Tag: transparency

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.

Health Care Bill to be Online for 72 Hours Before Final House Vote — Pelosi Is the Transparency Leader?

The Sunlight Foundation cites this tweet, and newspapers confirm, that the House leadership has promised to put the final health care bill online for 72 hours before a final vote.

“The move came after Rep. Scott Murphy, D-N.Y., urged colleagues to join him in asking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., for a three-day time-out before any floor vote,” reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Kudos to Representative Murphy for bringing this up. Congratulations to the Sunlight Foundation for organizing the closely related Read the Bill campaign, which is pressuring Congress to post bills online for 72 hours before debate begins.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s unfulfilled transparency promises are beginning to draw derision not only from political partisans but from the mainstream media. For example, the L.A. Times “Top of the Ticket” blog mocked the administration yesterday in a post called, “Joe Biden Update: He Meets on Transparency Today. But the Meeting is Closed.”

[T]oday’s Biden schedule highlight is a meeting with the chief of transparency for economic recovery. But, unfortunately, the transparency meeting is non-transparent, closed to the press… Which makes it — what? — secret openness? Open secrecy?

That post cites this one at a site called Media-ite, where columnist Tommy Christopher bemoans the president’s failure to see through his promise to put health care negotiations on C-SPAN.

Secret negotiations like the one between the pharmaceutical lobby, the White House, and the Senate Finance Committee are the Obama pledge’s raison d’etre. Hours of debate and information are nice, but the real value of transparency is in keeping everyone honest. By meeting with insurance and pharmaceutical industry leaders in private, the administration has shielded the parties most in need of being kept honest, the ones most likely to poison the process.

If you had asked people a year ago whether President Obama or Speaker Pelosi would be the leader in legislative transparency, I don’t think many would have bet on the latter. This is not to say that the process has been transparent enough — the production of the health care bill has been quite opaque compared to what’s possible and desirable. But Pelosi is the current leader on transparency, if only by substantial default.

White House, Unions Reach Deal on Taxing Insurance Coverage

The Washington Post reports that the White House has reached a tentative agreement with labor leaders to tax high-cost health insurance policies.

What did you think of the negotiations? You did watch them on C-SPAN, didn’t you?

At the Sunlight Foundation blog, I’ve joined in some discussion about whether a president could really force process reforms on Congress like requiring negotiations to be televised. (Short answer: It’s possible, not probable.)

But here’s a case where the White House declined to put its own negotiations on television as the president promised.

The Real World - D.C.

Reason.tv has a characteristically good video about the failure of House and Senate leaders (and the president) to make negotiations about the health care bill transparent.

It’s probably not true, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement that “there has never been a more open process…” But even if it is, that doesn’t matter. Technology that can make the legislative process far more open is there, and the audience wishing to use it is there too.

The public’s expectations for open government have risen to what can be achieved—matching past practice is not good enough.

On C-SPAN: What’s a Little Promise Among Friends?

My, oh my. Transparency is getting defined down to excuse a breaking campaign promise.

At the Center for American Progress’ “Think Progress Wonk Room” blog (or whatever it’s called), Igor Volsky makes the case against allowing C-SPAN cameras into negotiations about the health care bill. Recall that President Obama promised on the campaign trail to have health care negotiations broadcast on C-SPAN.

“But if one actually considers the tone and tenor of the televised health care debate of 2009,” says Volsky, “filming the conference negotiations seems counterproductive.”

He does have a point. Television causes politicians to grandstand and doesn’t necessarily improve the legislative process.

But President Obama knew that when he made the promise, and he made the promise all the same. The credibility of the legislative process suffers from its overall opacity, and Candidate Obama promised different, starting with health care legislation — to progressives’ cheers as much as any other group.

Yet he appears to be walking away from that promise. And Volsky wants to abet him with a transparency caveat — only if it “improve[s] the underlying bill.”

Improvement is in the eye of the beholder, of course. This is not a welcome gloss. It’s bait and switch. “[T]he reality of politics doesn’t square with the promises of the campaign trail,” says Volsky.

