Tag: transparency

Congress on Transparency: ‘Needs Improvement’

“Needs improvement” is the understated theme of a Capitol Hill briefing this morning entitled “Publication Practices for Transparent Government: Rating the Congress.” (Live-streamed starting at 9:00 am. If timely, check it out—the video will come up before too long also—and join the conversation on Twitter at the #RateCongress hashtag.)

Congress needs to improve its data publication practices if it’s going to be the transparent legislature that it should be.

How did we arrive at this conclusion? We’re doing more than stating the obvious.

A Cato Briefing Paper released today entitled “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” goes through some technically challenging but essential concepts in data publication: authoritative sourcing, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability. Together, these practices will allow computers to automatically generate the myriad stories that the data Congress produces have to tell. Following these practices will allow many different users to put the data to hundreds of new uses in government oversight.

At the event, we’re releasing informal grades that rate how each of the major parts of the legislative process are published as data. To produce the grades, we constructed a “data model” of formal federal legislative processes (HTML version, Word version).

Data modeling is pretty arcane stuff, but in this model we reduced everything to “entities,” each having various “properties.” The entities and their properties describe the logical relationships of things in the real world, like members of Congress, votes, bills, and so on. We also loosely defined several “markup types” guiding how documents that come out of the legislative process should be structured and published.

Then we compared the publication practices in the briefing paper to the “entities” in the model. Are data about the key entities in the legislative process well published? That’s what we graded on, with a little commentary pointing toward what is good and bad in current publication practices. The grades are listed on this report card, which you can use to cut to the chase, but the real story is in the assessment below.

Are we stating the obvious? Yes. But a little humility and grace is in order. This stuff is tough sledding. The data model isn’t the last word, and there are things happening in varied places on and around Capitol Hill to improve matters. Several pieces of the legislative process nobody has ever talked about publishing as data before, so we forgive the fact that this isn’t already being done. If things haven’t improved in another year, then you might start to see a little more piquant commentary.

Without further ado, here is the full listing of Congress’ transparency grades. As far as data publication for transparency, Congress needs improvement.

Publication Practices for Transparent Government: Rating the Congress

 

How well can the Internet access data about Congress’ work? In consultation with transparency experts, the Cato Institute’s director of information policy studies, Jim Harper, rated how Congress publishes key legislative data in terms of authoritative sourcing, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability.
These criteria envision a world where there is one authoritative source for each category of information. Unfortunately, today’s congressional data are published by a lot of sources that have grown up haphazardly. There might even be some sources we don’t know about. Future grades will undoubtedly reflect improvements in what researchers, reporters, websites, and the public at large can see and use, aided by their computers.

House and Senate Membership: B+

How does the public find out about who holds office in the House of Representatives and Senate? A couple of ways.

The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress is a compendium of information about all present and former members of the United States Congress (as well as the Continental Congress), including delegates and resident commissioners. The “Bioguide” website is a great resource for searching out historical information.

But there’s no sign that it’s Congress’ repository of record, and it’s little known by users, giving it low authority marks. Bioguide scores highly on availability—we know of no problems with up-time or completeness (though it could use quicker updating when new members are elected).

Bioguide isn’t structured for discoverability. Most people haven’t seen it, because search engines aren’t finding it. Bioguide does a good thing in terms of machine-readability, though. It assigns a unique ID to each of the people in its database. This is the first, basic step in machine-readability, and the Bioguide ID should probably be the standard for machine-identification of elected officials wherever they are referred to in data. Unfortunately, the biographical content in Bioguide is not machine-readable.

The other ways of learning about House and Senate membership are nothing if not ad hoc. The lists of members that appear on the House and Senate websites are adequate for some purposes. They’re authoritative, available, and discoverable due to their prime location on the top-level House and Senate domains. But the HTML presentation on the House side does not break out key information in ways useful for computers. The Senate includes a link to an XML representation that is machine readable. Good job, Senate.

