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.

Let’s See What DATA Can Do

The New York Times reported at the top of page one yesterday on the $4.1 million in payments that a single physical therapist in Brooklyn got from Medicare in 2012. It’s a shocking sum, and Medicare fraud is common in both physical therapy and the Brooklyn area. The therapist who received the money says that the billings are for his large, multi-office practice.

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