Tag: transparency

How Much Government Snooping? Google It Up!

The secrecy surrounding government surveillance is a constant source of frustration to privacy activists and scholars: It’s hard to have a serious discussion about policy when it’s like pulling teeth to get the most elementary statistics about the scope of state information gathering, let alone any more detailed information. Even when reporting is statutorily required, government agencies tend to drag their heels making statistics available to Congress – and it can take even longer to make the information more widely accessible. Phone and Internet companies, even when they join the fight against excessive demands for information, are typically just as reluctant to talk publicly about just how much of their customers’ information they’re required to disclose. That’s why I’m so pleased at the news that Google has launched their Government Requests transparency tool.  It shows a global map on which users can see how many governmental demands for user information or content removal have been made to Google’s ever-growing empire of sites – now including Blogger, YouTube, and Gmail – starting with the last six months.

So far, the information up there is both somewhat limited and lacking context.  For instance, it might seem odd that Brazil tops the list of governmental information hounds until you bear in mind that Google’s Orkut social network, while little-used by Americans, is the Brazilian equivalent of Facebook.

There are also huge gaps in the data: The United States comes in second with 3,580 requests from law enforcement at all levels, but that doesn’t include intelligence requests, so National Security Letters (tens of thousands of which are issued every year) and FISA warrants or “metadata” orders (which dwarf ordinary federal wiretaps in number) aren’t part of the tally. And since China considers all such government information requests to be state secrets – whether for criminal or intelligence investigations – no data from the People’s Republic is included.

Neither is there any detail about the requests they have counted – how many are demands for basic subscriber information, how many for communications metadata, and how many for actual e-mail or chat contents. The data on censorship is similarly limited: They’re counting governmental but not civil requests, such as takedown notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

For all those limits – and the company will be striving to provide some more detail, within the limits of the law – this is a great step toward bringing vital transparency to the shadowy world of government surveillance, and some nourishment to the data-starved wretches who seek to study it. We cannot have a meaningful conversation about whether censorship or invasion of privacy in the name of security have gone too far if we do not know, at a minimum, what the government is doing. So, for a bit of perspective, we know that U.S. courts reported a combined total of 1,793 (criminal, not intel) wiretaps sought by both federal and state authorities. Almost none of these (less than 1 percent) were for electronic interception.

This may sound surprising, unless you keep in mind that federal law establishes a very high standard for the “live” interception of communications over a wire, but makes it substantially easier – under some circumstances rather terrifyingly easy – to get stored communications records. So there’s very little reason for police to jump through all the hoops imposed on wiretap orders when they want to read a target’s e-mails.

If and when Google were to break down that information about requests – to show how many were “full content” as opposed to metadata requests – we would begin to have a far more accurate picture of the true scope of governmental spying. Should other major players like Yahoo and Facebook be inspired to follow Google’s admirable lead here, it would be better still.  Already, though, that one data point from a single company – showing more than twice as many data requests as the total number of phone wiretaps reported for the entire country – suggests that there is vastly more actual surveillance going on than one might infer from official wiretap numbers.

University of Maryland Beating Editorial

The Washington Post has an excellent editorial on the beating that Prince George’s County officers gave University of Maryland student John J. McKenna. As I said in this post, the beating, and the false charges filed against McKenna, would never have resulted in the suspension of (and possible charges against) the officers involved without video that showed the officers’ unwarranted aggression. As the Post puts it:

Instead, it was not until the video surfaced this week that Prince George’s Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton learned of it, he said, adding that he was “outraged and disappointed.” Why wasn’t he “outraged and disappointed” that his own police had not come forward earlier to report the incident? After all, media reports at the time included eyewitness accounts of excessive police violence. Wasn’t it Chief Hylton’s responsibility to investigate those allegations? The unavoidable conclusion is that had there been no video, the conspiracy of police silence and coverup would have succeeded.

