Tag: transparency

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.

Hacking for Liberty

You’ve probably heard the old parable about the man looking for his car keys under a street lamp because the light is better there.

I’ve regularly worried aloud about the government transparency project following the same path. Most recently, I pointed out that the president’s executive order was about open data, not transparent government.

“Open data” is pretty much any data the government makes available in useful formats – Agriculture Department data about the gender of farm operators, for example. But don’t look there for government transparency. The Ag Department’s check register is still in the dark.

Transparent government is going to result from data that reflects the deliberations, management, and results of all the government’s agencies and organs. It’s fine to release interesting data, and it’s fine for people to build things with it, but the government transparency project doesn’t advance without data about what government entities are thinking and doing, and how well they’re doing it.

That’s why I’m happy to have offered the legislative data we produce to a hack-a-thon happening this week in San Francisco. Lincoln Labs’ Liberty Hackathon offers $5,000 in prizes to the top producers of technologies that advance civic values like individual privacy and economic liberty. “Top ideas and teams will be considered for future investment.” Sounds good.

My hope is that someone will build something that makes it easier to automatically track what’s happening in Congress, like, oh, spending for example. Our data can automatically reveal every bill that proposes spending, the amount, and the purpose. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that information at your fingertips? You might be inspired to contact your senators and member of Congress and tell them what you think. Maybe an app will tell you how your representatives voted on each and every spending bill that becomes law.

“Data excavation” is how Seamus Kraft at the OpenGov Foundation has characterized the work we do in our Deepbills project, and I’ve been very complimented by his recognition of the work. Transparency will not be a gift from government. We’ll have to dig out the data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results. Maybe this weekend some of the projects produced at the Liberty Hackathon will show how excavated government data energize democracy and protect liberty.

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.

President Obama’s New E.O.: Open Data, Not Government Transparency

There’s a powerful irony lurking underneath the executive order and OMB memorandum on open data that the White House released in tandem today: We don’t have data that tells us what agencies will carry out these policies.

It’s nice that the federal government will work more assiduously to make available the data it collects and creates. And what President Obama’s executive order says is true: “making information resources easy to find, accessible, and usable can fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery that improves Americans’ lives and contributes significantly to job creation.” GPS and weather data are the premier examples.

But government transparency was the crux of the president’s 2008 campaign promises, and it is still the rightful expectation of the public. Government transparency is not produced by making interesting data sets available. It’s produced by publishing data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results.

Today’s releases make few, if any, nods to that priority. They don’t go to the heart of transparency, but threaten to draw attention away from the fact that basic data about our government, including things as fundamental as the organization of the executive branch of government, are not available as open data.

Yes, there is still no machine-readable government organization chart. This was one of the glaring faults we found when we graded the publication practices of Congress and the executive branch last year, and this fault remains. The coders who may sift through data published by various agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects can’t sift through data reflecting what those organizational units of government are.

Compare today’s policy announcements to events coming up on Capitol Hill in the next two weeks.

On Thursday next week (May 16), the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will host a “DATA Demonstration Day” to illustrate to Congress and the media how technology may cut waste and improve oversight if federal spending data is structured and transparent. (That would include my hobby-horse, the machine-readable federal government organization chart.) We’ll be there demo-ing how we add data to the bills Congress publishes.

On May 22nd, the House Administration Committee is hosting its 2013 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. This is an event at which various service providers to the House will announce not just policies, but recent, new, and upcoming improvements in publication of data about the House and its deliberations. (We’ll be there, too.)

The administration’s open data announcements are entirely welcome. Some good may come from these policies, and they certainly do no harm (barring procurement boondoggles–which, alas, is a major caveat). But I hope this won’t distract from the effort to produce government transparency, which I view as quite different from the subject of the new executive order and memorandum. The House of Representatives still seems to be moving forward on government transparency with more alacrity.

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.)

Why Have a Machine-Readable Federal Government Organization Chart?

When I write and talk about getting better data about the federal government, its activities, and spending, I mostly have in mind strengthening public oversight by bringing computers to bear on the problem. You don’t have to know much about transparency, organizational management, or computing to understand that having a machine-readable government organization chart is an important start.

There should be a list, that computers can process, showing what agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects exist in the federal government and how they are related. Then budgets, bills in Congress, spending programs and actual outlays, regulations, guidance documents, and much more could be automatically tied to the federal organizational units affected and involved.

But it’s not only public oversight that would benefit from such a list.

Mike Riggs at Reason magazine has found that the Office of Management and Budget’s sequestration report issued last September listed a cut to the National Drug Intelligence Center’s budget even though the NDIC went out of business last June.

The first line item on page 121 of the OMB’s September 2012 report says that under sequestration the National Drug Intelligence Center would lose $2 million of its $20 million budget. While that’s slightly more than 8.2 percent (rounding error or scare tactic?), the bigger problem is that the National Drug Intelligence Center shuttered its doors on June 15, 2012–three months before the OMB issued its report to Congress.

That’s embarrassing for the administration, as it should be. Riggs asks, “Might there be other errors in the OMB’s report?”

Getting organized is not just about public oversight. Another reason to have a machine-readable federal government organization chart is to improve internal management and controls. This kind of mistake should be nearly impossible. People at OMB should be able to download the list of government entities at any time, day or night, and be sure that it is the correct listing that uniquely identifies and distinguishes all the organizational units of the federal government at that moment. We should be able to download it, too.

Unfortunately, OMB controller Danny Werfel has been riding the brake on transparency. He and the Obama administration as a whole should be stepping on the gas. In early February, the Sunlight Foundation found that more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending for fiscal year 2011 was misreported on USASpending.gov.