Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Left Hand, Meet Right Hand: The U.S. National ID Bureaucracy

One reason to avoid the creation of a national ID system in the United States is that it would facilitate direct regulation of Americans from Washington, D.C. If you want to see why we should minimize regulation of the states and people from Washington, look no further than the Department of Homeland Security’s administration of of the U.S. national ID program itself.

Congress is at fault for the passage of the REAL ID Act, of course. It didn’t even hold a hearing to assess the merits or difficulties of coercing states into implementing a national ID. But the Department of Homeland Security has made a continuing hash of the national ID program since then.

Passed in May 2005, the REAL ID Act called for states to begin issuing national IDs in three years. DHS took until January 2008—four months before the deadline—to issue final regulations telling states what they were expected to do.

Needless to say, the DHS had to issue deadline extensions, as it has done repeatedly and en masse ever since. When states learned the costs and consequences of producing a national ID, more than half objected or barred themselves from complying. DHS has given every state extensions for the last eight years, whether it wanted to or not, and every state is operating under an extension right now.

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.”

Predicting the Return of ‘The Final Frontier’

It’s not often that a regulatory policy analyst correctly predicts a pop culture development a decade out, so…

Back in the spring of 2005, law professor Christopher Yoo (then at Vanderbilt, now at Penn) argued in Regulation that the Federal Communications Commission should liberalize its “structural regulations”—controls on such things as how the broadcast spectrum can be used, cable TV rates, ownership of different media outlets in a geograpic market, etc. He explained that those controls limit the diversity of voices and programming in mass media, making it mainstream-directed, because such programming is most profitable under those rules.

About the time his article appeared, the now-defunct UPN Network announced its cancellation of the series Star Trek: Enterprise, the most recent TV installment of the Star Trek franchise. The reason was low ratings; Trek fans are fervant and typically middle to upper class, but they were not a big enough market segment for UPN and its desired advertisers. However, those characteristics made the fans an ideal market for a paying-subscriber-supported Star Trek—something that Yoo’s reforms would have allowed, but FCC regulations prohibit.

Seeing the news hook, Yoo and I wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Examiner explaining all this and concluding

Hopefully, if the “Star Trek” series gets yet another revival, it will be in a mass communications environment where niche shows have a better chance to live long and prosper.

Unfortunately, the FCC hasn’t adopted the reforms we envisioned (if anything, going in the opposite direction). But human innovation—both in technology and business—often finds ways around government barriers.

This week, the CBS Network announced that a new Star Trek series will launch in January 2017, exclusively on CBS’s Internet-delivered subscriber service All Access. The move will attempt to do exactly what Yoo and I foresaw: tap the Trek fanbase to see if it is a viable market for the show.

It can’t be said that CBS is boldly going where no one has gone before. Cable and satellite services, premium channels like HBO and Starz, and streaming services like Hulu and Netflix have already entered the final frontier of subscriber-supported content, delivering high-quality but niche-audience new programming such as original series Game of Thrones and House of Cards, reboots like Battlestar Galactica, and network-cancelled series like The Mindy Project. They can do this, in part, because they can escape many of the FCC’s diversity-dampening regulations—for now at least. 

Unfortunately, the FCC hovers as menacingly as a Romulan starship, as evidenced by the recently adopted net neutrality regulations. Still, let’s hope that CBS’s new venture lives long and prospers.

They Represent D.C. in New Mexico

In a recent The Hill piece on the REAL ID debate in New Hampshire, I wrote about the complaint against federal legislators who cease representing their states in Washington, D.C., and start representing Washington, D.C., in their states.

That seems to be happening in New Mexico, where four of five members of the congressional delegation are at best standing by worrying about a Department of Homeland Security attack on their state. At worst, they are lobbying the state legislature to cede authority over driver licensing to the federal government.

The DHS is pushing New Mexico toward compliance with REAL ID, the national ID law, by saying that it will not offer another extension of the deadline for compliance. The statutory deadline passed seven years ago and no state is in compliance. No state will be in 2016. The national ID law is as unworkable as it is weak as a security tool.

Technology Takes On the Big Problems

Take a look at how markets and technology are taking on some of society’s biggest problems and revolutionizing the way we live. 

Nanotech and clean drinking water 

The World Economic Forum recently reflected on nanotechnology’s potential to improve people’s lives by providing smaller yet more powerful batteries, and by speeding up the purification process for air and water, among other things. Nanotechnology could deliver clean drinking water to millions of people who currently lack it, furthering the current positive trend. Around 10 percent of the global population lacks clean drinking water, down from around 20 percent in 1990.

Another Step toward Government Under Law

Last week, our friends at the Competitive Enterprise Institute won a small but important victory in the effort to bring the Transportation Security Administration under law. It began when the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) challenged the TSA’s policy of using strip-search machines at airports for primary screening. EPIC’s Fourth Amendment attack failed, but the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the TSA hadn’t used required administrative procedures to establish the policy, and it ordered the agency to promulgate a rule after taking comments from the public.

That was more than four years ago. The agency has been dragging its feet. And last week the court gave TSA thirty days to submit a schedule for “the expeditious issuance of a final rule within a reasonable time.”

Once the TSA has finalized its rule, it will be subject to challenge under the “arbitrary and capricious” standard in federal administrative law. John Mueller, Mark Stewart, and I filed comments during the rulemaking that will help show that the TSA’s policy is incoherent when it’s before the court.

Yes, it’s taking a long time. Courts often defer to agencies as experts in the fields they regulate, though they’re really expert at gaming the regulatory system and the courts. With persistence, though, the effort to bring the TSA under law and reverse its needlessly invasive and expensive programs will bear fruit.

Or responsibility for air security will be restored to airlines and airports.

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).