Tag: transparency

President Obama Needn’t Go to SXSW…

In his weekly address last Saturday, President Obama touted the importance of technology and innovation, and his plans to visit the popular South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. He said he would ask for “ideas and technologies that could help update our government and our democracy.” He doesn’t need to go to Texas. Simple technical ideas with revolutionary potential continue to await action in Washington, D.C.

Last fall, the White House’s Third Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America included a commitment to develop and publish a machine-readable government organization chart. It’s a simple, but brilliant step forward, and the plan spoke of executing on it in a matter of months.

Having access to data that represents the organizational units of government is essential to effective computer-aided oversight and effective internal management. Presently, there is no authoritative list of what entities make up the federal government, much less one that could be used by computers. Differing versions of what the government is appear in different PDF documents scattered around Washington, D.C.’s bureaucracies. Opacity in the organization of government is nothing if not a barrier to outsiders that preserves the power of insiders—at a huge cost in efficiency.

One of the most important ideas and technologies that could help update our government and democracy is already a White House promise. In fact, it’s essentially required by law.

Just Give Us the Data! End-of-Term Org-Chart Edition

Public oversight of government and internal managment could both improve dramatically with an authoritative, machine-readable representation of what the federal government is. Right now, there isn’t a list of all of the federal government’s agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects. That’s a big part of why the government is run so badly and so impervious to change. The government is illegible, even to many insiders.

Happily, the Obama Administration recently promised to produce a machine-readable federal government organization chart. And it promised to do so in a matter of months. That’s something the administration can do to leave a lasting legacy and fulfill an important part of his promise of more transparent government, something we touted here in a 2008 policy forum, Just Give Us the Data!

Obama Administration Promises a Machine-Readable Federal Government Organization Chart

The Open Government Partnership is an “international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens.” Shortly after the OGP’s creation, in my November 2012 study, “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices,” I gave the OGP unenthusiastic praise. It appeared to substitute meetings about open government with actual forward motion on the government transparency that President Obama promised in his first presidential race.

But an important commitment emerged late last month from the “Third Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America.” The plan includes “a wide range of actions the Administration will take over coming months to strengthen, deepen, and expand upon” U.S. open government efforts. Among them (at the bottom of page 10) is the commitment  to develop a machine-readable government organization chart. 

The lack of a machine-readable government organization chart has been an emphasis of mine in writings and speeches since at least 2012. The Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott cited my quest for one in a favorite article calling me a “digital Diogenes.”

Having access to data that represents the organizational units of government is essential to effective computer-aided oversight and effective internal management. Presently, there is no authoritative list of what entities make up the federal government, much less one that could be used by computers. Differing versions of what the government is appear in different PDF documents scattered around Washington, D.C.’s bureaucracies. Opacity in the organization of government is nothing if not a barrier to outsiders that preserves the power of insiders—at a huge cost in efficiency.

The promise to produce a useful organization chart is not self-delivering, of course, and there are ways that this commitment could go off the rails. But the phrasing of the commitment suggests understanding of what a well-published digital organization chart is.

The General Services Administration and National Archives Office of the Federal Register will “capture agencies’ organizational directories as machine-readable raw data in a consistent format across the U.S. Federal government.” That suggests to me that the relationships among agencies, bureaus, and program offices (to use one nomenclature) will be represented in a consistent manner government-wide. Each sub-unit of government must have a unique identifier that embeds its relationship to its parent, like the identifiers in this document published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 2008. We’re not talking about a flat digital phone book.

It is not clear whether this commitment is a commitment of the Obama Administration to make this the authoritative organization chart. Obviously, an org chart that doesn’t accurately represent and guide the government’s own actions is not much of an org chart. But if the White House (i.e. OMB) and other important actors such as the Treasury Department (which cuts the checks) rely on and use this machine-readable government organization chart, then we will really have something. That will raise the pressure on Congress to make its processes more transparent by referring to agencies and their sub-units in legislative documents using the same identifiers.

I’ll report here on the success or failure of the project. The national action plan does not give a definitive timeline or deadline, but it does speak of action on its commitments in terms of “months.”

Better Data, More Light on Congress

There’s an old joke about a drunk looking for his keys under a lamp post. A police officer comes along and helps with the search for a while, then asks if it’s certain that the keys were lost in that area.

“Oh no,” the drunk says. “I lost them on the other side of the road.”

“Why are we looking here?!”

“Because the light is better!”

In a way, the joke captures the situation with public oversight of politics and public policy. The field overall is poorly illuminated, but the best light shines on campaign finance. There’s more data there, so we hear a lot about how legislators get into office. We don’t keep especially close tabs on what elected officials do once they’re in office, even though that’s what matters most.

(That’s my opinion, anyway, animated by the vision of an informed populace keeping tabs on legislation and government spending as closely as they track, y’know, baseball, the stock market, and the weather.)

Our Deepbills project just might help improve things. As I announced in late August, we recently achieved the milestone of marking up every version of every bill in the 113th Congress with semantically rich XML. That means that computers can automatically discover references in federal legislation to existing laws in every citation format, to agencies and bureaus, and to budget authorities (both authorizations of appropriations and appropriations).