McKenna was fortunate that his family had the resources to hire a private investigator to find the video. Not everyone is so lucky, and it makes the case for changing Maryland’s unanimous consent law for recording conversations, as this case highlights. Laws that prevent the recording of interactions with police prevent transparency in what is supposed to be an open and free society.

House Procedure—and Transparency in Collapse

Over on the WashingtonWatch.com blog, I’ve laid out in the simplest terms I could what’s going on in terms of procedure with health care overhaul legislation. The post, called “What is Deeming, Anyway?”, comes in at a mere 900 words… If you’re a real public policy junkie, you might like it.

But what about the transparency oriented processes that President Obama and leaders like Speaker Pelosi promised the public? Recall that the Speaker promised to post the health care bill online for 72 hours before a vote back in September.

There was debate about whether she stuck to her promise then. And it was probably a one-time promise. It’s almost certain that she will not do so now. If she lines up the votes to pass the bill, the vote will happen. Right. Then.

What about President Obama’s promise to put health care negotiations on C-SPAN? The daylong roundtable debate on health care was an engaging illustration of what happens when you do transparent legislating. Voters got a clearer picture of where each side stands—and perhaps saw that there actually is some competence on both sides of the aisle. Some competence.

The health care negotiations going on right now are the ones that matter. This is when the most important details are being hammered out. This is when the bargaining that draws the public’s ire is happening. But I’m not seeing it on C-SPAN.

President Obama’s promise may have been naive, but that doesn’t excuse breaking it. The inside negotiations going on this week represent an ongoing violation of the president’s C-SPAN promise.

And there’s good reason to anticipate that the president will violate his Sunlight Before Signing promise as well. This was his promise to post bills online for five days after he receives them from Congress before signing them into law.

The reason why I’m so confident of a prospective violation—aside from the promise being flouted more often than not—is that the White House has posted the Senate-passed health care overhaul bill on the “Pending Legislation” page of Whitehouse.gov. H.R. 3590 as passed by the Senate is right there in among the bills Congress has passed, which are getting their five-day public review.

If the White House plans to argue that the health care overhaul legislation got the five-day public review President Obama promised, that will not fly at all.

The substance of the Sunlight Before Signing promise is to post bills for five days after Congress’ final vote. (I’ve recommended starting the clock at “presentment,” the formal constitutional step when the president receives a bill from Congress.)

Something other than that, such as posting the Senate bill before it passes the House—while failing to post the “fixer” bill for five days—would fundamentally violate the president’s transparency promise.

What an irony if all this were to happen this week, which, after all, is Sunshine Week!

The President Comments on Sunshine Week

It is “Sunshine Week,” a time for attending to government transparency issues. And the president issued a statement today commemorating the occassion. Norm Eisen, the president’s special counsel for ethics and government reform, put a more detailed “Happy Sunshine Week” post on the Whitehouse.gov blog today as well.

The administration has done some good things, and there is no doubt that it means to do well. My pet transparency issue is one on which the news is not so good, however: the “Sunlight Before Signing” promise to post bills received from Congress for five days before they are made law.

When I last reported, the president was seven for 142 on fulfilling this promise. Of 142 bills subject to Sunlight Before Signing, only seven have been posted for five days. Since then another law has passed—H.R. 1299/P.L. 111-145, which was presented to the president on March 2nd, posted on Whitehouse.gov on March 4th, and signed into law the same day.

No emergency excuses the “United States Capitol Police Administrative Technical Corrections Act of 2009” from the sunlight treatment. Had it been posted, Americans may have had the opportunity to ask why a bill of that name establishes a “Corporation for Travel Promotion” to encourage international travel to the United States.

(Answer: S. 1023 was rolled into it, obscuring what Congress was doing in a common but insidious way. Cost of S. 1023 per U.S. family: about $24.)

The White House’s fulfillment of the Sunlight Before Signing promise now stands at seven for 143, or .049.

