Tag: open government initiative

Grading Agencies’ High-Value Data Sets

I wrote here a few weeks ago about the “high-value data sets” – three per agency – that the federal government would soon be releasing at Data.gov. They were released on January 22nd, and we’ve been poring over them ever since. More on that below.

Tomorrow, agencies are supposed to have their “open government” sites put up – sites where they make their data feeds available and easily findable for the public. There are a couple of different sites monitoring when those sites are going up.  

Data, data, data – that means more direct oversight of the government by more people. We talked about all this at our December 2008 policy forum, Just Give Us the Data!

When I wrote recently about the release of agencies’ high-value data sets, though, I worried:

Rather than substantive insight into government management, deliberations, and results, we might get a lot of data-oriented play-toys… [P]ublic 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.

So I decided to grade them:

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.

With the help of Cato interns Solomon Stein and Sasha Davydenko, I assigned three points to each feed that had to do with management, deliberation, or results. The resulting numerical scores – 9, 6, 3, or 0 – translate into grades: A, B, C, or D respectively. F was reserved for agencies that didn’t produce feeds.

The results follow these few comments:

  • There’s no science to determining what is management, deliberations, or results. We made some judgement calls. But on the whole we feel pretty good about getting it right.
  • We graded the data sets that were posted on data.gov by the deadline. Several agencies have added data sets late. They get no credit. We’re not the “nice” teacher. We’re the mean one that you learn from.
  • Some agencies produced more than three of what they think are “high-value data sets.” If any three were actually about management, deliberations, or results, we gave them full credit.
  • Almost uniformly, the agencies came up with interesting data – but “interesting” is in the eye of the beholder. And interesting data collected by an agency doesn’t necessarily give the insight into government we were looking for. It’s data about the agency that matters.
  • Time and again, we found that “money is management.” If the data has to do with in-flow and out-flow of funds, chances are good that it’s high-value data. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with paying attention to the money. Accountants need love too.
  • The documentation of data sets probably had an effect on the grading. There were some data sets that were almost perfectly inscrutable. Agencies, imagine that you’re giving the data set to your Aunt Zelda. Have you described what it is well enough for her to understand?
  • Our grading did not take into account the quality of the data or its true utility for the purposes to which it might be put. That’s for people digging deeper to find out. We’re just going on what agencies said the data was about and how well that reveals their inner workings: their management, deliberations, and results. That’s our idea of high-value.

Without further ado, the results!

Department of Agriculture – D

The Ag Department produced data feeds about the race, ethnicity, and gender of farm operators; feed grains, “foreign coarse grains,” hay, and related items; and the nutrients in over 7,500 food items. That’s plenty to chew on, but none of it fits our definition of high-value.

Department of Commerce – C+

Commerce produced four feeds that it calls “high-value,” but we could only fully agree on one: “Patent Grant Maintenance Fee Events.” That’s a record of money coming in for patents granted from September 1, 1981 to the present. And money is management.

Another – applications received by a couple of broadband programs (assumedly for money) – is close enough to management that we plussed up Commerce’s grade. But the other two – collaboratively collected precipitation data, and information about billions of dollars worth of research stretching back to 1964 – might be high-precipitation or high-dollar, but it’s not what we think of as high-value.

Department of Defense – D

It was a good news-bad news story from the Department of Defense. On the good side, it produced an impressive six data-sets! But the bad overwhelms the good: not a one was high-value in our estimation. They were each just collections of survey data about absentee voting and election administration overseas.

DoD! Drop and give us 20 push-ups! Then go find us some better data feeds.

Department of Education – D

Ed didn’t make the grade. Its three feeds – really two feeds and a metadata file – contain 2007 data about fourth- and eighth-graders’ educational achievement, which doesn’t teach us anything at all about the agencies’ management, deliberations, or results.

