Tag: transparency

More Cost Data and Better Debt Insight

Data-transparent government is still a ways off, but some small steps forward are underway. To wit, my project WashingtonWatch.com, which is adding new data going to the costs of bills in Congress.

As detailed in an announcement that went up this morning, many more bills on the site will have cost estimates associated with them, the product of research being done at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. Some bills spend pennies or less per U.S. family. Some spend $5,000 per family and more. Wouldn’t you like to know which are which?

The site has also begun displaying national debt information on a per-family, per-person, and per-couple basis. Your individual (official) debt—just for being an American—is about $45,000 dollars, your real debt far higher.

I’ll have much more to say on government transparency in the coming months. In the meantime, people may do their part to avoid the next calamitous debt ceiling debate by following the day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year in Congress using resources like WashingtonWatch.com. Shrinking our disastrously run and bloated government is a long game that starts with small steps. Channel your outrage productively, friends.

Sunlight Before Signing: Is President Obama Throwing It Under the Bus?

President Obama went to Puerto Rico two weeks ago. If you missed it, that might be because the trip was so brief—a mere four hours. Observing how the president “SEAL-Team-Sixed” it, Jon Stewart speculated that the president was not motivated by love of the island or a campaign promise to revisit it, but by courting Puerto Rican voters in important electoral states. It could be all of the above, of course.

It all reminded me of the president’s “Sunlight Before Signing” promise to post bills Congress sends him online for five days before signing them.

After the president’s dismal start with the promise at the beginning of his term, I speculated once or twice that he would focus on fulfilling campaign promises like Sunlight Before Signing after the mid-term election, when focus turned back to the presidential election coming up in 2012.

Well, the mid-term is behind us, and thoughts are turning to the next presidential election. Has that renewed the White House’s focus on Sunlight Before Signing?

No!

Of the twenty bills sent him by the 112th Congress so far, President Obama has posted only eight online for five days—under half. In fact, the poor numbers so far this year drive his overall tally down to exactly 50 percent compliance (counting in his favor the emergency bill that didn’t require posting). Fifty percent is a threshold he topped with some good Sunlight Before Signing compliance in December.

Number of Bills Emergency Bills Bills Posted Five Days
2009 124 0 6
2010 258 1 186
2011 20 0 8
Overall 402 1 200

As I’ve explored before, the bills that get sunlight lean toward the unimportant—post office renamings, Smithsonian appointments, and such—though a few substantive bills have gotten five days of exposure.

One can only speculate about the thinking in the White House, but there are two likely possibilities:

  1. It may not have crossed anyone’s mind that this clearly stated, measurable promise will have a bearing on the election. But the president’s low compliance with a transparency promise may hand his Republican challenger an issue.
  2. If it has come up, the president and his political advisers may have determined that Sunlight Before Signing is not a big enough issue compared to other political priorities. Getting legislation signed and off the table comes first. Sunlight Before Signing goes under the bus.

We’ll continue to follow the Sunlight Before Signing promise here, calling it the way we see it. It’s up to the president’s challengers and America to decide if this transparency promise is important, or if it’s roadkill.

