Congress

Open government data gathers bipartisan support in Washington

Two weeks ago at the Strata Conference in NYC, I donned a headset, grabbed a tablet worth of questions and headed to the podium to talk with the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about data and open government.

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) joined me via remote webcast from chambers in Washington, D.C. Our crack video team is working on an improved version of this video in which you’ll see my side of the broadcast, along with a boost in audio. Until then, the video that the House Oversight digital team uploaded to YouTube will suffice — and I don’t want to wait to share this story any longer in the meantime, particularly as interest builds behind the principle subject of our conversation, a proposed bill to standardize financial reporting data standards in the federal government and create single database for financial spending.

Daniel Schuman listened in and summarized our conversation on open government data over at the Sunlight Foundation’s blog:

The Chairman focused his remarks on the DATA Act, the bipartisan legislation he introduced that would transform how government tracks federal spending and identifies waste, fraud, and abuse.

He emphasized the importance of making government data available online in real time so that innovative minds can immediately make use the information to build their own businesses. Business, in turn, would help the government identify program mismanagement and data quality problems. The Chairman specifically singled out Vice President Biden as a supporter of efforts to find a common solution to make data available in a systematic way.

…Chairman Issa explained that the private sector must step up as advocates for greater openness because they will benefit from building and using the tools made possible by greater transparency. He added when government drives down the cost of obtaining information, private individuals will derive value from the analysis of data, not its ownership.

The cost of good data

Since our conversation, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the DATA Act would cost the government $575 million to implement over 5 years, as reported by FierceGovernmentIT:

“In a cost estimate dated Sept. 16, the CBO attributes $325 million of the estimated total to requirements in the bill regarding the collecting and reporting of financial information. The DATA Act would require federal agencies, and most government contractors and grant award winners to adopt XBRL as a financial data reporting mechanism.”

Left unsaid in the CBO estimate is what the impact of this kind of transparency on the federal government’s finances might be, in terms of savings. House Oversight staff have estimated annual savings from standards and centralized spending database that would more than offset that outlay, including:

  • $41 million in funds recovered from questionable recipients
  • $63 million in funds withheld from questionable recipients
  • $5 billion in savings recommended by inspectors general
  • unknown savings resulting from better internal spending control and better oversight by Congressional appropriators.

The DATA Act, which would expand the role of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board to track all federal spending and make all of the information available to the public, has bipartisan support in the Senate from Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), who has introduced a companion bill there.

As NextGov reported yesterday, efforts to require government-wide spending reports have advanced on the Hill, while President Obama has begun the process of establishing a similar board by executive order.

You can read more letters of support that extend from well beyond an Open Government Coalition online over at Scribd, including:

Open government as a bipartisan issue

Given the White House’s embrace of the mantle of open government on President’s first day in office, the executive branch has gathered a lot of the press, attention, praise, scrutiny and criticism in this area.

That looks to be changing, and for the better. As Clay Johnson pointed out at the beginning of 2011, any competition between the White House and Congress on open government is likely to be a win for the American people.

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Foundation and webmaster of WashingtonWatch.com, wrote then that the GOP can eclipse Obama on transparency. “House Republicans can quickly outshine Obama and the Democratic Senate,” he opined. “It all depends on how they implement the watch phrase of their amendment package: “publicly available in electronic form.”

The GOP House leadership must make sure that this translates into real-time posting of bills, amendments and steps in the legislative process, in formats the Internet can work with. It’s not about documents anymore. It’s about data. Today’s Internet needs the data in these documents.

There are no technical impediments to a fully transparent Congress. Computers can handle this. The challenges, however, are institutional and practical.”

Johnson identified the moment in history as an important inflection point, and one that, if the White House rose to the challenge, could legitimately be seen as an open government win for the American people and a smarter, more accountable government.

The White House may hold the considerable advantages of the bully pulpit and the largest followings of any federal entity or politician on Twitter, for now, but that has to be balanced against the considerable new media prowess that the GOP has built up over their Democratic counterparts in Congress, where Republicans hold an edge on social media.

While some projects or choices continue to cast questions on commitment in the rank and file to open government principles, with the GOP bending new House rules, there’s progress to report. The leadership of the House of Representatives has supported the creation of open, online video archives, like House.Resource.org. The House revamped its floor feed recently, adding live XML. And House leadership has recently venerated the role of technology in making Congress more transparent, engaged and accountable.

