Tag: 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.)

Let’s See What DATA Can Do

The New York Times reported at the top of page one yesterday on the $4.1 million in payments that a single physical therapist in Brooklyn got from Medicare in 2012. It’s a shocking sum, and Medicare fraud is common in both physical therapy and the Brooklyn area. The therapist who received the money says that the billings are for his large, multi-office practice.

The point is broader: Reporters, medical trade association figures, investigators and researchers are poring over newly released data about Medicare spending. They’re strengthening public oversight and the public’s capacity to question this government program. It’s data that the American Medical Association and other industry groups fought against releasing. There is risk that the numbers will lead some to unfair conclusions, perhaps even in the case of this Brooklyn physical therapist, but the public oversight it brings to the Medicare program and the circumspection it brings to fraudsters and others will be more than worth it. Data is a powerful oversight tool.

That’s why I think it’s good news that the House of Representatives passed the DATA Act yesterday. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, introduced by Mark Warner (D-VA) in the Senate and Darrell Issa (R-CA) in the House, requires the federal government to adopt data standards for all federal spending and publish all of it online. This will permit the public to gather insights like the ones in that New York Times story across the vastness of the federal spending enterprise. It will make the diffuse cost of government a little more acute in the minds of many, positioning Americans to say specifically which spending should stop.

Change will not come instantly, and the legislation is not self-executing, but groups like the Data Transparency Coalition, a prime mover behind the legislation, appear poised to insist on full execution of the law. Implementation should not have the cost that the Congressional Budget Office estimated for it, and if it does, the billions saved thanks to availability of information to the public should justify the costs. If another “cost” of transparency is improvement of federal programs that should be eliminated, I think that beats the today’s status quo of having them on the books and failing.

The DATA Act is not a direct response to a 2008 Cato event asking the Obama administration to “Just Give Us the Data.” Indeed, the administration has been conspicuously unsupportive of transparency in this area, though transparency was a key campaign theme in President Obama’s first election. Cato studies in this area since then include “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” and “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices.” We’ll be repeating the grading study during the summer, though it’s doubtful the administration’s grades will improve by that time. We will use the data structures that the DATA Act requires in our Deepbills project, which shines light on Congress’s proposals, including its plans for spending.

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.

Obama Administration Seeks to Head Off Spending Transparency

Congratulations to Cato’s media staff who worked though the night last night to produce an excellent Cato response to the State of the Union speech. It’s a lot of work, and they make it look easy.

At minute 10:00, my appearance in the video pivots from NSA spying and secrecy to a transparency issue that is just as important to the long-term maintenance of freedom in our country. It’s an issue you might not have heard about.

Leaked documents revealed this week that President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget is seeking to gut spending transparency legislation that is making its way through Congress. The DATA Act is intended to transform the U.S. government’s spending information from inaccessible documents buried in the executive branch into open data, available for the public to use. The House has passed one version. A Senate committee has forwarded another version of the bill to the floor.

School Spending Transparency Favors School Choice

In a post at RedefinED Online calling for more sunshine on the Sunshine State’s public school spending data, I discussed the broader implications of financial transparency:

Awareness about public school spending has implications for the public discourse over public education. A Harvard University survey shows the public vastly underestimates how much public schools cost, which affects the public’s spending preferences. When citizens are informed about the true cost of public education, they are significantly less likely to support increasing spending.

Likewise, the widespread misperception that private schools cost more per pupil than public schools likely affects the public’s support for school choice programs. A greater awareness that school choice programs can save money would likely translate into greater public support for school choice. Indeed, Florida policymakers have wisely sought to demonstrate exactly that. The Florida Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) estimated Florida taxpayers save $1.44 for every dollar of revenue reduced by the state’s scholarship tax credit program.

The central purpose of school choice is to provide an education that best meets the needs of individual children, especially to those whose choices are limited. Diverse children require a diverse array of learning options. However, as with any public policy, cost is a factor. Research has shown that when the fiscal benefits of school choice are emphasized, support for choice increases. 

The widespread misperception that school choice programs would cost more than the status quo is therefore both a problem and an opportunity. The misperception currently dampens support for school choice, but it also means that support would increase with greater awareness about the true cost of public schools and the savings that school choice programs provide to taxpayers. 

Sunlight is the best disinfectant and it is also necessary for growth. Those who want to see school choice programs grow should advocate for greater transparency in education spending.

 

How Transparent Is Your State’s Department of Education?

When a business applies for a loan, the bank needs to know the business’s operating expenses and its overhead to make an informed decision about whether to grant the loan. A business that acquired a loan while understating or hiding some categories of its expenses would be in serious trouble. However, the government seems to operate by a different set of rules.

A new report from the Cato Institute, “Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Education Departments Report Public School Spending?“ finds that state departments of education routinely understate the cost of public schools and often fail to report key spending categories. Meanwhile, a Harvard survey finds that the public thinks that public schools cost half as much as they really do. Are state education departments contributing to the public’s vast underestimation of the true cost of public education?

Find out more at Education Next.

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.

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