A Transparency Milestone

This week, I reported at the Daily Caller (and got a very nice write-up) about a minor milestone in the advance of government transparency: We recently finished adding computer-readable code to every version of every bill in the 113th Congress.

That’s an achievement. More than 10,000 bills were introduced in Congress’s last-completed two-year meeting (2013-14). We marked up every one of them with additional information.

We’ve been calling the project “Deepbills” because it allows computers to see more deeply into the content of federal legislation. We added XML-format codes to the texts of bills, revealing each reference to federal agencies and bureaus, and to existing laws no matter how Congress cited them. Our markup also automatically reveals budget authorities, i.e., spending.

Want to see every bill that would have amended a particular title or section of the U.S. code? Deepbills data allows that.

Want to see all the bills that referred to the Administration on Aging at HHS? Now that can be done.

Want to see every member of Congress who proposed a new spending program and how much they wanted to spend? Combining Deepbills data with other data allows you to easily collect that imporant information.

Congress’s Blank-Check Bills

Luke Rosiak at the Washington Examiner filed a report late last week on a little recognized, but important congressional practice: proposing open-ended spending. In the last Congress, fully 700 bills proposed spending without limits. That’s a lot.

A quick primer: congressional spending is a two-step process. First, there must be an authorization of appropriations. Then Congress appropriates funds, providing actual authority for executive branch agencies to spend.

The committees in Congress are divided by type between authorizing committees and appropriations committees. Authorizers are supposed to do the bulk of the oversight and authorize spending at amounts they determine. Appropriators would then dole out funds specifically. But over the years, the division of labor has shifted and power has collected in the appropriations committees, whose members are often referred to as “cardinals” … like “College of Cardinals.”

Backward incentives explain this. Members of Congress who authorize spending naturally appear to be pro-spending, which has political costs. The costs are at their worst when a specific amount is involved. “Senator So-and-So wants to spend $50 million on what?!” So many authorizing committees shirk their duties by eschewing reauthorization of the agencies in their jurisdiction. And sometimes the trick is authorizing spending of “such sums as may be necessary,” which doesn’t provide as good an angle for political attack.

representatives who wrote the most blank checksThat would make appropriators the only drag on spending, but it doesn’t because of a second perversion in politics. Appropriators get good enough at gathering the political emoluments of spending that they overcome the negatives and become an institutional pro-spending bloc. As Mike Franc of the Heritage Foundation put it in 2011, “appropriators, their professional staff, and legions of lobbyists serve as a mutually reinforcing triad bent on increasing spending today, tomorrow, and forevermore.”

Rosiak notes that the House Republican leadership cautioned against open-ended spending proposals at the beginning of the 113th Congress. Consequently, Republican blank-check bills are more rare. The top open-ended spenders are all Democrats, and they’re all on the party’s left wing.

So what’s to be done?

In 2010, the Senate joined the House in banning earmarks. This came after a few short years of applied transparency in the earmark area, including a contest to gather earmark data conducted by yours truly on WashingtonWatch.com. A group called Taxpayers Against Earmarks (now Ending Spending) applied some direct pressure. And a host of other groups were involved, of course.

The practice of proposing open-ended spending could similarly be curtailed with public oversight and pressure.

So who should do that work?

We’ve already started. Rosiak’s story was produced using the Cato Institute’s Deepbills data.

Police Body Cameras Raise Privacy Issues for Cops and the Public

Advocates of increased transparency in law enforcement are understandably keen to see more police officers wearing body cameras. Not only is there some evidence that police officers wearing body cameras contributes to a decline in police “use-of-force” incidents, footage from police cameras has provided useful evidence to those investigating allegations of police misconduct. Yet despite the benefits of police body cameras there are serious privacy concerns that must be considered and addressed as they become more common.

Perhaps the most obvious privacy concerns are those of the civilians filmed by police officers. If footage from police body cameras is considered public record then hours of footage of innocent people’s interactions with police officers is potentially available. It is not hard to imagine a situation in which police officers wearing body cameras enter someone’s home and leave without making an arrest. Footage of that encounter could reveal embarrassing or private information about the homeowner.

In November of last year it was reported that Washington police departments were reviewing their policies related to dash cameras and body cameras in the wake of an increase in requests for footage from the public via public record requests. As the ACLU has pointed out, Washington is one of the states where body camera footage is considered “susceptible to public release upon request.”

At the end of last month, members of the North Dakota House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would exempt police body camera footage of the inside of a private place from a public record request. North Dakota House member Kim Koppelman, who introduced the bill, said that the legislation would protect civilians in situations similar to the one I outlined above. Koppelman reportedly introduced the bill “at the request of West Fargo Police Chief Michael Reitan.” Koppelman and Reitan may be primarily concerned with the privacy of civilians, but a civilian could have a genuine interest in seeing the footage gathered by police officers in her home, especially if she believes that officers damaged property or behaved poorly.

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