The rest of the information flows to the public via congressmembers’ individual websites. These are non-authoritative websites that search engine spidering combines to use as a record of the Congress’s membership. They are available and discoverable, again because of that prime house.gov and senate.gov real estate. But they only reveal data about the membership of Congress incidentally to communicating the press releases, photos, and announcements that representatives want to have online.

So far there is no authoritative, really well-published source of information about House and Senate membership, but the variety of sources that exist combine to give Congress a pretty good grade on publishing information about who represents Americans in Washington, D.C.

Committees and Subcommittees: C

If you want to find out about the committees to which Congress delegates much of its work, and the subcommittees to which the work gets further distributed, you might have to form a commit— … a search party.

The Senate has committee names and URLs prominently available on its main website, and the House does too. But that would just be the starting point for researching what all these committees do and who serves on them. For that, you’d go to individual committee websites, each one different from the others.

With the data scattered about this way, the Internet can’t really see it. The Senate has a little known machine-readable listing of its membership and their assignments. More prominence, data such as subcommittees and jurisdiction, and use of a recognized set of standard identifiers would take this resource a long way.

Without a recognized place to go to get data about committees, this area suffers from lacking authority. To the extent there are data, availability is not a problem, but machine-discoverability suffers for having each committee publish distinctly, in formats like HTML, who their members are, who their leaders are, and what their jurisdiction is.

Until committee data are centrally published using standard identifiers (for both committees and their members), machine-readability will be very low. The Internet makes sense of congressional committees as best it can, but a whole lot of organizing and centralizing—with a definitive, always-current, and machine-readable record of committees, their memberships, and their jurisdictions—would create a lot of clarity in this area with a minimum of effort.

Meetings of House, Senate, and Committees—Senate: B+ / House: D+

When the House, the Senate, committees, and subcommittees have their meetings, the business of Congress is being done. Can the public learn easily about what meetings are happening, when, and what they are about? It depends on which side of the Capitol you’re on.

The Senate is pretty good about publishing notices of committee meetings. In addition to a webpage with meeting notices on it, it publishes an XML page with lots of good features, like distinct codes for each committee. (If only we knew whose codes they were, and if only they could be used consistently throughout legislative data….) If a particular bill is under consideration in a Senate committee meeting, this is a way for the public to learn about it. This is authoritative, it’s available, it’s machine-discoverable, and it’s got some machine-readable features. That means any website, researcher, or reporter can quickly use these data to generate more—and more useful—information about Congress.

The House doesn’t have anything similar. To learn about meetings of its committees, you might have to scroll through page after page of committee announcements or calendars. The House can catch up with the Senate in this area, and we are aware that they are working on it. This area is ripe for rapid improvement.

Meeting Records: C-

There is lots of work to do before meeting records can be called transparent. We have one thing, the Congressional Record. It is the authoritative record of what transpires on the House and Senate floors, but nothing similar reveals the content of committee meetings. Those meeting records are produced after much delay—sometimes an incredibly long delay—by the committees themselves. These records are obscure, not being published in ways that make things easy for computers to find and to comprehend.

The Congressional Record also doesn’t have the machine-discoverable publication or machine-readable structure that it could and should. Giving unique, consistent IDs in the Record to members of Congress, to bills, and other regular subjects of this publication would go a long way to improving it. The same would improve transcripts of committee meetings.

Another form of meeting record exists: videos. These have yet to be standardized, organized, and published in a reliable and uniform way, though the HouseLive site is a significant step in the right direction. Real-time flagging of members and key subjects of debate in the video stream would be a great improvement in transparency. Setting video and video meta-data standards for use by both Houses of Congress, by committees, and by subcommittees would improve things dramatically.

Committee Reports: D+

Committee reports are important parts of the legislative process, documenting the findings and recommendations that committees report to the full House and Senate. They do see publication on the most authoritative resource for committee reports, the Library of Congress’s THOMAS system. They are technically machine discoverable, but without good semantic information embedded in them, committee reports are barely visible to the Internet.