Rep. Issa, in particularly, appears to have taken on open government as a cause and, for the moment, its rhetoric. He even tweets using the #opengov hashtag. When it comes to the legislature, “the American people have a right to all the data from Congress. They have a right,” he said at a recent forum on Congressional transparency, as reported by Diana Lopez.

Government secrecy and transparency are, in theory, non-partisan issues. In practice, they are often used a political bludgeons against an opposing party, particularly by a partisan minority, and then discarded once power is gained. For government transparency to outlast a given White House or Congress, laws and regulatory changes have to happen.

Open government has to be “baked in” to culture, practices, regulations, technology, business practices and public expectations. Needless to say, that’s going to take a while, but it looks like both the administration and some members of Congress are willing to keep trying.

As these efforts go forward, it will be up to the media, businesses, nonprofits, watchdogs and, of course, citizens to hold them accountable for actions taken, not just rhetoric.

What’s the future of the DATA Act?

I’m writing a feature article about the bill, this conversation, context for government performance data and whether open government and transparency will have any legs in the upcoming presidential campaign.

If you have any questions that are unanswered after watching the conversation, comments about the use of XBRL or perspective on the proposed law’s future in Congress, please ring in in the comments or find me at alex[at]oreilly.com.

White House and House GOP turns to the Web to discuss jobs

It’s a tale of two parties, two social networks, live events and high stakes: creating jobs in an American economy still struggling to come out of recession. Would the American Jobs Act, introduced by President Obama earlier this month, make a difference? Can the White House or Congress do anything to create jobs, aside from directly hiring more government workers for infrastructure projects or similar initiatives? The American people will have the opportunity to hear from both sides of the aisle today and judge themselves, starting at 2 PM EST when the president will participate in a town hall hosted at LinkedIn in California.

UPDATE: Archived video from President Obama’s LinkedIn townhall is embedded below:

Notably, there will still be a live chat on Facebook at a LinkedIn townhall, along with a public “backchannel” at the #meetopportunity hashtag on Twitter.

This is the second time that the White House experiments with LinkedIn for questions, following a forum earlier this year with tech CEOs and federal CTO Aneesh Chopra. The questions are pulled from a “putting America back to work forum on LinkedIn.com. As I’ve observed before, the platform isn’t ideal for ideation and moderation of questions but LinkedIn is unquestionably targeted towards employment.

Personally, I’d like to see CEO Jeff Weiner crunch the big data the social network has collected about job openings and the skills and degrees that high school and college grads currently have. Programs and policies oriented towards matching the two would be an interesting direction.

UPDATE: Here are the questions that were asked:

UPDATE: Below is a “storified” tweetstream from the event:

 

House GOP Leaders discuss technology, transparency and jobs

At 6 PM EST, the leaders of the Republican caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives will also host an online townhall, though they’ll be doing it on Facebook Live. The event will feature House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg will moderate.

Prior to today’s event, the House GOP leaders participated in a discussion about the role social media and technology now plays in government with Politico’s senior White House correspondent, Mike Allen. Video is below:

In the interview, the House GOP’s “Young Guns” spoke at length about the role that new social and mobile technology plays in the work of Congress and government, touching upon many subjects that will be of interest to the open government community.

Such interest is hardly new — the new GOP majority came into the House with promises to embrace innovation and transparency– but given the importance of open government, it’s a useful reminder that open government is a bipartisan issue.

If you have thoughts or comments on either of the town halls or the discussion above, please share them in the comments.

UPDATE: The archived video of this congressional “Facehall” is embedded below:

UPDATE: A Storify of my own tweets during the event is embedded below:

Skype your Congressman? House adds VoIP for citizen-to-legislator communications

We the people can now add “Skype me” to the list of phrases your representative may utter in a commercial, town hall or stump speech. This morning, the leadership of the United States House of Representatives approved the use of low-cost video conferencing tools like Skype and ooVoo.

“This is another example of the new Republican majority using digital tools to better engage with and listen to the American people,” said Speaker Boehner in a prepared statement. “We’re committed to keeping our pledge to lead a House that is more open and that gives Americans a real-time voice in their government.”

On this count, the Speaker has firm ground to stand upon. The GOP has been steadily adopted new technologies into the House since the 2010 midterm elections. From livestreaming the transition to moving House.gov to Drupal, the Republican leadership has followed through on many of its commitments to innovation and transparency. Beyond new media adoption, structural changes through opening legislative data have the potential to permanently bake in open government to the People’s House.