In his post, Norm Eisen said, “We are proud of our successes, but we of course recognize that much remains to be done, and we intend to redouble our efforts to make government as transparent, collaborative and participatory as possible.” And in his statement, the president said, “We are proud of these accomplishments, but our work is not done. We will continue to work toward an unmatched level of transparency, participation  and accountability across the entire Administration.”

The successes touted by Eisen and the president are real. We’re looking forward to more!

Just Give Us the Data! Transparency and Change

Yesterday my government transparency site WashingtonWatch.com rolled out a transparency campaign (along with many collaborators) called “Just Give Us the Earmark Data!”

Visitors to Earmarkdata.org are encouraged there to sign a petition asking Congress to publish data about earmarks in formats that are useful for public oversight. Developers can also participate in perfecting the data schema that will capture the “earmarks ecosystem” in the best possible way.

After a surprisingly successful effort at “crowdsourcing” earmark data last summer, the push for earmark transparency gained steam in January, when President Obama spoke about it in his State of the Union speech. A White House “fact sheet” issued the same day called for a “bipartisan, state-of-the-art disclosure database that allows Americans to examine the details of every proposed earmark.”

(We were going to ask for good earmark data anyway, but this gave the idea currency in a lot of quarters.)

The focus on earmarks and transparency got the political calculators whirring on Capitol Hill. “Is earmarking worth doing considering the political heat it is going to draw?”

One set of actors came up with their answer last week. House Democrats announced that they would restrict their earmarking only to non-profits. They want for-profit businesses seeking taxpayer money to go through conventional channels like competitive bidding.

The next day, House Republicans came back over the top of Democrats’ political bet. They announced that they would forgo earmarking entirely.

That’s House Democrats and House Republicans. Don’t assume that earmarking is going to go away. A good-government bidding war is on, though—spurred by the political challenge of transparency.

A couple of observations, least important first:

  • If it wasn’t obvious before, this illustrates that politicians are very capable political risk balancers. Indeed, surfing political waves is arguably the primary task of elected officials, most especially at the national level, and without this skill, they are goners. (That’s why looking for a wellspring of principle in an elected official usually gets you swamped in disappointment.)

    I’ve had a number of friendly cynics suggest that politicians wouldn’t mind earmark transparency—bringing home the bacon brings in the votes! This appears in general not to be true. There may still be earmarking from a hard core group who do perceive overall political benefits from it, but they’ll have to buck their parties, who do not.

    (Alas, I can’t say “I told you so!” because I tended to just grin and say “Maybe you’re right!” For future reference, I agree with the tendency, but doubt the direct outcome described in the adage attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” Thankfully, it’s more complicated than that.)

  • Notable: Elected officials’ political tuning is not just reactive. The anticipation of earmark transparency is what started this bidding war.This is especially worth noting with respect to President Obama’s “Sunlight Before Signing” promise, which I most recently reported on here. Skeptics have said that President Obama’s promise to post bills he receives from Congress online for five days before making them law wouldn’t make any difference because a bill that Congress has sent down Pennsylvania Avenue is already final. But a parochial amendment hanging out there for five days threatens to draw political discredit on its author and supporters—and their party. Sunlight Before Signing was a meaningful promise.

    (SBS has two advantages over the creditable “Read the Bill” proposal to hold bills 72 hours before a vote in Congress: 1) SBS takes advantage of interbranch rivalry, and 2) it was a campaign promise of the president!)

  • Broadly, this episode illustrates how transparency can bring welcome change. It’s correct to observe that earmarks represent only a tiny part of overall spending. But applying parallel transparency efforts to other parts of the legislative and regulatory processes are likely to elicit similar good behavior from government officials. There are manifold directions to go with government transparency. Each in its way stands to create political dynamics more congenial to good government and—more importantly—to liberty.

Grading Agencies’ High-Value Data Sets

I wrote here a few weeks ago about the “high-value data sets” – three per agency – that the federal government would soon be releasing at Data.gov. They were released on January 22nd, and we’ve been poring over them ever since. More on that below.