Department of Energy – D

One might expect to be invigorated by data feeds from the Energy Department, but these feeds provide shockingly little insight into the agency’s operations. All six of its alleged “high-value” data feeds are bibliographic data about research studies and reports from scientific conferences. This information may give researchers somewhere a jolt, but it’s an information black-out on data about the agency itself.

Department of Health and Human Services – C

By our reckoning, HHS needed a bit of a helping hand to make its “C” grade. One feed wasn’t what the doctor ordered: a directory of all animal drug products that have been listed electronically since June 1, 2009. That data would tranquilize an elephant! (It may be helpful to Dr. Doolittle, of course, just not the government transparency effort.)

Edging close to high-value, but not enough for a full grade, was data on claims filed with HHS’s Office of Minority Health (OMH). More data and better documentation of the data might have won this feed a full letter.

But along with the OMH claims data, what breathed life into HHS’s data effort was the “Part B National Summary Data File.” For all of Medicare Part B, the data describes allowed services, allowed charges, and payment amounts. That’s important enough, and clear enough, that we classified it as “management” and scored one for HHS.

Department of Homeland Security – B

We agreed that two of DHS’s three data sets were high value. Under the simple rule that money is management, we credited the data about supplementary FEMA grants for public structure repair and the data about FEMA grants for mitigation of future disasters because they included dollar figures. The list of all federally declared disasters is no doubt interesting, but not high-value for our purposes – a transparent agency.

Department of Housing and Urban Development – D

HUD was another agency producing interesting and relevant data – but not high-value for transparency purposes. Its data feeds include information about housing authorities and properties, as well as data about lawsuits, but not information about the management, deliberations, or results of the agency itself.

Department of Justice – D

Interesting data is not necessarily high-value, and the Department of Justice also falls into that trap. The data it provides about prison populations and prison employment might be good for researchers, but it’s not so helpful to the people who want to understand how the Justice Department does its work.

Department of Labor – A

The Department of Labor really got to work and put out some helpful data! DoL’s “Research and Evaluation Inventory” includes costs for various projects along with their current status. The Workforce Investment Act Net Impact Evaluation Dataset shows how programs created under this law affected employment – results! And the Project GATE (Growing America Through Entrepreneurship) Final Evaluation Dataset does the same.

This is great work by the Department of Labor to produce some truly revealing information.

Department of State – D

The State Department may have come up with some of the least helpful information of all agencies. Data about attendance at international exchange and training programs in East Asia and Eurasia is only slightly more helpful at exposing the workings of the agency than the dreary ”Bibliographical Metadata of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series.” That’s right – a list of books. (Alas, we’re being unkind. Someone loves these books, so we do too. But you’ll forgive us if we don’t read them just now, or look at the data about them ever again.)

Department of Interior – D

Interior has mastered the “interesting, not high-value” category. Its four data-releases reveal: counts of wild horses and burros in various areas; a list of government-designated recreation areas; data about wildland fires and acres burned from 1960 through 2008 (updated annually); and a list of ways to work for the government for free. Interesting … but no thanks.

Department of the Treasury – C

Tax Year 2007 County Income Data is not high-value. The latest quarterly report on bank derivatives activities is not high-value either.

But the Treasury Department’s purchases, trades, or other dispositions of troubled assets in the TARP program (Targeted Investment Program) – that’s high-value! With one true high-value data set, Treasury earns a “C.”

Department of Transportation – D

Steering the public away from its own functions, the Transportation Department released feeds about tire safety, vehicle safety ratings, and child safety seats. This is good data to have, of course, but it doesn’t drive openness about the department itself.

Department of Veterans Affairs – C

Data about Veterans Compensation and Pension by County doesn’t make the cut as far as high-value, but we were willing to salute the release of data about “the factors that impact veterans’ employability resulting from participation in the VR&E Program.” This is in the “results” category – data that can reveal how, and how well, a program works. For producing this information, the Veterans Department gets a respectable “C.”

Central Intelligence Agency – F

Secrecy has its place, but not when it comes to data about the operation of the CIA. With no data released, the CIA gets an “F.”