Matt Yglesias’ short post backing his co-blogger is — appropriately, perhaps — opaque: “This is also an example of the concrete harm done to the country by politicians overestimating the impact of campaign tactics on election outcomes.” I don’t understand what that means.

Ezra Klein has the decency to say he’s conflicted. He admits that a transparent health care conference might be “better than nothing,” but he makes the same argument as Volsky: the process will change, but not necessarily for the better. No mention that this was a promise, or that the credibility of the president to marginal voters matters.

The argument that transparency is only useful if it leads to a better bill is reminiscent of Lawrence Lessig’s widely panned essay “Against Transparency.” I wrote of it:

Lessig sets up an interesting premise indeed: What he calls the “naked transparency movement” — unvarnished access to government data — “is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system off the cliff.”

Yes, Lessig has “change” and “pushing faith in our political system off the cliff” in opposition. So, the only thing that qualifies as “change” is improving faith in our political system? This pegged my bs detector.

These commentators have sounder premises, of course. They want transparency to improve legislation.

But transparency is not simply a means to better bills. It’s a means to better politicians — when people see one leader being smart and fair, while others are not. It’s a means to a better organized society — if people decide that politicians aren’t as qualified to apportion society’s resources as they thought. It’s a means to better-run programs — when people compare the dollars going in with the results coming out. Heck, transparency is a civics lesson for high school students! There is a transparency vision that these commentators eschew in favor of the status quo.

Even good John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation, an organization dedicated to transparency, kicks the ground and mumbles about televising conference committees not being a panacea. The promise was to broadcast “negotiations,” of course, not just the formal meeting of any conference committee. And one of the commenters on his post has the better of it. “Open [conference committees] are not a panacea, but they are one tent-pole,” says Sarah Welsh of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. Her state mandated open conference committess last year, for the good.

And it was a campaign promise.

“The public should have ample opportunity to review the final product before the vote,” Igor Volsky says. Which brings us to another promise: On the campaign trail, Candidate Obama said, “[W]hen there is a bill that ends up on my desk as a president, you the public will have five days to look online and find out what’s in it before I sign it, so that you know what your government’s doing.”

The president is currently six for 124 on that promise, having shown recent improvement. But one has to wonder how Volsky would caveat away that promise and further define down government transparency.

One to watch: President Obama’s promise to “go line by line” over earmarks, which OMB has said it will implement by collecting and databasing Congressmembers’ earmark requests in the FY 2011 budget cycle.

Speaking of Transparency …

A thing I really like about Sunlight Before Signing is that it’s a clear promise President Obama made on the campaign trail.

An equally clear promise, highlighted by Michael Cannon earlier this week, was to broadcast negotiations about health care reform on C-SPAN.

C-SPAN is ready. As reported by the RealClearPolitics blog on Time.com, C-SPAN public service icon Brian Lamb wrote a letter to House and Senate leadership offering to cover health care negotiations:

President Obama, Senate and House leaders, many of your rank-and-file members, and the nation’s editorial pages have all talked about the value of transparent discussions on reforming the nation’s health care system. Now that the process moves to the critical stage of reconciliation between Chambers, we respectfully request that you allow the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American.

Many others could be, but Brian Lamb isn’t pulling a partisan stunt or trying to affect the health care debate one way or another. He’s trying to fulfill the promise of open democracy that had audiences roaring when President Obama extolled these virtues on the campaign trail:

“[W]hen I’m president, meetings where laws are written will be more open to the public. No more secrecy. That’s a commitment I make to you as president. No more secrecy.”

The Audacity of Hypocrisy

In his ongoing effort to micromanage the U.S. economy President Obama used his Dec. 12 weekly radio address to promote his proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  It will be filled with bureaucrats second-guessing entrepreneurs and is sure to improve the performance of our financial institutions – much in the manner of the SEC’s bureaucrats alertly nailing Bernie Madoff just 30 years into his Ponzi scheme.  Never mind that the federal government had much more to do with the financial meltdown than the banks did, the real knee-slapper in his address was his claim that the CFPA “would bring new transparency and accountability to the financial markets…” This, from a man demanding passage of a 2000-page health care reform bill that no one, including Mr. Obama, has read.  So much for transparency and accountability.