Public Law Date Presented Date Signed Posted [(Linked)]? Posted Five Days?
P.L. 112-1, To provide for an additional temporary extension of programs under the Small Business Act and the Small Business Investment Act of 1958, and for other purposes 1/28/2011 1/31/2009 [1/28/2009] No
P.L. 112-2, A bill to designate the United States courthouse under construction at 98 West First Street, Yuma, Arizona, as the “John M. Roll United States Courthouse” 2/11/2009 2/17/2009 [2/11/2009] Yes
P.L. 112-3, The FISA Sunsets Extension Act of 2011 2/23/2009 2/25/2009 [2/23/2011 No
P.L. 112-4, The Further Continuing Appropriations Amendments, 2011 3/2/2011 3/2/2011 [3/2/2011] No
P.L. 112-5, The Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2011 3/3/2011 3/4/2011 No No
P.L. 112-6, The Additional Continuing Appropriations Amendments, 2011 3/17/2011 3/18/2011 No No
P.L. 112-7, The Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2011 3/30/2011 3/31/2011 3/30/2011 No
P.L. 112-8, The Department of Defense and Further Additional Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 4/9/2011 4/9/2011 No No
P.L. 112-9, The Comprehensive 1099 Taxpayer Protection and Repayment of Exchange Subsidy Overpayments Act of 2011 4/6/2011 4/14/2011 [4/7/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-10, The Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 4/15/2011 4/15/2011 [4/14/2011] No
P.L. 112-11, A bill to designate the Federal building and United States courthouse located at 217 West King Street, Martinsburg, West Virginia, as the “W. Craig Broadwater Federal Building and United States Courthouse” 4/14/2011 4/25/2011 [4/14/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-12, A joint resolution providing for the appointment of Stephen M. Case as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 4/14/2011 4/25/2011 [4/14/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-13, To amend the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act to extend the termination date for the Commission, and for other purposes 5/2/2011 5/12/2011 [5/2/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-14, The PATRIOT Sunsets Extension Act of 2011 5/26/2011 5/26/2011 No No
P.L. 112-15, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 12781 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Inverness, California, as the “Specialist Jake Robert Velloza Post Office” 5/26/2011 5/31/2011 [5/26/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-16, The Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2011, Part II 5/26/2011 5/31/2011 [5/26/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-17, The Small Business Additional Temporary Extension Act of 2011 6/1/2011 6/1/2011 [6/1/2011] No
P.L. 112-18, The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 6/1/2011 6/8/2011 [6/1/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-19, A joint resolution providing for the reappointment of Shirley Ann Jackson as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 6/21/2011 6/24/2011 [6/21/2011] No
P.L. 112-20, A joint resolution providing for the reappointment of Robert P. Kogod as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 6/21/2011 6/24/2011 [6/21/2011] No

Spending Transparency Gets a Head of Steam

It has been a promising week for spending transparency.

On Monday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (the DATA Act), to promote spending transparency in the federal government. Among other things it would establish standardized reporting requirements for recipients of money from the federal government, with that data to be collected in and distributed from a central, independent database. It would collect all agency expenditure data, as well, and combine it with the recipient-reported data.

Think of it as double-entry bookkeeping: you collect spending data from agencies, you collect receipt data from recipients, and if the numbers don’t match up, you go look there. There’s a lot more complexity to it than that, of course, but this is a significant bill from a Republican House leader who is working to follow through on his caucus’s commitment to transparency.

Not to be outdone (but really I don’t know whether it was coincidental or inspired by Representative Issa’s bill), Vice President Biden issued a statement mid-week about spending transparency and the Recovery.gov Web site’s new “Recovery Explorer” feature, which allows users to create and customize charts and graphs with the recipient-reported data. The more information, the better, though raw data about government deliberations, management, and results is the ideal.

The DATA Act turned bicameral and bipartisan yesterday with its introduction in the other house by Senator Warner (D-VA). It simply makes sense that the government’s books should be legible to the public, and Senator Warner obviously recognizes that.

Kudos to Senator Warner, Vice President Biden, and Representative Issa for focusing the light on spending transparency this week.

Shining a light is one thing, of course. We’ll look forward to the follow-up to this promising week in transparency—the week when federal spending in transparency in once-and-for-all delivered.

Thursday Links

Financial Crises as Information Problems

If you haven’t seen it already, be sure to give a read to Friedman Prize winner Hernando de Soto’s recent piece in Business Week, “The Destruction of Economic Facts.” It’s a fascinating perspective on the economic and financial turmoil that is wracking the United States and the world.

As de Soto perceives more easily from working in developing economies, an important input into functioning markets is good information—about property, ownership, debts, and so on. The “destruction of economic facts” is one of the roots of instability and uncertainty in Europe and the United States: “In a few short decades the West undercut 150 years of legal reforms that made the global economy possible.”

The law and markets are information systems, says de Soto:

The rule of law is much more than a dull body of norms: It is a huge, thriving information and management system that filters and processes local data until it is transformed into facts organized in a way that allows us to infer if they hang together and make sense.

If you’re interested in information and transparency, it’s worth a read.

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.