Consumer Product Safety Commission – F

Our frustration at the lack of data from the CPSC had us gnashing our teeth – on lead-painted toys!

Environmental Protection Agency – D+

The EPA’s data sets about new ways to test chemicals’ toxicity levels and water quality measures for the Chesapeake Bay are great. But they’re not our idea of high-value, which is data that goes to agencies’ management, deliberations, and results. We give the agency a little credit for TRI-CHIP, the Toxics Release Inventory Chemical Hazard Information Profile dataset, just because it’s so important. But overall we didn’t get a look into the agency from its data.

Executive Office of the President – A

With the president’s focus on transparency, the EOP had better get this right! And it did. We agree that five out of six of its data sets are high-value.

A crosscut of data about budget authority for global change research activities reveals what is going on across the government on this issue. A similar set of data goes to nanotechnology work across agencies. Same with research and development budget in the area of networking and information technology across agencies for FY09 and FY10.

We even like the “improper payments” data. Hate the sin, love the sinner; don’t blame it on the messenger – pick your trite saying: We like to see this data, even if the underlying substance is regrettable.

The stinker in the bunch is no stinker at all, by the way. It’s historical data on economic forecasts. But that doesn’t provide insight into today’s EOP.

Overall, a clear “A” for the Executive Office of the President. More than three data feeds that are indeed high-value.

Export-Import Bank of the United States – D+

The user ratings that others gave to the Ex-Im bank raised their grade over a flat D. At least someone likes this data. But it’s so poorly documented that we couldn’t tell whether the data sets are high value or not.  You read this and tell us what it means:

This file contains the small business authorizations recorded during FY 2010 up to the last month closed in the Bank’s financial and administrative systems.

OK. Authorizing who…? To do what…? Give us something we can work with Ex-Im Bank! Your data isn’t going to sell itself!

Federal Bureau of Investigation – F

Our investigation turned up no data. We’re throwing the FBI in the transparency slammer.

Federal Communication Commission – F

Failing to release data is pretty uncommunicative, don’t you think?

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation – F

No data? No credit. Do not pass go. Do not insure $200.

Federal Election Commission – F

Does it take an election campaign to get data out of you?

Federal Reserve Board – D

The Fed issued two feeds: 2008 home mortgage loan application register data, and 2008 data on small business, small farm, and community development lending. Sorry – no and no.

Federal Trade Commission – F

We think that running an agency without data transparency is an unfair and decptive trade practice.

General Services Administration – A

The agency that’s central processing for management of government should get this right, and GSA did. We agree that five of GSA’s seven feeds are high-value.

The cash and payment management data gets credit, especially under the general rule that money is management. We were interested to see three different data feeds dealing with federal advisory committees.  The membership of these committees help guide agencies’ policymaking, so we credit these as being data about ”deliberation.” The dataset that “represents time taken to hire a GSA employee,” well, we’re not sure about that – maybe management.

The catalog of federal domestic assistance is good to have out there, and the list of federal government contractors too. But those don’t get right at management, deliberation, or results. Those duds notwithstanding, GSA has three high-value data feeds and gets an “A.”

Merit Systems Protection Board – B

Credit goes to the MSPB for its data feeds on petitions for review received, decided, and pending by month at MSPB headquarters. Same for data on initial appeals received, decided, and pending by month for its regional and field offices. These are both management data if we ever saw it.

But we found meritless (for our purposes, anyway) the data store of 2007 survey responses summarizing the existence of positive performance management practices and employee engagement scores. Whatever that is doesn’t seem like the stuff we want to learn from the MSPB.


You know you can count on NASA for cool data, but cool does not necessarily mean high-value. Its contributions – data about nighttime surface temperatures on earth, images of earth, and estimates of the horizontal near-surface currents of the Tropical Pacific ocean – don’t open up the true final frontier: NASA’s inner workings.