Tomorrow, agencies are supposed to have their “open government” sites put up – sites where they make their data feeds available and easily findable for the public. There are a couple of different sites monitoring when those sites are going up.  

Data, data, data – that means more direct oversight of the government by more people. We talked about all this at our December 2008 policy forum, Just Give Us the Data!

When I wrote recently about the release of agencies’ high-value data sets, though, I worried:

Rather than substantive insight into government management, deliberations, and results, we might get a lot of data-oriented play-toys… [P]ublic 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.

So I decided to grade them:

To help focus agencies on releasing the data that is high-value for genuine government transparency, I plan to examine the three data-streams each agency releases and grade the agencies on whether their releases provide insight into agency management, deliberations, or results.

With the help of Cato interns Solomon Stein and Sasha Davydenko, I assigned three points to each feed that had to do with management, deliberation, or results. The resulting numerical scores – 9, 6, 3, or 0 – translate into grades: A, B, C, or D respectively. F was reserved for agencies that didn’t produce feeds.

The results follow these few comments:

  • There’s no science to determining what is management, deliberations, or results. We made some judgement calls. But on the whole we feel pretty good about getting it right.
  • We graded the data sets that were posted on data.gov by the deadline. Several agencies have added data sets late. They get no credit. We’re not the “nice” teacher. We’re the mean one that you learn from.
  • Some agencies produced more than three of what they think are “high-value data sets.” If any three were actually about management, deliberations, or results, we gave them full credit.
  • Almost uniformly, the agencies came up with interesting data – but “interesting” is in the eye of the beholder. And interesting data collected by an agency doesn’t necessarily give the insight into government we were looking for. It’s data about the agency that matters.
  • Time and again, we found that “money is management.” If the data has to do with in-flow and out-flow of funds, chances are good that it’s high-value data. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with paying attention to the money. Accountants need love too.
  • The documentation of data sets probably had an effect on the grading. There were some data sets that were almost perfectly inscrutable. Agencies, imagine that you’re giving the data set to your Aunt Zelda. Have you described what it is well enough for her to understand?
  • Our grading did not take into account the quality of the data or its true utility for the purposes to which it might be put. That’s for people digging deeper to find out. We’re just going on what agencies said the data was about and how well that reveals their inner workings: their management, deliberations, and results. That’s our idea of high-value.

Without further ado, the results!

Department of Agriculture – D

The Ag Department produced data feeds about the race, ethnicity, and gender of farm operators; feed grains, “foreign coarse grains,” hay, and related items; and the nutrients in over 7,500 food items. That’s plenty to chew on, but none of it fits our definition of high-value.

Department of Commerce – C+

Commerce produced four feeds that it calls “high-value,” but we could only fully agree on one: “Patent Grant Maintenance Fee Events.” That’s a record of money coming in for patents granted from September 1, 1981 to the present. And money is management.

Another – applications received by a couple of broadband programs (assumedly for money) – is close enough to management that we plussed up Commerce’s grade. But the other two – collaboratively collected precipitation data, and information about billions of dollars worth of research stretching back to 1964 – might be high-precipitation or high-dollar, but it’s not what we think of as high-value.

Department of Defense – D

It was a good news-bad news story from the Department of Defense. On the good side, it produced an impressive six data-sets! But the bad overwhelms the good: not a one was high-value in our estimation. They were each just collections of survey data about absentee voting and election administration overseas.

DoD! Drop and give us 20 push-ups! Then go find us some better data feeds.

Department of Education – D

Ed didn’t make the grade. Its three feeds – really two feeds and a metadata file – contain 2007 data about fourth- and eighth-graders’ educational achievement, which doesn’t teach us anything at all about the agencies’ management, deliberations, or results.

Department of Energy – D

One might expect to be invigorated by data feeds from the Energy Department, but these feeds provide shockingly little insight into the agency’s operations. All six of its alleged “high-value” data feeds are bibliographic data about research studies and reports from scientific conferences. This information may give researchers somewhere a jolt, but it’s an information black-out on data about the agency itself.

