government transparency

Legislative Data and Wikipedia Workshop—March 14th and 15th

In my paper, “Publication Practices for Transparent Government,” I talked about the data practices that will produce more transparent government. The government can and should improve the way it provides information about its deliberations, management, and results.

“But transparency is not an automatic or instant result of following these good practices,” I wrote, “and it is not just the form and formats of data.”

It turns on the capacity of the society to interact with the data and make use of it. American society will take some time to make use of more transparent data once better practices are in place. There are already thriving communities of researchers, journalists, and software developers using unofficial repositories of government data. If they can do good work with incomplete and imperfect data, they will do even better work with rich, complete data issued promptly by authoritative sources.

We’re not just sitting around waiting for that to happen.

Based on the data modeling reported in “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices,” and with software we acquired and modified for the purpose, we’ve been marking up the bills introduced in the current Congress with “enhanced” XML that allows computers to automatically gather more of the meaning found in legislation. (Unfamiliar with XML? Several folks have complimented the explanation of it and “Cato XML” in our draft guide.)

No, we are not going to replace the lawyers and lobbyists in Washington, D.C., quite yet, but our work will make a great deal more information about bills available automatically.

And to build society’s capacity “to interact with the data and make use of it,” we’re hoping to work with the best outlet for public information we know, Wikipedia, making data about bills a resource for the many Wikipedia articles on legislation and newly passed laws.

Wikipedia is a unique project, both technically and culturally, so we’re convening a workshop on March 14th and 15th to engage Wikipedians and bring them together with data transparency folks, hopefully to craft a path forward that informs the public better about what happens in Washington, D.C. We’ve enlisted Pete Forsyth of Wiki Strategies to help assemble and moderate the discussion. Pete was a key designer of the Wikimedia Foundation’s U.S. Public Policy Initiative—a pilot program that guided professors and students in making substantive contributions to Wikipedia, and that led to the establishment of the Foundation’s Global Education Program.

The Thursday afternoon session is an open event, a Wikipedia tutorial for the many inexperienced editors among us. It’s followed by a Sunshine Week reception open to all who are interested in transparency.

On Friday, we’ll roll up our sleeves for an all-day session in which we hope Wikipedians and experienced government data folks will compare notes and produce some plans and projects for improving public access to information.

You can view a Cato event page about the workshop here. To sign up, go here, selecting which parts of the event you’d like to attend. (Friday attendance requires a short application.)

Very Good, House—Keep it Comin’

Yesterday, I shared my doubts about the prospect of getting budget and organizational data from the White House. Today, I’m happy to report genuine progress on open data from Congress.

The Government Printing Office announced today that it will be making House bills available in XML format and in bulk through FDsys, GPO’s Federal Digital System. House bills now join other material on GPO’s bulk data page.

If you’re like me, following that link gives you some idea of what’s there, but clicking through any further gives you no idea how to use it any more than other copies of bills. That’s OK, because the kids with the computers do know how to use it. And they can take well structured, timely data reflecting the proposals in Congress and turn it into various information services, applications, and web sites that make all of us better aware of what’s happening.

I believe the public has an Internet-fueled expectation that they should understand what happens in Congress. It’s one explanation for rock-bottom esteem for government in opinion polls. Access to good data would help produce better public understanding of what goes on in Washington and also, I believe, more felicitous policy outcomes—not only reduced demand for government, but better administered government in the areas the public wants it. (If you’re a reader of a certain partisan bent, you might appreciate the idea that the era of passing bills to find out what’s in them will end.)

Upon the release of my Cato Policy Analysis, “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices” I characterized President Obama as lagging House Republicans in terms of transparency. Today’s development helps solidify Republicans’ small lead. The GPO release says the initiative comes “[a]t the direction of the House Appropriations Committee, and in support of the task force on bulk data established by House report 112-511.”

The administration has plenty of capacity to retake the lead, of course, and could do so quite easily. I’ll call it like I see it, doing my best to reflect consensus among the transparency community as to the quality of data publication, when we return to grading the data produced by various organs of government in another year or so.

Did you think this praise would come without garnish? It’s like you don’t know me at all.

Sunlight Before Signing—-Pre-Posting Is Not OK

A regular, established practice of posting bills online when they’re sent him by Congress would fulfill President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing promise, made to roars of applause on the campaign trail. It would allow Americans easy access to the most important part of what Congress and the president do.

But posting bills before Congress passes them, getting a jump on the five days of public review the president promised, seriously undercuts the value of Sunlight Before Signing.

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