Tag: transparency

Transparency: The Inside and Outside Camps

Late last week, the Project on Government Oversight’s Danielle Brian took a little umbrage at a Huffington Post piece by former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Beth Noveck, who had been implementing the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative until she recently returned to New York Law School.

Brian’s piece suggests a slight schism in the transparency community, between what I believe are the “insider” and “outsider” camps. Brian leaves to the end a crucial point: “[C]an’t the two camps in the open government world peacefully co-exist? There’s just too much work to be done for us to get bogged down in denigrating each others’ agendas.” They most certainly can.

Noveck was a bit dismissive of the open government movement as perceived by much of the transparency community. “Many people, even in the White House,” she wrote, “still assume that open government means transparency about government.” Actually, Noveck continued, open government is “open innovation or the idea that working in a transparent, participatory, and collaborative fashion helps improve performance, inform decisionmaking, encourage entrepreneurship, and solve problems more effectively. By working together as team [sic] with government in productive fashion, the public can then help to foster accountability.”

Visualize the difference between these two approaches: open government as a tool for public oversight and open government as a tool for public participation. When open government is about public oversight, the wording connotes the public looking down from above on the work its servants are doing. When open government is about collaboration, the public is at best an equal partner, allowed to participate in the work of governing. Noveck’s unfortunate language choice treats accountability as a kind of dessert to which the public will be entitled when it has donated sufficient energies to making the government work better.

The administration’s December 2009 open government memorandum predicted this divide. In calling for each agency to publish three “high-value data sets,” it said:

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.

As I noted at the time, it’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.

Noveck wants us to put the calorie counts to use. Brian wants to see the check register.

There is no fundamental tension between these two agendas. Both are doable at the same time. The difference between them is that one is the openness agenda of the insider: using transparency, participation, and collaboration to improve on the functioning of government as it now exists.

The openness agenda of the outsider seeks information about the management, deliberation, and results of the government and its agencies. It is a reform (or “good government”) agenda that may well realign the balance of power between the government and the public. That may sound scary—it’s certainly complicates some things for insiders—but the “outsider” agenda is shared by groups across the ideological and political spectra. Its content sums to better public oversight and better functioning democracy, things insiders are not positioned to oppose.

I think these things will also reduce the public’s demand for government, or at least reduce the cost of delivering what it currently demands. But others who share the same commitment to transparency see it as likely to validate federal programs, root out corruption, and so on (a point I made in opening our December 2008 policy forum, “Just Give Us the Data!”) There are no losers in this bet. Better functioning programs and reduced corruption are better for fans of limited government than poorly functioning programs and corruption.

Forward on all fronts! The existence of two camps is interesting, but not confounding to the open government movement.

House Leadership’s Transparency Leadership

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) wrote a letter to the House clerk calling for new data standards that will make Congress more open and accountable. Spot on.

The THOMAS legislative database was a huge improvement when it came online in 1995 at the behest of the new Republican Congress, but the Internet has moved on. Today, publishing text or PDF documents is inadequate transparency. It’s more important to make available the data that represent various documents and activities in the legislative process. “Web 2.0” will use that data various ways to deliver public oversight.

I’ll have much more to say in the near future, but here are the kinds of things get to full transparency, which the House leaders’ letter appears meant to imply:

  • Specific Formats: Documents and data must be published in specific formats that allow Web sites, researchers, and reporters to interpret and use text and data easily and automatically. The SEC recently began requiring businesses to report financial information in a format called eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL). This will improve corporate transparency and enable investors to make better decisions. The public should have equally good information about government.
  • Flagging/Tagging: Within these data formats, key information must be “flagged” or “tagged” to highlight the things that matter: spending proposals, agencies and programs affected by a proposed law, recipients of federal money, existing statutes that may be amended, and so on. Flagging/tagging will make the relevance of documents and information immediately apparent to various interests.
  • Bulk Access and Real-Time Updates: Documents and information must be available in bulk, so that new users have full access, and it must be updated in real time, so the public can “see” changes as they happen. It also must be version-controlled so the “story” of a policy’s formation or execution can be told. The public should never have to learn what is in a bill after it passes.
  • Authoritative Sources: The mishmash of data sources that now exist must be replaced by authoritative sourcing. Congress, the White House, federal agencies, and other entities must publish and maintain their documents and data. The public must know once and for all where the definitive versions of documents and data will be.