Department of Health and Human Services – C

By our reckoning, HHS needed a bit of a helping hand to make its “C” grade. One feed wasn’t what the doctor ordered: a directory of all animal drug products that have been listed electronically since June 1, 2009. That data would tranquilize an elephant! (It may be helpful to Dr. Doolittle, of course, just not the government transparency effort.)

Edging close to high-value, but not enough for a full grade, was data on claims filed with HHS’s Office of Minority Health (OMH). More data and better documentation of the data might have won this feed a full letter.

But along with the OMH claims data, what breathed life into HHS’s data effort was the “Part B National Summary Data File.” For all of Medicare Part B, the data describes allowed services, allowed charges, and payment amounts. That’s important enough, and clear enough, that we classified it as “management” and scored one for HHS.

Department of Homeland Security – B

We agreed that two of DHS’s three data sets were high value. Under the simple rule that money is management, we credited the data about supplementary FEMA grants for public structure repair and the data about FEMA grants for mitigation of future disasters because they included dollar figures. The list of all federally declared disasters is no doubt interesting, but not high-value for our purposes – a transparent agency.

Department of Housing and Urban Development – D

HUD was another agency producing interesting and relevant data – but not high-value for transparency purposes. Its data feeds include information about housing authorities and properties, as well as data about lawsuits, but not information about the management, deliberations, or results of the agency itself.

Department of Justice – D

Interesting data is not necessarily high-value, and the Department of Justice also falls into that trap. The data it provides about prison populations and prison employment might be good for researchers, but it’s not so helpful to the people who want to understand how the Justice Department does its work.

Department of Labor – A

The Department of Labor really got to work and put out some helpful data! DoL’s “Research and Evaluation Inventory” includes costs for various projects along with their current status. The Workforce Investment Act Net Impact Evaluation Dataset shows how programs created under this law affected employment – results! And the Project GATE (Growing America Through Entrepreneurship) Final Evaluation Dataset does the same.

This is great work by the Department of Labor to produce some truly revealing information.

Department of State – D

The State Department may have come up with some of the least helpful information of all agencies. Data about attendance at international exchange and training programs in East Asia and Eurasia is only slightly more helpful at exposing the workings of the agency than the dreary ”Bibliographical Metadata of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series.” That’s right – a list of books. (Alas, we’re being unkind. Someone loves these books, so we do too. But you’ll forgive us if we don’t read them just now, or look at the data about them ever again.)

Department of Interior – D

Interior has mastered the “interesting, not high-value” category. Its four data-releases reveal: counts of wild horses and burros in various areas; a list of government-designated recreation areas; data about wildland fires and acres burned from 1960 through 2008 (updated annually); and a list of ways to work for the government for free. Interesting … but no thanks.

Department of the Treasury – C

Tax Year 2007 County Income Data is not high-value. The latest quarterly report on bank derivatives activities is not high-value either.

But the Treasury Department’s purchases, trades, or other dispositions of troubled assets in the TARP program (Targeted Investment Program) – that’s high-value! With one true high-value data set, Treasury earns a “C.”

Department of Transportation – D

Steering the public away from its own functions, the Transportation Department released feeds about tire safety, vehicle safety ratings, and child safety seats. This is good data to have, of course, but it doesn’t drive openness about the department itself.

Department of Veterans Affairs – C

Data about Veterans Compensation and Pension by County doesn’t make the cut as far as high-value, but we were willing to salute the release of data about “the factors that impact veterans’ employability resulting from participation in the VR&E Program.” This is in the “results” category – data that can reveal how, and how well, a program works. For producing this information, the Veterans Department gets a respectable “C.”

Central Intelligence Agency – F

Secrecy has its place, but not when it comes to data about the operation of the CIA. With no data released, the CIA gets an “F.”

