Policy Analysis No. 711

Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices

Barack Obama promised transparency and open government when he campaigned for president in 2008, and he took office aiming to deliver it. Today, the federal government is not transparent, and government transparency has not improved materially since the beginning of President Obama’s administration. This is not due to lack of interest or effort, though. Along with meeting political forces greater than his promises, the Obama transparency tailspin was a product of failure to apprehend what transparency is and how it is produced.

A variety of good data publication practices can help produce government transparency: authoritative sourcing, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability. The Cato Institute has modeled what data the government should publish in the areas of legislative process and budgeting, spending, and appropriating. The administration and the Congress both receive fairly low marks under systematic examination of their data publication practices.

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 on those promises. President Obama lags behind House Republicans, but both have a long way to go.

Jim Harper is director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of the book Identity Crisis: How Identification Is Overused and Misunderstood.