Disclosure—simply “putting bills online”—was the beginning of the legislative transparency project, not the end. The many transparency Web sites out there have the bills, but they don’t have the data they need to help the public get their government under control.

As I suggested some months ago, House Republicans are positioned to take the transparency mantle from President Obama and the Democrats. Web 2.0 thought leader Tim O’Reilly—no Republican cheerleader—has already called the race, Tweeting last week, “The ‘R’s in Congress are doing better on this than ‘D’s did.” Assuming action consistent with this letter, the House Republicans will indeed soon have the transparency lead.

A Weak Defense of Disclosure

In an earlier post, I wrote about the problems with the Obama administration’s executive order to force government contractors to reveal their political activity.

The administration defends the mandate by arguing “taxpayers deserve to know how contractors are spending money they’ve earned from the government.”

For the first (and perhaps last) time, I rise to the defense of government contractors. The President apparently believes that anyone who sells a good or service to the government must account for the uses of the money received in the transaction in perpetuity? Obama’s press secretary said the President’s “goal is transparency and accountability. That’s the responsible thing to do when you’re handling taxpayer dollars.”

I do not understand this. The government extracts taxes and spends the money. Indeed, government officials should be accountable for that spending. But once the exchange is made, the money belongs to a private firm. It is no longer the property of the taxpayers.  Perhaps the use of a firm’s money should be disclosed, but you need a different argument to justify that mandate. The President seems to be proposing that anyone who does business with the government may have to account for the money they earn in those transactions. That assertion strikes me as a real expansion of government power.

The most troubling part of all this remains the President’s view that he can enact this mandate through an executive order. Americans should be wondering why a rule rejected by Congress can simply be enacted by fiat by the President. The President does not enjoy the power of a king, does he?

The President’s gambit may be in trouble. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, is questioning the content of the decree. I am glad she is concerned about the First Amendment. I would be happier if she questioned the Obama-Bush conception of executive power that informs this effort.

Federal Reserve to Hold Press Conferences

Today Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke announced he would hold four annual press conferences, after select meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee.  The first such meeting will be on April 27 and will be webcast.

While I generally haven’t been a fan of Bernanke’s policy decisions, many of his “process” decisions, such as holding these press conferences, have been moves in the right direction of greater Fed communication with the public.  The Fed took some bold moves during and since the financial crisis – often without a word to the public.  Indeed, it is interesting that this announcement comes only a few days after the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of the Bloomberg suit demanding Fed disclosure of banks assisted during the crisis. 

It remains to be seen, however, if these press briefings provide any real substance or explanation of the Fed’s actions.  After all, I don’t think Bernanke’s appearance on “60 Minutes” really changed anyone’s mind.  But then again, the interview was fairly devoid of actual substance.  For these future press briefings to have any real value, the reporters involved are going to have to ask tough, insightful questions, rather than the fluff Bernanke is used to.

Then perhaps the real problem with the Fed’s communication strategy is that it has been only one-way.  By now we all know that Bernanke didn’t want to be the Fed chair that oversaw “Great Depression II,” or that he’s just a simple guy from Dillon, SC.  But how about some sense that Bernanke is not just lecturing, but listening?  Where’s the evidence that he understands the squeeze that rising food and gas prices put on the middle class?  Where’s the evidence that he gets that the “Phillips Curve” isn’t real?

I am going to hold out for the best.  Maybe these briefings will provide some substance where previous appearances have not.