Rather than publication in HTML and PDF, committee reports should be published with the full array of signals that reveal what bills, statutes, and agencies they deal with, as well as authorizations and appropriations, so that the Internet can discover and make use of these documents.

Bills: A-

Bills are a “pretty-good-news” story in legislative transparency. Most are promptly published. It would be better, of course, if they were all immediately published at the moment they were introduced, and if both the House and Senate published last-minute, omnibus bills before debating and voting on them.

A small gap in authority exists around bills: people look to the Library of Congress rather than Congress or the Government Printing Office, which are better authorities for bill content, but this has not caused any problems. Once published, bill information remains available, which is good.

Publication of bills in HTML on the THOMAS site makes them reasonably machine-discoverable. Witness the fact that searching for a bill will often turn up the version at that source.

Where bills could improve some is machine-readability. Some information such as sponsorship and U.S. code references is present in the bills that are published in XML, and nearly all bills are now published in XML, which is great. Much more information should be published machine-readably in bills, though, such as references to agencies and programs, to states or localities, and so on, referred to using standard identifiers.

With the work that the THOMAS system does to gather information in one place, bill data are good. This is relative to other, less-well-published data, though. There is yet room for improvement.

Amendments—House and Senate: C / Committees: I

Amendments are not the good-news story that bills are. With a few exceptions, amendments are hard to track in any systematic way. When it comes to the House and Senate floors, amendment text is often available, but the authoritative source is different if you want to see the text (GPO) and the status (THOMAS) of an amendment. It is very hard to see how amendments affect the bills they would change.

In committees, the story is quite a bit worse. Committee amendments are almost completely opaque. There is almost no publication of amendments at all—certainly not amendments that have been withdrawn or defeated. Some major revisions in process are due if committee amendments are going to see the light of day as they should.

Motions: I

When the House, the Senate, or a committee is going to take some kind of action, it does so on the basis of a motion. If the public is going to have insight into the decisions Congress makes, it should have access to the motions on which Congress acts.

But motions are something of a black hole. Many of them can be found in the Congressional Record, but it really takes a human who understands procedure reading the Congressional Record to find them. That’s not modern transparency.

Motions can be articulated as data. There are distinct types of motions. Congress can publish which meeting a motion occurs in, when the motion occurs, what the proposition is, what the object of the motion is, and so on. Along with decisions, motions are key elements of the legislative process. They can and should be published as data.

Decisions: I

When a motion is pending, a body such as the House, the Senate, or a committee will make a decision on it, often using votes. These decisions are crucial moments in the legislative process, which should be published as data. Like motions, these are not yet published usefully. Decisions made in the House or Senate are published in text form as part of the Congressional Record, but they are not published as data, so they remain opaque to the Internet.

Votes: A-

Voting puts members of Congress on record about where they stand. And happily, vote information is in pretty good shape. Each chamber publishes data about votes, meaning authority is well handled. Vote data are available and timely.

Both sides could sorely use an index that lists all votes, though, along with an indication of the last time the vote was modified (i.e., if corrections to the original data have been posted). But both the House and Senate produce vote information in XML, which is useful for computers and the Internet. Both houses also use unique identifiers for their members, though they’re not so good at indicating who those unique IDs refer to. (The House does not have a list-of-people database, and the Senate uses lis_member_ids rather than Bioguide IDs.) Overall, though, voting data are pretty well handled.

Communications (Inter- and Intra-Branch): I

The messages sent among the House, Senate, and Executive Branch are essential parts of the legislative process, but they do not see publication. Putting these communications online—including unique identifiers, the sending and receiving body, any meeting that produced the communication, the text of the communication, and key subjects such as bills—would complete the picture that is available to the public.

Rating Congress on Transparency

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be officially releasing a paper entitled “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” at a Hill briefing entitled “Publication Practices for Transparent Government: Rating the Congress.”

