Maybe President Obama made a mistake during the 2008 campaign, promising great strides in government transparency as he did. Because he hasn’t delivered them.
House Republicans, on the other hand, started from a better place than President Obama, made modest claims about how they would improve, and took some steps in the direction of improvement.
This makes it pretty easy to say that the president lags House Republicans in terms of transparency.
We’re really not big on politics around here. The point is not to play red-team/blue-team. So let’s talk about concrete measures of transparency progress. If the government is more transparent, you can get better info here on WashingtonWatch.com. Then you can be a smarter voter and citizen, and you’ll be a happier person.
(Disclosure: For the last few years, your WashingtonWatch.com webmaster has been doing transparency not just as a nights and weekends project on this site, but also in his role as Director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. My general policy is not to advertise Cato work or Cato policy positions on WashingtonWatch.com, but this issue is non-ideological, non-partisan, and highly relevant here.)
Today (on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., 2:00 p.m. Eastern), I’ll be presenting at a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Transparency about how well government data is published.
You can get a sneak peak of the grades I’ll be delivering right here.
The idea has been to come up with something measurable. Over the last couple of years, we’ve created models of what legislative processes would look like if they were published as really good data. We’ve done the same with budgeting and spending information. What would it look like if it were really good data?
Next, we’ve been assessing how well that data is currently published. Some of it is the responsibility of Congress. Some is the responsibility of the White House. And some of it is a divided responsibility.
How well is it published? Not well at all.
The worst of it is probably this: There is no machine-readable federal government organization chart.
What that means is that there aren’t distinct identifiers computers could use to help us in organizing our oversight of the government. That makes it really, really hard for us to present you good information about the government. It makes it hard to gather what agencies, bureaus, projects, and programs are affected by the bills in Congress.
You know how easy it is to shop on Amazon or eBay? It should be that easy to keep track of what’s going in Congress. But the data isn’t there. That’s a failure of President Obama’s, who claimed he would deliver transparent government.
So here are the report cards we’ve produced, illustrating how Congress and the White House are doing on publishing data. None of the grades are very good, but where Congress has weak grades, the Obama Administration’s grades are horrible. Thus, our conclusion, Obama lags House Republicans on transparency.
There are things you can do to help.
See the thumbnails of the report cards we created? Click on those to get the full-sized PDF. Print them out and send them to your representative in Congress and your senators.
They don’t know you care about this stuff until you tell them. They will get the idea that they need to do better on transparency, if you just let them know. Mountains won’t move that instant, but it’s an important step in improving government transparency.