Tag: transparency

President Obama’s New E.O.: Open Data, Not Government Transparency

There’s a powerful irony lurking underneath the executive order and OMB memorandum on open data that the White House released in tandem today: We don’t have data that tells us what agencies will carry out these policies.

It’s nice that the federal government will work more assiduously to make available the data it collects and creates. And what President Obama’s executive order says is true: “making information resources easy to find, accessible, and usable can fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery that improves Americans’ lives and contributes significantly to job creation.” GPS and weather data are the premier examples.

But government transparency was the crux of the president’s 2008 campaign promises, and it is still the rightful expectation of the public. Government transparency is not produced by making interesting data sets available. It’s produced by publishing data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results.

Today’s releases make few, if any, nods to that priority. They don’t go to the heart of transparency, but threaten to draw attention away from the fact that basic data about our government, including things as fundamental as the organization of the executive branch of government, are not available as open data.

Yes, there is still no machine-readable government organization chart. This was one of the glaring faults we found when we graded the publication practices of Congress and the executive branch last year, and this fault remains. The coders who may sift through data published by various agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects can’t sift through data reflecting what those organizational units of government are.

Compare today’s policy announcements to events coming up on Capitol Hill in the next two weeks.

On Thursday next week (May 16), the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will host a “DATA Demonstration Day” to illustrate to Congress and the media how technology may cut waste and improve oversight if federal spending data is structured and transparent. (That would include my hobby-horse, the machine-readable federal government organization chart.) We’ll be there demo-ing how we add data to the bills Congress publishes.

On May 22nd, the House Administration Committee is hosting its 2013 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. This is an event at which various service providers to the House will announce not just policies, but recent, new, and upcoming improvements in publication of data about the House and its deliberations. (We’ll be there, too.)

The administration’s open data announcements are entirely welcome. Some good may come from these policies, and they certainly do no harm (barring procurement boondoggles–which, alas, is a major caveat). But I hope this won’t distract from the effort to produce government transparency, which I view as quite different from the subject of the new executive order and memorandum. The House of Representatives still seems to be moving forward on government transparency with more alacrity.

Legislative Data and Wikipedia Workshop—March 14th and 15th

In my paper, “Publication Practices for Transparent Government,” I talked about the data practices that will produce more transparent government. The government can and should improve the way it provides information about its deliberations, management, and results.

“But transparency is not an automatic or instant result of following these good practices,” I wrote, “and it is not just the form and formats of data.”

It turns on the capacity of the society to interact with the data and make use of it. American society will take some time to make use of more transparent data once better practices are in place. There are already thriving communities of researchers, journalists, and software developers using unofficial repositories of government data. If they can do good work with incomplete and imperfect data, they will do even better work with rich, complete data issued promptly by authoritative sources.

We’re not just sitting around waiting for that to happen.

Based on the data modeling reported in “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices,” and with software we acquired and modified for the purpose, we’ve been marking up the bills introduced in the current Congress with “enhanced” XML that allows computers to automatically gather more of the meaning found in legislation. (Unfamiliar with XML? Several folks have complimented the explanation of it and “Cato XML” in our draft guide.)

No, we are not going to replace the lawyers and lobbyists in Washington, D.C., quite yet, but our work will make a great deal more information about bills available automatically.

And to build society’s capacity “to interact with the data and make use of it,” we’re hoping to work with the best outlet for public information we know, Wikipedia, making data about bills a resource for the many Wikipedia articles on legislation and newly passed laws.

Wikipedia is a unique project, both technically and culturally, so we’re convening a workshop on March 14th and 15th to engage Wikipedians and bring them together with data transparency folks, hopefully to craft a path forward that informs the public better about what happens in Washington, D.C. We’ve enlisted Pete Forsyth of Wiki Strategies to help assemble and moderate the discussion. Pete was a key designer of the Wikimedia Foundation’s U.S. Public Policy Initiative—a pilot program that guided professors and students in making substantive contributions to Wikipedia, and that led to the establishment of the Foundation’s Global Education Program.

The Thursday afternoon session is an open event, a Wikipedia tutorial for the many inexperienced editors among us. It’s followed by a Sunshine Week reception open to all who are interested in transparency.

On Friday, we’ll roll up our sleeves for an all-day session in which we hope Wikipedians and experienced government data folks will compare notes and produce some plans and projects for improving public access to information.

You can view a Cato event page about the workshop here. To sign up, go here, selecting which parts of the event you’d like to attend. (Friday attendance requires a short application.)