The Transparency Contest Heats Up

Back in January, I wrote in Politico about the potential for House Republicans to “eclipse” President Obama on transparency. Perhaps the most important element of that piece was the subtle pun on the “government in the sunshine” motif. (Sunshine? Eclipse? Get it?) House Republicans appear to be more ready than ever to move forward on transparency with the announcement by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) of a working group to update the House’s use of technology.

That could end up as so much window dressing—Twitter accounts for everybody!—or it could result in substantive changes, such as publishing bills and amendments in real time (from committee markups, too) and tagging them with semantic data to make their meaning readily and instantly available to the public. How about publishing the House video feed (committee feeds, too) with real-time tags indicating what bill is being debated and who is speaking? That kind of data will give the public entrée to the House like they’ve never had before.

Meanwhile, President Obama seems to have ducked a meeting at which he was to receive an award for his transparency work. It didn’t strike me as quite fitting for him to get such an award. He’s good on transparency but has not reached the lofty goals he campaigned on. The House Government Reform Committee is having a hearing on the Freedom of Information Act today (9:30 am EST start-time), an area where the administration seems also to have come up short of expectations.

Now, whatever miscue prevented the president from accepting his transparency award is not substance, and the formation of a task force is not substantive change either. But the Republicans appear to have the keener interest in transparency at the moment.

Watch this space for the results of work we’ve been doing to show both Congress and the president how to be more transparent. So the irony is not lost on you the way that sunshine/eclipse pun was, I’ll put it in italics: You can’t see our transparency work quite yet. But soon we’ll set out what House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the Obama administration should be doing to win plaudits on the transparency merits.

Accountability in the New Congress

Just over a week ago, Politico ran a story noting that Justin Amash, a newly-elected House member from Michigan, had already voted “present” more often than his predecessor had in eight years. The story suggested that Amash was trying to avoid electoral responsibility for tough votes by voting present. In general, the story suggested that his “present” votes were a failure in some way to meet his responsibilities as a representative.

You can read Amash’s take on all this at his Facebook page. Although I have never met Amash, I have followed his political career over the past year or so. In Michigan, he emphasized  transparency and accountability. He reported and explained his votes on his Facebook page. He is continuing to do that here in Washington. Does that sound like a politician trying to avoid accountability?

Politico also reported some of Amash’s reasons for voting “present”: when he does not have “reasonable” time to review the legislation, when called upon to choose “between programs he hasn’t been given time to study,” when he has “procedural or constitutional concerns about a piece of legislation that has desirable ends,” and when he has a “substantial conflict of interest” — a situation that has not yet happened.

Amash sounds like a representative trying to take his obligations seriously. Apparently he feels he owes his constituents his best judgment about bills before the House and, absent enough time, he refuses to delegate his judgment to party elders or to mere caprice. It says something about the culture of the capital that Amash’s sense of fidelity to those who elected him occasions complaint.

The latest from Politico on Justin Amash confirms this impression. Among House GOP freshmen, he is the least likely to vote for the position taken by a majority of his class. That might be cause for concern since the GOP freshmen seem intent on cutting government spending. But I really doubt that Amash has gone native in DC. He is voting with the other GOP freshmen 70 percent of the time. It is possible that the other 30 percent of his votes reflect a concern for liberty or what he sees as the good of his constituents. Sometimes there is a great difference between being a party man and being a friend of liberty and a faithful representative.

More than a few Washington insiders are probably saying Amash is off to a rough start in his congressional career. I disagree. What I have seen so far, including these criticisms of him, confirm what I have thought for some time: Justin Amash is one of the most interesting and potentially important representatives to come to DC in a long time.

Sunlight Before Signing—-Graphed and Analyzed

I reported here a couple of weeks ago that at the mid-point of his term President Obama had narrowly exceeded 50% compliance with his Sunlight Before Signing pledge. Now it’s time to do some more analysis of how he has implemented his promise to post bills Congress sends him online for five days before signing them.

In a post late last year, I graphed the president’s improvement over time. His first year in office was dismal, but things got quite a bit better in the second year.