Consumer Product Safety Commission – F

Our frustration at the lack of data from the CPSC had us gnashing our teeth – on lead-painted toys!

Environmental Protection Agency – D+

The EPA’s data sets about new ways to test chemicals’ toxicity levels and water quality measures for the Chesapeake Bay are great. But they’re not our idea of high-value, which is data that goes to agencies’ management, deliberations, and results. We give the agency a little credit for TRI-CHIP, the Toxics Release Inventory Chemical Hazard Information Profile dataset, just because it’s so important. But overall we didn’t get a look into the agency from its data.

Executive Office of the President – A

With the president’s focus on transparency, the EOP had better get this right! And it did. We agree that five out of six of its data sets are high-value.

A crosscut of data about budget authority for global change research activities reveals what is going on across the government on this issue. A similar set of data goes to nanotechnology work across agencies. Same with research and development budget in the area of networking and information technology across agencies for FY09 and FY10.

We even like the “improper payments” data. Hate the sin, love the sinner; don’t blame it on the messenger – pick your trite saying: We like to see this data, even if the underlying substance is regrettable.

The stinker in the bunch is no stinker at all, by the way. It’s historical data on economic forecasts. But that doesn’t provide insight into today’s EOP.

Overall, a clear “A” for the Executive Office of the President. More than three data feeds that are indeed high-value.

Export-Import Bank of the United States – D+

The user ratings that others gave to the Ex-Im bank raised their grade over a flat D. At least someone likes this data. But it’s so poorly documented that we couldn’t tell whether the data sets are high value or not.  You read this and tell us what it means:

This file contains the small business authorizations recorded during FY 2010 up to the last month closed in the Bank’s financial and administrative systems.

OK. Authorizing who…? To do what…? Give us something we can work with Ex-Im Bank! Your data isn’t going to sell itself!

Federal Bureau of Investigation – F

Our investigation turned up no data. We’re throwing the FBI in the transparency slammer.

Federal Communication Commission – F

Failing to release data is pretty uncommunicative, don’t you think?

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation – F

No data? No credit. Do not pass go. Do not insure $200.

Federal Election Commission – F

Does it take an election campaign to get data out of you?

Federal Reserve Board – D

The Fed issued two feeds: 2008 home mortgage loan application register data, and 2008 data on small business, small farm, and community development lending. Sorry – no and no.

Federal Trade Commission – F

We think that running an agency without data transparency is an unfair and decptive trade practice.

General Services Administration – A

The agency that’s central processing for management of government should get this right, and GSA did. We agree that five of GSA’s seven feeds are high-value.

The cash and payment management data gets credit, especially under the general rule that money is management. We were interested to see three different data feeds dealing with federal advisory committees.  The membership of these committees help guide agencies’ policymaking, so we credit these as being data about ”deliberation.” The dataset that “represents time taken to hire a GSA employee,” well, we’re not sure about that – maybe management.

The catalog of federal domestic assistance is good to have out there, and the list of federal government contractors too. But those don’t get right at management, deliberation, or results. Those duds notwithstanding, GSA has three high-value data feeds and gets an “A.”

Merit Systems Protection Board – B

Credit goes to the MSPB for its data feeds on petitions for review received, decided, and pending by month at MSPB headquarters. Same for data on initial appeals received, decided, and pending by month for its regional and field offices. These are both management data if we ever saw it.

But we found meritless (for our purposes, anyway) the data store of 2007 survey responses summarizing the existence of positive performance management practices and employee engagement scores. Whatever that is doesn’t seem like the stuff we want to learn from the MSPB.

NASA – D

You know you can count on NASA for cool data, but cool does not necessarily mean high-value. Its contributions – data about nighttime surface temperatures on earth, images of earth, and estimates of the horizontal near-surface currents of the Tropical Pacific ocean – don’t open up the true final frontier: NASA’s inner workings.