If you’re a smart and savvy Internet user, you probably noticed that the paper is there at the first link above, unofficially released just for you. This qualifies you to read it and get some of the fascinating and different technical aspects of transparency.

This is all a teaser for our release tomorrow of “grades” on how Congress is doing with publishing data about the essential parts of its legislative work. For that, you’ll have to attend the event or watch it live-streamed (here, commencing at 9:00 Eastern with remarks from House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA)).

If you like transparency—and chances are you do—you can help spur discussion tomorrow (or even today) using the hashtag #RateCongress, along with, of course, #transparency. (Don’t know what a hashtag is? Well, here’s a little help.)

Despite good faith efforts on the part of the Obama administration and congressional leaders, government transparency hasn’t flourished as it could the last few years. The paper, event, and “report card” are intended to spur progress on that front.

Transparency is interesting not only technically and administratively, but ideologically. Libertarians and conservatives believe it will expose waste and corruption, fomenting downward pressure on the size and scope of government. Liberals and progressives believe transparency will expose waste and corruption, validating many government programs and roles.

I say let’s get on with exposing waste and corruption, so we can find out what happens next!

U.S. Open Government Action Plan Introduced

The White House’s release of its “Open Government Action Plan” today is timely. We’ll be rolling out the product of several months’ work on government transparency Friday at an event called “Publication Practices for Transparent Government: Rating the Congress.”

The paper we’ll release commences as follows:

Government transparency is a widely agreed upon goal, but progress on achieving it has been very limited. Transparency promises from political leaders such as President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have not produced a burst of information that informs stronger public oversight of government.

The reason is not lack of planning documents, meetings, or websites, as reading the White House’s announcement today might suggest, but lack of specifically prescribed data publication practices that foster transparency. The government should publish data about its deliberations, management, and results in ways that make it amenable to all the varied uses of websites, researchers, reporters, and the public at large.

We’ll be grading the Congress on how well it’s doing with publication of data about formal legislative process. Congress is first because it’s low-hanging fruit. We’ll soon be turning to information the executive branch can make more transparent: budgets, appropriations, and spending.

The programs featured by the White House today—a new “We the People” petition platform, whistleblower protection, and an “Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative”—are fairly tangential. Fuller government transparency will be a product of specific good publication practices applied to data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results.

More information, and registration for Friday’s event, can be found here.

“A Closed ‘Super Congress’? Oh, I Don’t Think So.”

That was my inner conversation when I heard that the “Super Congress”* (or “Super Committee”) created by the debt ceiling deal might operate behind closed doors.

Congress is free to create any committee it wants, of course. Congress determines the rules of its proceedings. But ordinary committees and subcommittees are too opaque. A “Super Committee” should lead—not lag—in transparent operations.

In a forthcoming report on government transparency, we’ll be looking at the kinds of things committees should be publishing in computer-useable formats, and in real time or near-real-time: meeting notices, transcripts, written testimonies, live video, original bills, amendments to bills, motions, and votes. There are ways that many of these documents and records can be optimized for transparency, including by flagging agencies, programs, dollar amounts, and so on in the texts of published documents.

That’s why I’m glad to see transparency stalwart the Sunlight Foundation calling for a transparent Super Committee. “Congress pushed through the ‘Debt Ceiling’ bill with almost no transparency,” they say. “Let’s make sure the new ‘Super Congress’ committee created by this bill operates in the open.”

The things they highlight, reflecting priorities of transparency groups across the ideological spectrum, include: live webcasts of all official meetings and hearings; the committee’s report being posted for 72 hours before a final committee vote; disclosure of every meeting held with lobbyists and other powerful interests; Web disclosure of campaign contributions as they are received; and financial disclosures of committee members and staffers.

The legislation creating the Super Committee calls for some minimal transparency measures: public announcement of meetings seven days in advance; release of agendas 48 hours ahead of meetings, and:

Upon the approval or disapproval of the joint committee report and legislative language pursuant to clause (ii), the joint committee shall promptly make the full report and legislative language, and a record of the vote, available to the public.

