Confusion between “open government” and “open government data” illustrates this. They are often treated as interchangeable, but the first is about revealing the deliberations, management, and results of government, and the second is general availability of data that the government has produced, covering any subject matter.
More importantly, the transparency community has failed to articulate what it wants. A quartet of data practices would foster government transparency: authoritative sourcing, availability, machine‐discoverability, and machine‐readability. The quality of government data publication by these measures is low.
We are not waiting for the government to produce good data. At the Cato Institute, we have begun producing data ourselves, starting with legislation that we are marking up with enhanced, more revealing XML code.
Our efforts are hampered by the unavailability of fundamental building blocks of transparency, such as unique identifiers for all the organizational units of the federal government. There is today no machine‐readable organization chart for the federal government.
Well‐published data, such as what the DATA Act requires, would allow the transparency community to propagate information about the government in widely varying forms to a public that very much wants to understand what happens in Washington, D.C.
Chairman Issa, Ranking Member Cummings, and members of the committee:
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today. I am keenly interested in the subject matter of your hearing, and I hope that my testimony will shed some light on your oversight of federal government transparency and assist you in your deliberations on how to promote this widely agreed‐upon goal.
My name is Jim Harper, and I am director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute. Cato is a non‐profit research foundation dedicated to preserving the traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets, and peace. In my role there, I study the unique problems in adapting law and policy to the information age, issues such as privacy, intellectual property, telecommunications, cybersecurity, counterterrorism, and government transparency.
For more than four years, I have been researching, writing on, and promoting government transparency at Cato. For more than a dozen years, I have labored to provide transparency directly through a Web site I run called
WashingtonWatch.com. Other transparency related work of mine includes serving on the Board of Directors of the National Priorities Project, serving on the Board of Advisors of the Data Transparency Coalition, and serving on the Advisory Committee on Transparency, a project of the Sunlight Foundation run by my co‐panelist today Daniel Schuman. WashingtonWatch.com is still quite rudimentary and poorly trafficked compared to sites like Govtrack.us, OpenCongress, and many others, but collectively the community of private, non‐profit and for‐profit sites have more traffic and almost certainly provide more information to the public about the legislative process than the THOMAS Web site operated by the Library of Congress and other government sites.
There is nothing discreditable about THOMAS, of course, and we appreciate and eagerly anticipate the improvements forthcoming on Congress.gov. But the many actors and interests in the American public will be best served by looking at the federal government through many lenses—more and different lenses than any of us can anticipate or predict. Thus, I recommend that you focus your transparency efforts not on Web sites or other projects that interpret government data for the public. Rather, your task should be to make data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results available in the structures and formats that facilitate experimentation. There are dozens—maybe hundreds—of ways the public might examine the federal government’s manifold activities.
Delivering good data to the public is no simple task, but the barriers are institutional and not technical. Your leadership, if well‐focused, can produce genuine progress.
I will try to illustrate how to think about transparency by sharing a short recent history of transparency, a few reasons why the transparency effort has flagged, the publication practices that will foster transparency, our work at the Cato Institute to show the way, the need for a machine‐readable government organization chart, and finally the salutary results that the DATA Act could have for transparency.
A Short Recent History of Federal Government Transparency
President Obama deserves credit for lighting a fire under the government transparency movement in his first campaign and in the first half of his first term. To roars of approval in 2008, he sought the presidency making various promises that cluster around more open, accessible government. Within minutes of his taking office on January 20, 2009, the Whitehouse.gov website declared: “President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history.“1 And his first presidential memorandum, entitled “Transparency and Open Government,” touted transparency, public participation, and collaboration as hallmarks of his forthcoming presidential administration.2
In retrospect, the prediction of unparalleled transparency was incautiously optimistic. But at the time, the Obama campaign and the administration’s early actions sent strong signals that energized many communities interested in greater government transparency.
My own case illustrates. In December 2009, between the time of President Obama’s election and his inauguration, I hosted a policy forum at Cato entitled: “Just Give Us the Data! Prospects for Putting Government Information to Revolutionary New Uses.“3 Along with beginning to explore how transparency could be implemented, the choice of panelists at the event was meant to signal that agreement on transparency would cross ideologies and parties, regardless of differences over substantive policies. That agreement has held.
In May 2009, White House officials announced on the new Open Government Initiative blog that they would elicit the public’s input into the formulation of its transparency policies.4 The public was invited to join in with the brainstorming, discussion, and drafting of the government’s policies.
The conspicuously transparent, participatory, and collaborative process contributed to an “Open Government Directive,” issued in December 2009 by Office of Management and Budget head Peter Orszag.5 Its clear focus was to give the public access to data. The directive ordered agencies to publish within 45 days at least three previously unavailable “high‐value data sets” online in an open format and to register them with the federal government’s data portal, data.gov. Each agency was to create an “Open Government Webpage” as a gateway to agency activities related to the Open Government Directive.
They did so with greater or lesser alacrity.
But while pan‐ideological agreement about transparency has held up well, the effort to produce transparent government has flagged. The data.gov effort did not produce great strides in government transparency or public engagement. And many of President Obama’s transparency promises went by the wayside.
His guarantee that health care legislation would be negotiated “around a big table” and televised on C-SPAN was quite nearly the opposite of what occurred.6 His promise to post all bills sent him by Congress online for five days was nearly ignored in the first year.7 His promise to put tax breaks online in an easily searchable format was not fulfilled. Various other programs and projects have not produced the hoped‐for transparency, public participation, and collaboration. And the Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform, who handled the White House’s transparency portfolio, decamped for an ambassadorial post in Eastern Europe at the midpoint of President Obama’s first term.
It’s easy (and cheap) for critics of the president to chalk his transparency failures up to campaign disingenuousness or political calculation. It is true that the Obama administration has not shone as brightly on transparency as the president promised it would. But my belief is that transparency did not materialize in President Obama’s first term because nobody knew what exactly produces transparent government. The transparency community had not put forward clearly enough what it wanted from the government, and the transparency effort got sidetracked in a subtle but important way from “open government” to “open government data.”
Open Government vs. Open Government Data
When the White House instructed agencies to produce data for data.gov, it gave them a very broad instruction: produce three “high‐value data sets” per agency. According to the open government memorandum: