Open government scrutinized before the House Oversight Committee

This morning, the Oversight Committee in the United States House of Representatives held a hearing on the Obama administration’s open government efforts. The “Transparency Through Technology: Evaluating Federal Open-Government Initiatives hearing was streamed live online at

House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) asked his Twitter followers before the hearing a simple question “Have you tried to get facts on how gov’t spends your $ on” He received no answers.

The oversight committee did, however, hear extensive testimony from government IT executives and open government watchdogs. As Representative Issa probes how agencies balance their books, such insight will be crucial, particularly with respect to improving accountability mechanism and data. Poor data has been a reoccurring theme in these assessments over the years. Whether the federal government can effectively and pervasively apply open data principles appears itself to be open question.

The first half of the hearing featured testimony from Dr. Danny Harris, chief information officer for the Department of Education, Chris Smith, chief information officer for the Department of Agriculture, Jerry Brito, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation.

Alice Lipowicz of Federal Computer Week tweeted out a few data points from the hearing.

  • A Sunlight Foundation audit found that the USDA spent $12.7B on school lunches but only reported $250,000 on
  • According to Brito, “half of 3000 datasets on are on EPA toxic releases, with only 200 to 300 datasets are on fed gov activity.” Lipowicz also tweeted that Brito testified that federal agencies need outside auditors and “ought to report ‘earnings’ similar to private sector.”
  • USDA CIO Chris Smith said that the agency did not report school lunch payments below $25,000 to; will report in FY2012

In her testimony before the House committee on clearspending, Miller reiterated the position of the Sunlight Foundation that the efforts of the administration to make government spending data open, accurate and available have been insufficient, particularly when the data is wrong.

The Sunlight Foundation has been excited about the new promises of data transparency, but sometimes the results are nowhere near the accuracy and completeness necessary for the data to be useful for the public.

Sunlight’s Clearspending analysis found that nearly $1.3 trillion of federal spending as reported on was inaccurate. While there have been some improvements, little to no progress has been made to address the fundamental flaws in the data quality. Correcting the very complicated system of federal reporting for government spending is an enormous task. It has to be done because without it there is no hope for accountability.

Miller made several recommendations to the committee to improve the situation, including:

  • unique identifiers for government contracts and grants
  • publicly available hierarchical identifiers for recipients to follow interconnected entities
  • timely bulk access to all data.

Her remarks ultimately reflect the assessment that she made at last year’s Gov 2.0 Summit, where she made it clear that open government remains in beta. Our interview is below:

Tracking the progress of the Open Government Directive requires better data, more auditors and improved performance metrics. That said, this looks like the year when many of the projects at agencies will move forward towards implementation.

Last month, the U.S. moved forward into the pilot phase of an open source model for health data systems as the fruits of the Direct Project came to Minnesota and Rhode Island. The Direct Project allows for the secure transmission of health care data over a network. Some observers have dubbed it the Health Internet, and the technology has the potential to save government hundreds of millions of dollars, along with supporting the growth of new electronic health records systems .Open source and open government have also come together to create OpenStack, an open cloud computing platform that’s a collaboration between NASA, Rackspace, Cisco and a growing group of partners.

It’s too early to judge the overall effort open government as ultimately a success or failure. That said, the administration clearly needs to do more. In 2011, the open question is whether “We the people” will use these new participatory platforms to help government work better.

Video of the hearing will be posted here when available. Testimony from today’s hearing is linked to PDFs below.

Dr. Danny Harris

Chris Smith

Jerry Brito

Ellen Miller

The Honorable Danny Werfel

Note: Video of the hearing was provided through the efforts of citizen archivist Carl Malamud at, the open government video website that he set up in collaboration with Speaker Boehner and Congressman Issa. While the open government efforts of the federal government have a long way to go, in this particular regard, a public-private collaboration is making the proceedings of the House Oversight committee available to the world online.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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