By my read, that’s a requirement to release the language the committee is voting upon after the vote has been taken.

I don’t see public access to the language of such an important document as conducive to the public overseeing the committee’s work. Some may argue that the committee will be pressure-cooker enough if it operates in closed sessions. Delicate political balances require important decisions to be made out of the limelight. This is how massed power in Washington fully manifests itself: major decisions about the direction of the country that people cannot even know about until the decisions are finalized. I’m not havin’ it. Kudos, Sunlight Foundation, for pressing an open Super Committee.

*Many are calling the committee “Super Congress.” It’s a joke I … don’t quite get. So I’ll go with “Super Committee.”

More Cost Data and Better Debt Insight

Data-transparent government is still a ways off, but some small steps forward are underway. To wit, my project WashingtonWatch.com, which is adding new data going to the costs of bills in Congress.

As detailed in an announcement that went up this morning, many more bills on the site will have cost estimates associated with them, the product of research being done at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. Some bills spend pennies or less per U.S. family. Some spend $5,000 per family and more. Wouldn’t you like to know which are which?

The site has also begun displaying national debt information on a per-family, per-person, and per-couple basis. Your individual (official) debt—just for being an American—is about $45,000 dollars, your real debt far higher.

I’ll have much more to say on government transparency in the coming months. In the meantime, people may do their part to avoid the next calamitous debt ceiling debate by following the day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year in Congress using resources like WashingtonWatch.com. Shrinking our disastrously run and bloated government is a long game that starts with small steps. Channel your outrage productively, friends.

Sunlight Before Signing: Is President Obama Throwing It Under the Bus?

President Obama went to Puerto Rico two weeks ago. If you missed it, that might be because the trip was so brief—a mere four hours. Observing how the president “SEAL-Team-Sixed” it, Jon Stewart speculated that the president was not motivated by love of the island or a campaign promise to revisit it, but by courting Puerto Rican voters in important electoral states. It could be all of the above, of course.

It all reminded me of the president’s “Sunlight Before Signing” promise to post bills Congress sends him online for five days before signing them.

After the president’s dismal start with the promise at the beginning of his term, I speculated once or twice that he would focus on fulfilling campaign promises like Sunlight Before Signing after the mid-term election, when focus turned back to the presidential election coming up in 2012.

Well, the mid-term is behind us, and thoughts are turning to the next presidential election. Has that renewed the White House’s focus on Sunlight Before Signing?

No!

Of the twenty bills sent him by the 112th Congress so far, President Obama has posted only eight online for five days—under half. In fact, the poor numbers so far this year drive his overall tally down to exactly 50 percent compliance (counting in his favor the emergency bill that didn’t require posting). Fifty percent is a threshold he topped with some good Sunlight Before Signing compliance in December.

Number of Bills Emergency Bills Bills Posted Five Days
2009 124 0 6
2010 258 1 186
2011 20 0 8
Overall 402 1 200

As I’ve explored before, the bills that get sunlight lean toward the unimportant—post office renamings, Smithsonian appointments, and such—though a few substantive bills have gotten five days of exposure.

One can only speculate about the thinking in the White House, but there are two likely possibilities:

  1. It may not have crossed anyone’s mind that this clearly stated, measurable promise will have a bearing on the election. But the president’s low compliance with a transparency promise may hand his Republican challenger an issue.
  2. If it has come up, the president and his political advisers may have determined that Sunlight Before Signing is not a big enough issue compared to other political priorities. Getting legislation signed and off the table comes first. Sunlight Before Signing goes under the bus.

We’ll continue to follow the Sunlight Before Signing promise here, calling it the way we see it. It’s up to the president’s challengers and America to decide if this transparency promise is important, or if it’s roadkill.