National Archives and Records Administration – D

NARA produced some important – if mind-numbing – data, none of which unfortunately deserves credit as high-value. XML versions of the Code of Federal Regulations are neat, but that’s no insight into NARA. The Archival Research Catalog data set is an important record of what NARA has produced, but it’s not about the workings of the agency. 

The Organization Authority Files data set contains a highly detailed presentation of the evolution of names and administrative histories of Federal and non-Federal organizations. That’s catnip for a researcher into federal administrative history. It’s valium for those of us seeking after open government.

National Science Foundation – C

The NSF – funder of so much data collection – comes up pretty anemic when the question is data about itself. Generously, we’ve given it credit for data about FOIA requests: received processed, response times, and so on.

Its data feeds naming fellowship award recipients and revealing grant funding rates don’t do enough to show the public how the agency works. For the one decent feed, though, NSF garners itself a “C.”

National Transportation Safety Board – D

The NTSB is really good at collecting and disseminating transportation safety information, but what about NTSB-focused information? Not so good. Perhaps it’s an excess of modesty, but the NTSB’s 12 self-identified high-value data sets don’t meet our criteria even once.

NTSB’s data is all about the accident statistics, which is no surprise because the agency has so much of that data near at hand. We want to see what’s in its head and its heart, though, with data reflecting the agency’s management, deliberation, and results. From that perspective, this data was a wreck.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission – C+

The NRC’s one data feed is a thing of beauty: a list of contracts for greater than $100,000, their purposes, suppliers, dollar amounts, effective dates, NRC identifying number, and award types. That’s just the kind of information that can help one see how the agency is run.

Now if they could just find two more like that…

Overseas Private Investment Corporation – C

OPIC provided two data sets about greenhouse gas emissions attributable to projects the agency is committed to. That’s neither here nor there when it comes to core tranparency, though it might be all there for someone researching the environmental impacts of OPIC.

We did credit OPICs data about the net impact on the economic and social development of OPIC projects’ host countries.

Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation – B

The PBGC produced some pretty good data.  One spreadsheet contains a list of multiemployer plans receiving financial assistance payments from the PBGC from the period 2005 through 2009. That’s management. Key financial data from PBGC’s financial statements for the periods ending September 30, 1992 through September 30, 2009? Remember the rule: money is managment.

The one that we couldn’t see clear to credit was  list of all single-employer defined-benefit pension plans trusteed by the PBGC since its creation in 1974. That’s data about the agency that could be useful for oversight, but it’s too far back into history rather than the present-day functioning of the agency. All in all, though, a respectable “B” for the PBGC.

Railroad Retirement Board – D

The RRB produced statistical data about railroad workers, retirees, and annuitants, but nothing that gives us insights about the agency, so nothing we would call high-value.

Securities and Exchange Commission – F

Shares of this agency’s stock are falling.

Small Business Administration – D

Useful data, maybe. But the SBA didn’t manage to produce any data about itself. One data set is a collection of federal, state and local licenses, permits and registrations small businesses need to operate. (Can we say we’d like that list to be shorter?) Another data set is a collection of links to federal, state, and local financial assistance programs for small businesses. That’s fine data, but not high-value. Finally, there’s a “mashup” of URLs for city and county web sites and city and county location data. Cool data, but not valuable in terms of what we’re looking for.

Social Security Administration – A

SSA declared a whopping 14 of its data sets to be high-value. In among that, there had to be three high-value data sets, and there were.

Like SSA’s disability claim acceptance rates, for example. That’s good management data. Same with data on hearings before administrative law judges and their dispositions. Workload indicators for each hearing office in the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (i.e., pending, receipts, dispositions and average processing time) – it seems mind-numbingly boring, but it’s also management data that we’ll treat here as high-value.

Kudos to SSA for getting the data out.

U.S. Agency for International Development – B

We really liked USAID’s database containing funding levels of U.S. Trade Capacity Building (TCB) activities designed to promote economic growth through international trade. With that data set, USAID is “TCB” in a different sense – takin’ care of business. We also credited statistics about U.S. official development assistance detailing it by country and implementing agency.

