Baking Transparency Into Government

By Dan Froomkin
12:20 PM ET, 06/11/2009

I'll be off Friday, attending the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Baltimore. Blogging will resume Monday.

Something extraordinary happened a few days ago: A White House official actually asked me what sorts of things I needed to know in order to hold the government more accountable.

And here's what's even more extraordinary: She didn't just ask me. She asked you. Heck, she asked everyone.

Robynn Sturm posed that question -- among many others -- right on the White House Web site, as part of President Obama's ambitious and high-minded Open Government Initiative:

As the Obama Administration contemplates new approaches to making government more open, we want to hear from you. What do you – the non-profit fighting in the public interest, the company creating jobs for Americans, the journalist engaged in newsgathering, the teacher of civics, the mother and interested citizen – need to know about the way government works in order to feel more knowledgeable, to be empowered to participate, and to hold government accountable?...

How do agencies make decisions about health care reform, economic recovery, and clean energy? Who are the decision-makers? With whom do they meet and from whom do they take advice? How do they work?

Are those great questions, or what?

Obama's approach to disclosure issues is turning out to be profoundly schizophrenic. On national security issues, Obama has been intensely disappointing. Most notably, I now consider him a willing and active partner in the cover-up of the Bush torture legacy.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, Obama's West Wing, with some notable exceptions, hasn't been dramatically more transparent than the notoriously secretive one before it.

But over at the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), people like Sturm -- and her boss Beth Noveck, Obama's deputy chief technology officer -- are pursuing the goal of open government with admirable and appropriately transparent enthusiasm.

And here's the really good news. While Obama's national security-related disclosure decisions have thus far been case-by-case (and reversible), the work at the OSTP, which was put in motion by executive orders Obama signed on his second day in office, could actually bake transparency and accountability into government in a way that would be hard to undo down the line.

The OSTP is now in Phase II of a project that began with a brainstorming session that I wrote about here. We're now in the blogging -- and discussion phase.

And while the OSTP blog can get wonky in a hurry, and the ensuing online discussions aren't attracting anywhere near the quality or quantity of reponses that the excellent questions deserve, they deserve a lot of credit for trying.

Here are more of Sturm's questions:

How do we weigh the value of transparent operations against the costs required to report accurately and comprehensively on the day-to-day workings of government?

How do we balance the demands of open government with the need to create spaces where advisors, experts, and stakeholders can speak candidly without fearing short-term political ramifications?

How do we provide citizens with meaningful insights about how their government works rather than deluging everyone in overwhelming detail?

For the record, I think a big part of the answer to all these questions is to inject more journalism and journalists into the equation. In some cases, that means making many more people available to reporters -- on the record. In other cases, that may mean actually hiring journalists on staff -- rather than public-relations professionals -- although how exactly you build a Chinese Wall to protect them from being pressured to toe political lines, I'm not sure.

And here's one more request from Sturm:

tell us how the private sector and government can best "mash up" such information (e.g. mapping campaign contributions against meeting schedules) to transform raw data into knowledge.

You gotta love it.

In a June 2 blog post, Noveck explained how the most promising ideas had been culled from the brainstorming session. Some of the highest vote-getters didn't make the cut, since they were off topic -- or, as Noveck put it, "The ideas that received the most organized support were not necessarily the most viable suggestions." Among those that did make it to the next phase:

Agencies should explain all policy decisions and the rationales behind them in readable language...

Simplify implementation of FOIA....

Post frequently requested categories of information...

Publish a directory of who works in government....

Publish a list of everyone who meets with the President...

Allow government employees to speak to journalists more freely to foster news-gathering....

[B]est practices around the use of crowdsourcing to evaluate data should be established.

Noveck had this to say about the bigger picture:

As the President emphasized in his Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act: "A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, 'sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.' …At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike."

Taking advantage of the transparency of the brainstorming session, the watchdog group OMBWatch.org did its own analysis of the brainstorming session, which is also worth reading.

In a June 8 blog post, Vivek Kundra, the nation's chief information officer, wrote about data.gov, the recently launched repository of government data:

1. Our goal is to improve collection, storage, and dissemination of data government-wide. We'd appreciate your feedback on how to improve and grow Data.gov over time: How should we ask agencies to contribute data sets to Data.gov? Should we have them inventory and prioritize all their data? Or set a fixed number of data sets that must be published each year? Or set a voluntary target?

2. While our focus here is on developing government-wide policy for data transparency, we are also interested in hearing what new data you'd like to see on Data.gov and why. We'd also like to encourage you to make suggestions directly to Data.gov here.

3. Finally, tell us what types of applications you'd like to see built to leverage all this data. Share with us a little about why you think those applications might be compelling. Better yet, if you are a software developer, we encourage you to start using Data.gov to build applications useful to businesses, government, and the American people!

In a June 10 post, Michael Fitzpatrick, the associate administrator of the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs asks for suggestions about how to improve government responses to information requests from the public:

What recommendations are there for agencies to pro-actively post information on their websites to avoid a FOIA request from even occurring?

What are your recommendations to make FOIA reading rooms more useful and information more easily searchable, as they are meant to be a mechanism for information dissemination to the public?

At the TechPresident blog, which follows such things assiduously, Micah Sifry was impressed by some of the responses to Sturm's post.

One reader suggests looking "at the Environmental Working Group's farm subsidy database (http://farm.ewg.org/farm/), which is built on 15+ years of data obtained under FOIA from USDA" and offers a highly detailed look at the irrationality of US agricultural subsidies. Another suggests that every government employee be required to create their own Facebook page where they answer the question, "What are you working on?" And one Jane Mansbridge, who I assume is the Harvard professor, offers a succinct and useful explanation of how to "distinguish between transparency in process and transparency in rationale." She writes:

The U.S. Supreme Court does not have transparency in process (rightly in my view) but is required to provide transparency in rationale.

When there are good reasons to protect candid speech (as in almost any sensitive negotiation), the balance shifts toward transparency in rationale (and against transparency in process). When there are good reasons to suspect self-serving dealing (for example, a history of corruption or favoritism in an agency), the balance shifts toward transparency in process. In any particular case, a decision on the appropriate degree of transparency should consider both sets of reasons.

This is great stuff.


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