Why Have a Machine-Readable Federal Government Organization Chart?

When I write and talk about getting better data about the federal government, its activities, and spending, I mostly have in mind strengthening public oversight by bringing computers to bear on the problem. You don’t have to know much about transparency, organizational management, or computing to understand that having a machine-readable government organization chart is an important start.

There should be a list, that computers can process, showing what agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects exist in the federal government and how they are related. Then budgets, bills in Congress, spending programs and actual outlays, regulations, guidance documents, and much more could be automatically tied to the federal organizational units affected and involved.

But it’s not only public oversight that would benefit from such a list.

Mike Riggs at Reason magazine has found that the Office of Management and Budget’s sequestration report issued last September listed a cut to the National Drug Intelligence Center’s budget even though the NDIC went out of business last June.

The first line item on page 121 of the OMB’s September 2012 report says that under sequestration the National Drug Intelligence Center would lose $2 million of its $20 million budget. While that’s slightly more than 8.2 percent (rounding error or scare tactic?), the bigger problem is that the National Drug Intelligence Center shuttered its doors on June 15, 2012–three months before the OMB issued its report to Congress.

That’s embarrassing for the administration, as it should be. Riggs asks, “Might there be other errors in the OMB’s report?”

Getting organized is not just about public oversight. Another reason to have a machine-readable federal government organization chart is to improve internal management and controls. This kind of mistake should be nearly impossible. People at OMB should be able to download the list of government entities at any time, day or night, and be sure that it is the correct listing that uniquely identifies and distinguishes all the organizational units of the federal government at that moment. We should be able to download it, too.

Unfortunately, OMB controller Danny Werfel has been riding the brake on transparency. He and the Obama administration as a whole should be stepping on the gas. In early February, the Sunlight Foundation found that more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending for fiscal year 2011 was misreported on USASpending.gov.

With All Due Respect, Mr. President, That Is Not True

Conor Friedersdorf notes that stay-at-home mom (and video blogger) Kira Davis asked tougher questions of President Obama on a recent Google+ “hangout” than Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes ever asked. You can watch the exchange in this video starting at the 35:10 mark.

In response to Davis’s question about transparency, President Obama said:

This is the most transparent administration in history, and I can document how that is the case. Everything from—every visitor that comes into the White House is now part of the public record. That’s something that we changed. Just about every law that we pass, every rule that we implement, we put online for everybody there to see.

With all due respect, Mr. President, that is not true.

Now, the White House has put visitor logs online. I was initially unimpressed with the achievement, but I do believe it took a good deal of effort, and there’s no discounting that. Perhaps it symbolizes how low the baseline for transparency has been. And alas the practice may have simply moved meetings out of the White House.

But it is not accurate to say, “Just about every law that we pass … we put online for everybody to see there.”

As a campaigner, President Obama promised to put every bill Congress sent him online for five days before signing it. As I recently reported again in a post called “Sunlight Before Signing in Obama’s First Term,” that was the president’s first broken promise, and in the first year of his administration he broke it again with almost every new law, giving just six of the first 124 bills he signed the exposure he promised. Over his first term, by my count, he gave less than 2/3rds of the bills he signed the promised sunlight.

And many important and controversial bills don’t get sunlight. (The post office renamings always do.) Recent bills denied promised sunlight include the controversial FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization and the “fiscal cliff” bill. Obamacare did not get sunlight—the president signed it the day after Congress presented it to him.

The first three laws President Obama has signed in the 113th Congress have not gotten the promised sunlight.

The Obama administration has taken some small pro-transparency steps, but far from what’s possible, and the House of Representatives is making the greater headway on transparency. President Obama has not put “just about” every bill sent him online. So, in the words of a stellar think tank here in D.C., “With all due respect, Mr. President, that is not true.”

Sunlight Before Signing in Obama’s First Term

Sunlight Before Signing” was President Obama’s 2008 campaign promise to put all bills Congress sent him online for five days before signing them. It was a measurable promise that I’ve monitored here since the beginning of his first term, and I will continue to do so in his second.

It was the president’s first broken promise, and in the first year he broke it again with almost every new law, giving just six of the first 124 bills he signed the exposure he promised.

With his first term concluded last month, we can now assess how well the president did with Sunlight Before Signing. Compliance with the promise got better, but it’s still not great. The president gave 413 of 665 bills five days of public review (and one he acceptably did not give five days due to emergency).

The easy bills almost always got five days review—few bills to rename post offices haven’t gotten sunlight. But more important bills often didn’t. Recent examples are the controversial FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization and the “fiscal cliff” bill.

