Tag: transparency

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.

Computer-Aided Reporting: Looking Where the Light Is Good

Upshot (New York Times) writer Derek Willis tweeted this morning, “We need to stop doing stories (and maps) with meaningless data.” At the link, a story on Vox charts the poorest members of Congress. It’s based on a Roll Call story published in September.

His main point, I think, is the failure of the data to reliably reflect what it’s supposed to. The disclosures on which these stories rely don’t include the value of homes members own, for example, and information is reported in broad bands, so it’s probably not very accurate and may be wildly inaccurate.

The data is meaningless in another, more important way. Neither story suggests any correlation between wealth (or its absence) and legislators’ behavior or fitness for office. It’s just a look at who has money and who doesn’t—uninformative infotainment. Maybe some readers stack up inferences to draw conclusions about Congress or its members, but this is probably an exercise in confirming one’s biases.

This illustrates a real problem for computer-aided journalism. When the only data available depicts a certain slice of the world, that will skew editorial judgments toward that slice of the world, overweighting its importance in news reporting and commentary.

In my opinion, reporting on public policy suffers just such a skew. There is relatively good data about campaign financing and campaign spending, which makes it easy to report about. The relatively high level of reporting on this area makes it appear more important while the actual behavior of public officials in office—the bills they sponsor, the contents of bills, amendments, votes, and the results for society—goes relatively unreported.

It won’t be the fix for all that ails reporting on public policy, but our Deepbills project makes essential content of legislation available as data. It vastly expands the territory around U.S. federal public policy that computer-aided jounalists can cover. Deepbills data has been picked up various places, but we need more adoption before it will provide all the value it can to a better-informed public.

Update: On Wednesday, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee will have a hearing on implementation of the DATA Act, which could yet further expand the data available to journalists, and all of us.

DATA Act Implementation

The administration is working to implement the DATA Act, which, if implemented well, could produce a sea-change in government transparency, and a shift of power from government insiders to the people.

Yesterday, I submitted to the Treasury Department’s Fiscal Service our 2012 “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices” study, along with the following comment, which notes the glaring absence of a machine-readable government organization chart.

In partial response to the notice, I’m pleased to submit the attached study, which may assist your inquiry.

Over several years, I have been studying transparency, which remains largely undelivered because it has been undefined.

In “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices,” you’ll find the results of that study. Transparency is produced by data that comes from an authoritative source, data that is complete, that is machine-discoverable, and that is machine-readable. When good data publication conditions obtain, the public and government managers alike, through information services, apps, and websites, will make use of the data to make the government more legible.

The study graded the quality of data publication about key entities in the legislative and budgeting/spending processes. The striking upshot was the absence of good data about a very elemental topic: the organizational units of the federal government. There is no machine-readable organization chart for the U.S. federal government. The absence of a machine-readable government organization chart stifles public and congressional oversight, and it frustrates internal management.

Producing machine-readable data that articulates what the organizational units of the federal government are should be a priority. It is probably one of the easier things to do technically, and it will produce important gains in transparency. Failure to produce and maintain a machine-readable federal government organization chart would also stand out if it is not done early on in DATA Act implementation.

We are currently in the process of re-grading data publication in the areas covered by the prior study. In future iterations of the grading study, I look forward to reporting that there is well-organized, complete information about all agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects, and the relationships among them.

Thank you!

Jim Harper

A cynic—and there might be one or two reading this blog!—would say that the government will never make itself transparent. Well, it certainly won’t if you don’t ask it to…