Public Law Date Presented Date Signed Posted [(Linked)]? Posted Five Days?
P.L. 112-1, 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 1/28/2011 1/31/2009 [1/28/2009] No
P.L. 112-2, A bill to designate the United States courthouse under construction at 98 West First Street, Yuma, Arizona, as the “John M. Roll United States Courthouse” 2/11/2009 2/17/2009 [2/11/2009] Yes
P.L. 112-3, The FISA Sunsets Extension Act of 2011 2/23/2009 2/25/2009 [2/23/2011 No
P.L. 112-4, The Further Continuing Appropriations Amendments, 2011 3/2/2011 3/2/2011 [3/2/2011] No
P.L. 112-5, The Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2011 3/3/2011 3/4/2011 No No
P.L. 112-6, The Additional Continuing Appropriations Amendments, 2011 3/17/2011 3/18/2011 No No
P.L. 112-7, The Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2011 3/30/2011 3/31/2011 3/30/2011 No
P.L. 112-8, The Department of Defense and Further Additional Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 4/9/2011 4/9/2011 No No
P.L. 112-9, The Comprehensive 1099 Taxpayer Protection and Repayment of Exchange Subsidy Overpayments Act of 2011 4/6/2011 4/14/2011 [4/7/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-10, The Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 4/15/2011 4/15/2011 [4/14/2011] No
P.L. 112-11, A bill to designate the Federal building and United States courthouse located at 217 West King Street, Martinsburg, West Virginia, as the “W. Craig Broadwater Federal Building and United States Courthouse” 4/14/2011 4/25/2011 [4/14/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-12, A joint resolution providing for the appointment of Stephen M. Case as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 4/14/2011 4/25/2011 [4/14/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-13, To amend the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act to extend the termination date for the Commission, and for other purposes 5/2/2011 5/12/2011 [5/2/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-14, The PATRIOT Sunsets Extension Act of 2011 5/26/2011 5/26/2011 No No
P.L. 112-15, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 12781 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Inverness, California, as the “Specialist Jake Robert Velloza Post Office” 5/26/2011 5/31/2011 [5/26/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-16, The Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2011, Part II 5/26/2011 5/31/2011 [5/26/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-17, The Small Business Additional Temporary Extension Act of 2011 6/1/2011 6/1/2011 [6/1/2011] No
P.L. 112-18, The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 6/1/2011 6/8/2011 [6/1/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-19, A joint resolution providing for the reappointment of Shirley Ann Jackson as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 6/21/2011 6/24/2011 [6/21/2011] No
P.L. 112-20, A joint resolution providing for the reappointment of Robert P. Kogod as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 6/21/2011 6/24/2011 [6/21/2011] No

Spending Transparency Gets a Head of Steam

It has been a promising week for spending transparency.

On Monday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (the DATA Act), to promote spending transparency in the federal government. Among other things it would establish standardized reporting requirements for recipients of money from the federal government, with that data to be collected in and distributed from a central, independent database. It would collect all agency expenditure data, as well, and combine it with the recipient-reported data.

Think of it as double-entry bookkeeping: you collect spending data from agencies, you collect receipt data from recipients, and if the numbers don’t match up, you go look there. There’s a lot more complexity to it than that, of course, but this is a significant bill from a Republican House leader who is working to follow through on his caucus’s commitment to transparency.

Not to be outdone (but really I don’t know whether it was coincidental or inspired by Representative Issa’s bill), Vice President Biden issued a statement mid-week about spending transparency and the Recovery.gov Web site’s new “Recovery Explorer” feature, which allows users to create and customize charts and graphs with the recipient-reported data. The more information, the better, though raw data about government deliberations, management, and results is the ideal.

The DATA Act turned bicameral and bipartisan yesterday with its introduction in the other house by Senator Warner (D-VA). It simply makes sense that the government’s books should be legible to the public, and Senator Warner obviously recognizes that.

Kudos to Senator Warner, Vice President Biden, and Representative Issa for focusing the light on spending transparency this week.

Shining a light is one thing, of course. We’ll look forward to the follow-up to this promising week in transparency—the week when federal spending in transparency in once-and-for-all delivered.