  Number of Bills Emergency Bills Bills Posted Five Days %
2009 124 0 6 4.8%
2010 258 1 186 72.4%
2011 90 0 55 61.1%
2012 193 0 166 86.0%
Overall 665 1 413 62.3%

Would five days of public review have magically produced transparent government? Of course not. But imagine if the president had implemented and enforced his five-day promise from the beginning, and with every law.

Obama Lags House Republicans on Data Transparency

For the last two years, we have been working on the question of data transparency. In a paper last fall called Publication Practices for Transparent Government, we examined what it takes to foster transparency. And we started informally grading the quality of data put out by Congress and the administration. First, it was legislative data, which, as I reported here, needs improvement. (Also see our Capitol Hill briefing.) Then it was budget, appropriations, and spending data. In that area, “needs improvement” is an understatement. (And another Capitol Hill briefing.)

Now we are in a position to formally grade the quality of data coming out of the government. And the interesting finding, to be formally released on Monday, is that President Obama lags House Republicans in transparent data publication. The paper is called “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices.”

Obama is the president who ran in 2008 on strong promises of transparent government. Within minutes of his taking office on January 20, 2009, the Whitehouse.gov website declared: “President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history.”

His first presidential memorandum, issued the next day, was entitled “Transparency and Open Government,” and it declared:

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

That hasn’t really happened.

President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing campaign promise— his pledge to post laws to the White House website for five days of public comment before he signed them—was his first broken promise. It went virtually ignored in the first year of his administration.

But it wasn’t a lack of energy and creativity that derailed the transparency project.

It was a subtle “shift in vocabulary” in the open government effort. Instead of data about the core of government that made Obama’s campaign claims so attractive, data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results, the administration delivered data the government collects and warehouses about everything under the sun.

There is still no machine-readable organization chart for the federal government. The agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects of government—its basic building blocks—don’t have identifiers people could use to track the government with the aid of their computers. That is why, as you can see above, the administration gets very poor grades on its data publication practices.

Meanwhile, the Congress has plodded forward with data publication reforms that, although minor, represent progress. The House leadership, for example, produced docs.house.gov, at which it makes available the bills coming to the House floor in a format that can be automatically read and disseminated.

A follow-on, beta.congress.gov, will eventually replace the THOMAS Web site. THOMAS was revolutionary for its time, but ideally a basic web interface and bulk data access will make for a robust legislative information environment.

Congress’s grades are better than the administration’s, though nobody can argue that the job is done.

The report summarizes things this way:

Between the Obama administration and House Republicans, the former, starting from a low transparency baseline, made extravagant promises and put significant effort into the project of government transparency. It has not been a success. House Republicans, who manage a far smaller segment of the government, started from a higher transparency baseline, made modest promises, and have taken limited steps to execute those promises.

Transparency: Obama Lags House Republicans

Maybe President Obama made a mistake during the 2008 campaign, promising great strides in government transparency as he did. Because he hasn’t delivered them.

House Republicans, on the other hand, started from a better place than President Obama, made modest claims about how they would improve, and took some steps in the direction of improvement.

This makes it pretty easy to say that the president lags House Republicans in terms of transparency.

This afternoon, I presented at an Advisory Committee on Transparency panel about how well government data is published. You can see the grades I delivered to the right and below.

When the burst of transparency effort that began in 2008 started flagging, I figured we should probably come up with something measurable. Over the last couple of years, we’ve created models of what legislative processes would look like if they were published as really good data. We’ve done the same with budgeting and spending information.

Next, we’ve been assessing how well that data is currently published. See my previous reports here and here. Some of it is the responsibility of Congress. Some is the responsibility of the White House. And some of it is a divided responsibility. The little “Capitol” and “White House” icons tell you which.

How well is all this data published? Not well at all.

The worst of it is probably this: There is still no machine-readable federal government organization chart.

What that means is that there aren’t distinct identifiers computers could use to help us in organizing our oversight of the government. That makes it really, really hard to oversee the government. It makes it hard to gather what agencies, bureaus, projects, and programs are affected by the bills in Congress.

You know how easy it is to shop on Amazon or eBay? It should be that easy to keep track of what’s going in Congress. But the data isn’t there. That’s a failure of President Obama’s, who claimed he would deliver transparent government.

So here are the report cards we’ve produced, illustrating how Congress and the White House are doing on publishing data. None of the grades are very good, but where Congress has weak grades, the Obama Administration’s grades are horrible. The conclusion? Obama lags House Republicans on transparency.