We couldn’t credit the data set containing U.S. economic and military assistance by country from 1946 to present. Historical data, good. But unless it shows how an agency or program produced results, it’s not our idea of “high-value.”

Solid job by USAID, though, and a “B.”

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – D

The EEOC might want to put an ad in the paper looking for a database administrator. Its one feed doesn’t cut it as high-value for our purposes. Statistics on employment by race, occupation, gender, state and job category are good to have around, but they don’t let us see how the EEOC does its work.

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.

#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.

On Transparency, Talk Trumps Action

In the heady first days of the administration, President Obama issued a memorandum on transparency and open government that seemed it would set the ship of state on a course for transparency, participation, and collaboration. Many people expected that within the 120-day time-frame stated in the memo, the administration would issue the “Open Government Directive” it called for.

Well, 120 days from January 21 was May 21—and 200 days after that, we are finally going to see that open government plan. An announcement of it will be streamed live on the White House web site at 11:00 am.

It turns out that administrators didn’t fall woefully behind on President Obama’s instructions. His memorandum directed the not-yet-appointed Chief Technology Officer and others “to coordinate the development by appropriate executive departments and agencies, within 120 days, of recommendations for an Open Government Directive …” It was an instruction to coordinate on the writing of a directive, and within 120 days, people were surely coordinating.

Given the exciting campaign mantra of “change,” one could forgive people expecting the administration to set its course for good governance early. How un-change-like it is that nearly a quarter of the way through President Obama’s term (an eighth if he’s reelected), with old habits established and unlikely to be dislodged, we finally get that “open government plan.”

If only this good-government priority had been pursued as steadfastly as President Obama’s big-government priorities.

While coordinating and planning has gone on, President Obama has specifically declined to carry out an open government promise he made on the campaign trail. In fact, more than 100 times since he has been in office, he has declined to post online the bills sent him by Congress for five days of public review before he signs them. I’ll put up a new chart covering all the laws President Obama has signed sans sunlight later today.

Since I last wrote about this favorite topic, I learned of a new development, however. At some point earlier this year, the White House began posting links on Whitehouse.gov to bills that were heading its direction, a half-measure the White House told the New York Times it would take.

I failed to notice the existence of these pages, but I think it is forgivable error. There is no uniform structure to them, and there is no link I can discover on Whitehouse.gov that would bring anyone to them.

Based on my spot-checking, they haven’t been crawled by any search engine, so the only way a person could find them is by searching on Whitehouse.gov for phrases on the yet unseen pages or by searching the House or Senate bill numbers of bills that you know to look for because they have already passed into law.

This doesn’t fulfill the spirit of the Sunlight Before Signing pledge. It doesn’t give the public an opportunity to review final bills and comment before the president signs them. I doubt if a single one of the people who cheered when President Obama made his Sunlight Before Signing pledge has visited one of these pages and commented to the president as he told them they would be able to do.

There are further curiosities: The pages themselves are undated, but their “posted” dates, which appear in search results, are sometimes well beyond the date on which they became law. A Whitehouse.gov search for H.R. 2131, which became Public Law 111-70 on October 9th, shows that it was posted for comment on October 23rd.

Today the White House announces plans for dramatic steps forward on government transparency. But the steps it could have taken starting on day one remain promises unfulfilled. President Obama’s “Sunlight Before Signing” campaign pledge breaks every time he signs a bill without posting its final version at Whitehouse.gov for five days of public review before signing it.

Transparency: Good News / Bad News

Last week was an interesting week for transparency, with some good news and some bad news.

On the “good” side of the ledger, the administration rolled out “Data.gov,” a growing set of data feeds provided by U.S. government agencies. These will permit the public to do direct oversight of the kind I discussed at our “Just Give Us the Data!” policy forum back in December.

My metric of whether Data.gov is a success will be when independent users and Web sites use government data to produce new and interesting information and applications. The Sunlight Foundation has a contest underway to promote just that. Get ready for really interesting, cool, direct public oversight of the government.