National Archives and Records Administration – D

NARA produced some important – if mind-numbing – data, none of which unfortunately deserves credit as high-value. XML versions of the Code of Federal Regulations are neat, but that’s no insight into NARA. The Archival Research Catalog data set is an important record of what NARA has produced, but it’s not about the workings of the agency. 

The Organization Authority Files data set contains a highly detailed presentation of the evolution of names and administrative histories of Federal and non-Federal organizations. That’s catnip for a researcher into federal administrative history. It’s valium for those of us seeking after open government.

National Science Foundation – C

The NSF – funder of so much data collection – comes up pretty anemic when the question is data about itself. Generously, we’ve given it credit for data about FOIA requests: received processed, response times, and so on.

Its data feeds naming fellowship award recipients and revealing grant funding rates don’t do enough to show the public how the agency works. For the one decent feed, though, NSF garners itself a “C.”

National Transportation Safety Board – D

The NTSB is really good at collecting and disseminating transportation safety information, but what about NTSB-focused information? Not so good. Perhaps it’s an excess of modesty, but the NTSB’s 12 self-identified high-value data sets don’t meet our criteria even once.

NTSB’s data is all about the accident statistics, which is no surprise because the agency has so much of that data near at hand. We want to see what’s in its head and its heart, though, with data reflecting the agency’s management, deliberation, and results. From that perspective, this data was a wreck.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission – C+

The NRC’s one data feed is a thing of beauty: a list of contracts for greater than $100,000, their purposes, suppliers, dollar amounts, effective dates, NRC identifying number, and award types. That’s just the kind of information that can help one see how the agency is run.

Now if they could just find two more like that…

Overseas Private Investment Corporation – C

OPIC provided two data sets about greenhouse gas emissions attributable to projects the agency is committed to. That’s neither here nor there when it comes to core tranparency, though it might be all there for someone researching the environmental impacts of OPIC.

We did credit OPICs data about the net impact on the economic and social development of OPIC projects’ host countries.

Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation – B

The PBGC produced some pretty good data.  One spreadsheet contains a list of multiemployer plans receiving financial assistance payments from the PBGC from the period 2005 through 2009. That’s management. Key financial data from PBGC’s financial statements for the periods ending September 30, 1992 through September 30, 2009? Remember the rule: money is managment.

The one that we couldn’t see clear to credit was  list of all single-employer defined-benefit pension plans trusteed by the PBGC since its creation in 1974. That’s data about the agency that could be useful for oversight, but it’s too far back into history rather than the present-day functioning of the agency. All in all, though, a respectable “B” for the PBGC.

Railroad Retirement Board – D

The RRB produced statistical data about railroad workers, retirees, and annuitants, but nothing that gives us insights about the agency, so nothing we would call high-value.

Securities and Exchange Commission – F

Shares of this agency’s stock are falling.

Small Business Administration – D

Useful data, maybe. But the SBA didn’t manage to produce any data about itself. One data set is a collection of federal, state and local licenses, permits and registrations small businesses need to operate. (Can we say we’d like that list to be shorter?) Another data set is a collection of links to federal, state, and local financial assistance programs for small businesses. That’s fine data, but not high-value. Finally, there’s a “mashup” of URLs for city and county web sites and city and county location data. Cool data, but not valuable in terms of what we’re looking for.

Social Security Administration – A

SSA declared a whopping 14 of its data sets to be high-value. In among that, there had to be three high-value data sets, and there were.

Like SSA’s disability claim acceptance rates, for example. That’s good management data. Same with data on hearings before administrative law judges and their dispositions. Workload indicators for each hearing office in the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (i.e., pending, receipts, dispositions and average processing time) – it seems mind-numbingly boring, but it’s also management data that we’ll treat here as high-value.

Kudos to SSA for getting the data out.

U.S. Agency for International Development – B

We really liked USAID’s database containing funding levels of U.S. Trade Capacity Building (TCB) activities designed to promote economic growth through international trade. With that data set, USAID is “TCB” in a different sense – takin’ care of business. We also credited statistics about U.S. official development assistance detailing it by country and implementing agency.

