Tag: deepbills

Transparency and its Discontents

A preliminary draft paper on transparency that Cass Sunstein posted last month inspired Vox’s Matthew Yglesias to editorialize “Against Transparency” this week. Both are ruminations that shouldn’t be dealt with too formally, and in that spirit I’ll say that my personal hierarchy of needs doesn’t entirely overlap with Yglesias’.

In defense of selective government opacity, he says: “We need to let public officials talk to each other — and to their professional contacts outside the government — in ways that are both honest and technologically modern.”

Speak for yourself, buddy! The status quo in government management may need that, but that status quo is no need of mine.

A pithy, persuasive response to Yglesias came from the AP’s Ted Bridis, who pointed out via Twitter the value of recorded telephone calls for unearthing official malfeasance. Recordings reveal, for example, that in 2014 U.S. government officials agreed to restrict more than 37 square miles of airspace surrounding Ferguson, Missouri, in response to local officials’ desire to keep news helicopters from viewing the protests there. Technological change might counsel putting more of public officials’ communications “on the record,” not less.

It’s wise of Sunstein to share his piece in draft—in its “pre-decisional” phase, if you will—because his attempt to categorize information about government decision-making as “inputs” and “outputs” loses its intuitiveness as you go along. Data collected by the government is an output, but when it’s used for deciding how to regulate, it’s an input, etc. These distinctions would be hard to internalize and administer, certainly at the scale of a U.S. federal government, and would collapse when administered by government officials on their own behalf.

President Obama Needn’t Go to SXSW…

In his weekly address last Saturday, President Obama touted the importance of technology and innovation, and his plans to visit the popular South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. He said he would ask for “ideas and technologies that could help update our government and our democracy.” He doesn’t need to go to Texas. Simple technical ideas with revolutionary potential continue to await action in Washington, D.C.

Last fall, the White House’s Third Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America included a commitment to develop and publish a machine-readable government organization chart. It’s a simple, but brilliant step forward, and the plan spoke of executing on it in a matter of months.

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.

One of the most important ideas and technologies that could help update our government and democracy is already a White House promise. In fact, it’s essentially required by law.

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).

A Transparency Milestone

This week, I reported at the Daily Caller (and got a very nice write-up) about a minor milestone in the advance of government transparency: We recently finished adding computer-readable code to every version of every bill in the 113th Congress.

That’s an achievement. More than 10,000 bills were introduced in Congress’s last-completed two-year meeting (2013-14). We marked up every one of them with additional information.

We’ve been calling the project “Deepbills” because it allows computers to see more deeply into the content of federal legislation. We added XML-format codes to the texts of bills, revealing each reference to federal agencies and bureaus, and to existing laws no matter how Congress cited them. Our markup also automatically reveals budget authorities, i.e., spending.

Want to see every bill that would have amended a particular title or section of the U.S. code? Deepbills data allows that.

Want to see all the bills that referred to the Administration on Aging at HHS? Now that can be done.

Want to see every member of Congress who proposed a new spending program and how much they wanted to spend? Combining Deepbills data with other data allows you to easily collect that imporant information.

Congress’s Archaic Information Practices

There have been more than 2,700 bills introduced so far in the current Congress. That’s more than 30 bills per day, every day this year, weekends included. Ordinary Americans have a hard time keeping up, of course. Congress does, too.

The controversy around the anti-sex-trafficking bill in the Senate last week illustrates this well. Debate around the formerly non-controversial bill fell into disarray when Democrats discovered language in the bill that would apply the Hyde Amendment to fines collected and disbursed by the government. (The Hyde Amendment bars government spending on abortion. Democrats argue that it has only applied in the past to appropriated funds, not disbursement of fines.)

How is it that it took until late March for Democrats to discover controversial language in a bill that was introduced in January?

Well, Congress is awash in archaic practices. For one, bills are written in “cut and bite” style—change this line, change that word, change another—rather than in a form that lays out what the law would look like if the bill were passed. That makes bills unreadable—a situation Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) has sought to remedy.

Computer-Aided Reporting: Looking Where the Light Is Good

Upshot (New York Times) writer Derek Willis tweeted this morning, “We need to stop doing stories (and maps) with meaningless data.” At the link, a story on Vox charts the poorest members of Congress. It’s based on a Roll Call story published in September.

His main point, I think, is the failure of the data to reliably reflect what it’s supposed to. The disclosures on which these stories rely don’t include the value of homes members own, for example, and information is reported in broad bands, so it’s probably not very accurate and may be wildly inaccurate.

The data is meaningless in another, more important way. Neither story suggests any correlation between wealth (or its absence) and legislators’ behavior or fitness for office. It’s just a look at who has money and who doesn’t—uninformative infotainment. Maybe some readers stack up inferences to draw conclusions about Congress or its members, but this is probably an exercise in confirming one’s biases.

This illustrates a real problem for computer-aided journalism. When the only data available depicts a certain slice of the world, that will skew editorial judgments toward that slice of the world, overweighting its importance in news reporting and commentary.

In my opinion, reporting on public policy suffers just such a skew. There is relatively good data about campaign financing and campaign spending, which makes it easy to report about. The relatively high level of reporting on this area makes it appear more important while the actual behavior of public officials in office—the bills they sponsor, the contents of bills, amendments, votes, and the results for society—goes relatively unreported.

It won’t be the fix for all that ails reporting on public policy, but our Deepbills project makes essential content of legislation available as data. It vastly expands the territory around U.S. federal public policy that computer-aided jounalists can cover. Deepbills data has been picked up various places, but we need more adoption before it will provide all the value it can to a better-informed public.

Update: On Wednesday, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee will have a hearing on implementation of the DATA Act, which could yet further expand the data available to journalists, and all of us.

Public Oversight of Congress, One Click at a Time

In mid-August, using Cato Deepbills data, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University started alerting visitors to its U.S. Code pages that the laws these visitors care about may be amended by Congress.

The most visited bills are an interesting smattering of issues.

Getting top clicks is H.R. 570, the American Heroes COLA Act. Would it surprise you to learn that beneficiaries of Social Security’s Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance program are looking to see if veterans’ disability compensation will get the same cost-of-living increases? The relevant section of the Social Security Act on the Cornell site points to the bill that would grow veterans’ benefits in tandem with Social Security recipients’.

S. 1859, the Tax Extenders Act of 2013, is the second bill with the most referrals from Cornell. People looking into federal regulation of health insurance—or myriad other statutes—are finding their way to this complex piece of legislation. We know visitors to the Cornell site are legally sophisticated. They just might be able to follow what S. 1859 does.

Immigration is a hot-button issue, and Deepbills links at Cornell such as the code section dealing with reimbursement for detaining aliens are sending people to S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.

Another hot-button issue and top source of clicks from Cornell’s site: federal gun control. People looking at gun control law are following links to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) bill to ban assault weapons.

As of Thursday morning, 674 people had clicked 855 times on links to the bills in Congress that affect the laws they’re interested in. Those numbers aren’t going to instantaneously revive public oversight of the government. But usage of these links is rising, and Tom Bruce at Cornell says he plans changes that may increase clicks by 3 to 5 times. He guesses that people see Cato’s sponsorship of the data they can access 20,000 times a day. (“I should have asked you for a penny per impression ;),” he says. Funny guy.)

A lot more people are aware of work Cato is doing to increase government transparency, but, more importantly, a small but growing cadre of people are being made aware of what Congress is doing. This positions them to do something about it. Public oversight of Congress is increasing one click at a time.