Also under the White House’s new “Open Government Initiative,” an Open Government Dialogue “brainstorming session” began last week. The public can submit ideas for making the government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. This is important stuff, an outgrowth of President Obama’s open government directive, issued on his first full day in office.

That directive called for the Office of Management and Budget to require specific actions of agencies “within 120 days,” which meant the final product was due last week. And that missed deadline is where we start to slide into the “bad” on the transparency ledger.

Last week, President Obama gave an important speech on national security (which I blogged about here and here). But you couldn’t find the speech in the “Speeches” section of the Whitehouse.gov Web site. It’s buried elsewhere. That’s “basic Web site malpractice,” I told NextGov.com. And I cautioned my friends in the transparency community not to forget Government 1.0 for all the whiz-bang Gov 2.0 projects flashing before our eyes. Whitehouse.gov should be a useful, informative resource for average Americans.

The current top proposal on the “brainstorming” site referred to above is to require a 72-hour mandatory public review period on major spending bills. This is reminiscent of President Obama’s promise to hold bills five days before signing them. But, as Stephen Dinan reports in the Washington Times, the president signed several more bills last week without holding them the requisite time.

The White House protests that they posted links to bills on the Thomas Web site at the Whitehouse.gov blog. But that does not give the public meaningful review of the bills in their final form, as they have come to the president from Congress. “Posting a link from WhiteHouse.gov to THOMAS of a conference report that is expected to pass doesn’t cut it,” says John Wonderlich at Sunlight.

President Obama signed nine new laws since we last reviewed his record on the “Sunlight Before Signing” promise. Alas, it’s been a case study in pulling defeat from the jaws of victory.

Five of the bills were held by the White House more than five days before the president signed them, but they weren’t posted! Simply posting them on Whitehouse.gov in final form would have satisfied “Sunlight Before Signing.”

President Obama’s average drops to .043, and that’s crediting him one win for the DTV Delay Act, which was posted at Whitehouse.gov in its final form for five days after Congress passed it, but before presentment, which is the logical time to start the five-day clock.

Here is the latest tally of bills passed by Congress, including the date presented, date signed, whether they’ve been posted or linked to at Whitehouse.gov, and whether they’ve been posted for the full five days after presentment. (Corrections welcome - there is no uniform way that the White House is posting bills or links, so I may have missed something.)

Public Law Date Presented Date Signed Posted (Linked) for Comment? Five Days?
P.L. 111-2, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009
P.L. 111-3, The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009
P.L. 111-4, The DTV Delay Act
Yes and No
P.L. 111-5, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
P.L. 111-6, Making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2009, and for other purposes
P.L. 111-7, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2105 East Cook Street in Springfield, Illinois, as the “Colonel John H. Wilson, Jr. Post Office Building”
P.L. 111-8, The Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009
P.L. 111-9, To extend certain immigration programs
P.L. 111-10, To provide for an additional temporary extension of programs under the Small Business Act and the Small Business Investment Act of 1958, and for other purposes
P.L. 111-11, The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009
P.L. 111-12, The Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2009
P.L. 111-13, The Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act
P.L. 111-14, To designate the United States courthouse under construction at 327 South Church Street, Rockford, Illinois, as the “Stanley J. Roszkowski United States Courthouse”
P.L. 111-15, The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program Act of 2009
P.L. 111-16, The Statutory Time-Periods Technical Amendments Act of 2009
P.L. 111-17, A joint resolution providing for the appointment of David M. Rubenstein as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution
P.L. 111-18, A bill to repeal section 10(f) of Public Law 93-531, commonly known as the “Bennett Freeze”
P.L. 111-19, The Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009
P.L. 111-20, The Protecting Incentives for the Adoption of Children with Special Needs Act of 2009
P.L. 111-21, The FERA
P.L. 111-22, The Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009
P.L. 111-23, The Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009
P.L. 111-24, The Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act of 2009