We couldn’t credit the data set containing U.S. economic and military assistance by country from 1946 to present. Historical data, good. But unless it shows how an agency or program produced results, it’s not our idea of “high-value.”

Solid job by USAID, though, and a “B.”

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – D

The EEOC might want to put an ad in the paper looking for a database administrator. Its one feed doesn’t cut it as high-value for our purposes. Statistics on employment by race, occupation, gender, state and job category are good to have around, but they don’t let us see how the EEOC does its work.

Is Government Transparency Headed for a Detour?

With a year in office, and perhaps under some pressure to deliver on promises of transparency and change, the White House went on a little PR offensive this week. It rolled out a blog post and a video claiming the transparency successes of the administration’s first year. A lot has gone on, and it’s worth a review. It’s also worth noting some signals that the government transparency project could be heading for a slight detour.

In the video — a little infomercial-y, but tolerable and interesting — federal chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra cites several examples of government use of technology. A system called ISDS Distribute helps the government monitor flu outbreaks, for example, akin to Google.org’s Flu Trends. Chopra touted the benefits of machine readability and the Agriculture Department’s release of data about a thousand most commonly eaten foods. (I’m not sure if this is it, but if not it’s probably something similar. Someone like Mike could use it to build a site that is further along than 1996’s state-of-the-art.) And Chopra discussed the platforms they are building at apps.gov to help agencies draw on the participation and engagement of the public. Putting aside how these illustrate the federal government’s distended role, these are all fine things.

White House ethics counsel Norm Eisen cited the release of visitor records as “one of the big innovations in the White House” over the past year. (Good, yes. But “big”?) Eisen dodged the question about why health care negotiations are not on C-SPAN.

In response to a question about putting federal advisory committees online, Chopra told of a recent meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers for Science and Technology, which was telecast live on the web and archived.

Finally, Chopra touted the planned January 22nd roll-out of data feeds from every federal agency under a recent open government memorandum — three “high-value data sets” per agency. In working toward this, Chopra said, “the conversation is all about what would help you do what you do better.  How can we advance our shared goals of reducing disparities in health care, improving our commitment  to renewable energies, advancing our collective educational results?”

This language and some of the examples cited in the video cause me to worry that the transparency effort may be heading for a detour. Rather than substantive insight into government management, deliberations, and results, we might get a lot of data-oriented play-toys.

According to the memorandum:

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.

That’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.

The kind of substance the transparency community expects is well represented in a  report issued jointly by the Center for Democracy and Technology and OpentheGovernment.org in March of last year. It’s called “Show Us the Data: Most Wanted Federal Documents,” and it asks for access to important research and governmental process information with the capacity to generate real insights into government and its operations.

Interesting data that the agency has collected or produced may be just that — interesting — but the heart of the government transparency effort is getting information about the functioning of government. Once we have these core elements of transparency captured, other data are absolutely good to have. But let the starting point be the workings of agencies themselves.

To help focus agencies on releasing the data that is high-value for genuine government transparency, I plan to examine the three data-streams each agency releases and grade the agencies on whether their releases provide insight into agency management, deliberations, or results.

As I examine the agency’s data feeds, I’ll use their proximity to true government transparency to assign them a letter grade, awarding them three points for each feed that has to do with management, deliberation, or results. These numerical scores — 9, 6, 3, or 0 — I’ll translate into grades: A, B, C, or D. (Nobody fails when the criteria only came out a week in advance.) F is reserved for agencies that don’t produce feeds.

This rubric for rating the data that agencies release seems reasonably objective, and a decent measure of which agencies are really responding to the demand for transparency and change, and which are pushing interesting data out as a smokescreen against deeper insights and reform. Hopefully, this effort at focusing agencies on true high-value data will see some uptake among my colleagues in the transparency community (if I haven’t alienated them with my endless harping on President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing promise). Watch this space for agency grades shortly after the release of the feeds.