responding to political cues. I would rather have research dollars meted out through private ordering, because then research dollars would go to where they’re most likely to produce the scientific and intellectual gains society actually wants.

Tradeoffs are ineluctable: Money spent on government research takes away from private research, or from other priorities such as reducing debt, or reducing taxes so I can spend my money on things like donating to charity or to the impoverished individual of my choice.

Transparency: The Inside and Outside Camps

Late last week, the Project on Government Oversight’s Danielle Brian took a little umbrage at a Huffington Post piece by former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Beth Noveck, who had been implementing the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative until she recently returned to New York Law School.

Brian’s piece suggests a slight schism in the transparency community, between what I believe are the “insider” and “outsider” camps. Brian leaves to the end a crucial point: “[C]an’t the two camps in the open government world peacefully co-exist? There’s just too much work to be done for us to get bogged down in denigrating each others’ agendas.” They most certainly can.

Noveck was a bit dismissive of the open government movement as perceived by much of the transparency community. “Many people, even in the White House,” she wrote, “still assume that open government means transparency about government.” Actually, Noveck continued, open government is “open innovation or the idea that working in a transparent, participatory, and collaborative fashion helps improve performance, inform decisionmaking, encourage entrepreneurship, and solve problems more effectively. By working together as team [sic] with government in productive fashion, the public can then help to foster accountability.”

Visualize the difference between these two approaches: open government as a tool for public oversight and open government as a tool for public participation. When open government is about public oversight, the wording connotes the public looking down from above on the work its servants are doing. When open government is about collaboration, the public is at best an equal partner, allowed to participate in the work of governing. Noveck’s unfortunate language choice treats accountability as a kind of dessert to which the public will be entitled when it has donated sufficient energies to making the government work better.

The administration’s December 2009 open government memorandum predicted this divide. In calling for each agency to publish three “high-value data sets,” it said:

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.

As I noted at the time, it’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.

Noveck wants us to put the calorie counts to use. Brian wants to see the check register.

There is no fundamental tension between these two agendas. Both are doable at the same time. The difference between them is that one is the openness agenda of the insider: using transparency, participation, and collaboration to improve on the functioning of government as it now exists.

The openness agenda of the outsider seeks information about the management, deliberation, and results of the government and its agencies. It is a reform (or “good government”) agenda that may well realign the balance of power between the government and the public. That may sound scary—it’s certainly complicates some things for insiders—but the “outsider” agenda is shared by groups across the ideological and political spectra. Its content sums to better public oversight and better functioning democracy, things insiders are not positioned to oppose.

I think these things will also reduce the public’s demand for government, or at least reduce the cost of delivering what it currently demands. But others who share the same commitment to transparency see it as likely to validate federal programs, root out corruption, and so on (a point I made in opening our December 2008 policy forum, “Just Give Us the Data!”) There are no losers in this bet. Better functioning programs and reduced corruption are better for fans of limited government than poorly functioning programs and corruption.

Forward on all fronts! The existence of two camps is interesting, but not confounding to the open government movement.