We can now graph the entire first half of the term, which confirms that improvement. (Click graphs for full-size images.) Compliance could easily have been better in December, but the graph shows 100% success in the first twenty days of January, which brings us to the exact mid-point of the term.

Now, 87 of the bills signed into law during the last Congress renamed a post office or other federal facility, and a couple dozen more were purely ceremonial or perfunctory. (Congress has a strange fixation on coins.) These matter quite a bit less than the bills that have a significant effect on government policy, and many passed at the end of the year. This raises the question: Do these “gimmes” inflate the president’s success rate?

So I cast around for some way to adjust the graph to reflect the “importance” of legislation. This might show us that the trivial bills get tanned and rested in sunlight, while the important ones are hustled through in the dark of night—fat and pale.

I thought of two potential proxies for importance: the attention Congress paid bills on their way through, and the number of pages in bills.

Sixty percent of the bills Congress passes go through without a final vote on passage in either house. Trivial bills regularly fly through the House on a voice vote. In the Senate it’s most often unanimous consent. Sometimes one house or the other takes a vote. It’s usually the House taking what’s called “suspension” vote. (“Suspension of the rules” is a procedure for fast-tracking non-controversial bills.)

In the number of votes taken on a bill, we have a rough proxy—very rough—for importance. Generally, a bill subject to one vote on final passage is more important than one subjected to no vote. And in general a bill subjected to two passage votes is more important than a bill subjected to just one or zero votes.

So I took the bill counts you see graphed in the first chart and used a multiplier on “bills presented” to show importance according to this proxy. The bills getting no vote got one point, bills getting one vote counted as two points, and bills getting two votes counted as three points.

The results, as you can see to the right are pretty similar. “Importance” as reflected in congressional voting doesn’t change things much.

But sometimes Congress forgoes votes on important bills. It’s hard to be sure exactly why, but it’s probably because the political balancing is so sensitive. (Public Law 111-8, the Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009, is an example. It got no vote in the House or Senate, though it contained hundreds of pages of instructions about how hundreds of billions of dollars would be spent.) Maybe there is no change between the two graphs because Congress and the president think alike about hustling through important bills.

So what about page counts? The number of pages in a bill is a second proxy for importance—one that Congress and the president can’t mask by treating certain bills with equal haste. It’s generally true that a higher page-count means that a bill has greater importance to the country. Obamacare was 906 pages.

This proxy is not 100% accurate. Public Law 111-322, the Continuing Appropriations and Surface Transportation Extensions Act, 2011, spent about $7,500 per U.S. family in just 14 pages of bill text. Using page-counts probably underweights its importance.

A graph showing the number of pages given sunlight versus the number of pages not given sunlight looks quite different.

It doesn’t upend the story that the Obama administration improved on Sunlight Before Signing over time—it did. But it shows that Congress and the president were more aggressive during the early part of the 111th Congress. During the latter stages, their ambitions dropped while the president began to execute on his “good government” Sunlight Before Signing promise.

March and October 2009 were two months when the president’s failure on Sunlight Before Signing are acute. Around 900 pages of legislative text didn’t get the public airing the president had promised.

But March 2010 is the stand-out in this chart. At this time, the president had begun to implement Sunlight Before Signing. He was 4 for 12 overall that month. The most significant legislation of his term so far—Obamacare—was not handled consistent with the ideals on which he based his candidacy for president, and the chart shows it. (I didn’t start in looking to reach this conclusion. It’s what I found when I went to see what the big bill was that passed in March.)

Notably, a few months later in July, the president’s remvamp of financial services regulation did get the Sunlight Before Signing treatment. Sunlight is not the death knell for the president’s priorities, of course. It’s a campaign promise he made. Steady execution on it would allow the people to develop the good civic habit of observing what goes on in Washington, D.C. rather than just throwing up their hands. This is likely to reduce demand for government—as a matter of consensus, not just because libertarians were more clever, more media savvy, or politically active over a given stretch of time.

My thanks to the Cato interns who helped with the data-collection drudgery. We’ll keep watching Sunlight Before Signing.