Adopting the same low cost Voice over IP tools for videoconferencing that are in use all around the world makes sense on many levels, despite security concerns. Congressmen and their staff will be able to easily communicate with one another at a lower cost now. Daniel Lungren, chairman of House Administration, offered more context for the upgrade to VoIP in a “Dear Colleague” letter this week:

Improving constituent communications and increasing transparency has been a top priority for me as Chairman of House Administration and a member of the House Technology Operations Team. That’s why I am pleased to announce that the House’s Public Wi-Fi network has been enabled to allow Members and staff to conduct Skype and ooVoo video teleconference (VTC) calls.

To maintain the necessary level of IT security within the House network, the House has negotiated modified license agreements with Skype and ooVoo that will require Members, Officers, Committee Chairs, Officials and staff to accept House-specific agreements that comply with House Rules and maximize protection for Members and staff. Detailed requirements on how to comply with these agreements have been posted to HouseNet at http://housenet.house.gov/keywords/VTC. Please note that Skype users will be limited to conducting VTC sessions on the House’s public Wi-Fi to minimize security risks associated with peer-to-peer networking.

During a time when Congress must do more with less, utilizing low-cost, real-time communication tools is an effective way to inform and solicit feedback from your constituents. In addition to Skype and ooVoo, we are searching for additional means to help enhance constituent communications.

“Citizen-to-legislator” communications using VoIP will hold some challenges. Skype and ooVoo both allow conference calls between more than one party but neither will is ideal for one-to-many communications without some tweaking. If a representative’s staff can set up a projector and sound system, however, we may well see new kinds of virtual town halls spring up, whether someone calls back from Washington or from the campaign trail.

Less clear is how constituent queueing might be handled. If hundreds of citizens, activists or lobbyists are all trying to Skype a Congressman, how will priority be assigned? How will identity be handled, in terms of determining constituents from a home district? As I wrote this post, two other questions posed to the Speaker’s office also remained unanswered: will video chats be archived and, if so, how? And will Skype’s file transfer capabilities be allowed?

On the latter count, given the difficult past relationship of the House and P2P filesharing software, learning that file sharing capabilities were disabled would be in line with expectations. UPDATE: Salley Wood from the House Administrative Committee confirms that the current configuration does include file sharing. “Today’s announcement is simply that lawmakers can now take advantage of these platforms using official resources,” she related via email.

Archiving of constituent video chat is another issue, and one that will be added to the growing list of 21st century new media conundrums for politics, like the questions of whether lawmakers’ texts during public meetings become public documents.

What is clear is that one more domino in the adoption of Web 2.0 tools in government has fallen. What happens next is up for debate — except this time, the conversations will span hundreds of new Web connections. This will be, literally, fun to watch.

UPDATE: As Nick Judd blogs over at techPresident, the Hill was the first to report that the House enables use of Skype for members, basing its reporting off of “Dear Colleague” letter above. There’s no shortage of detail in the Hill’s piece, nor good linkage from Judd. So, you know, go read them.

Senator Carper fears e-gov budget cuts are “penny wise, pound foolish”

As Daniel Schuman wrote on the Sunlight Foundation’s blog today, Delaware Senator Tom Carper wrote yesterday to federal CIO Vivek Kundra about the effects of a 75% cut to e-government funding at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), including questions about how the Obama administration intends to go forward. For those that have not been tracking the issue closely, Congress and the President collectively cut OMB’s Electronic Government Fund from $34m in FY2010 to $8m in FY2011.

Schuman and the Sunlight Foundation originally discovered proposed deep cuts to e-government funding during the budget crisis weeks ago and have been reporting on every new wrinkle in the story.

In the last few weeks there’s been a whirlwind of news and speculation about what will happen to the federal government’s online transparency efforts. From the first rumble of budget trouble to a frantic search for information on when the sites would go dark, and an extended legislative give-and-take over funding levels, the storm has cleared enough to know what’s left standing.

The way forward for these online open government platforms, as Schuman notes, isn’t immediately clear. Now, Senator Carper (D-DE) has become more directly involved:

I remain concerned with how the new lower funding level for the E-Gov Fund might not only impede the progress made thus far to make government open and transparent, but also harm efforts to cut wasteful and duplicative spending in the federal government.

The future of these programs have already earned bipartisan support, with Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) making a personal pledge to use his reprogramming authority as Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to keep many sites alive. “We’ll find a way to keep OpenGov sites open, but need to make data actually accessible/usable,” tweeted Issa this week, linking to a story on NextGov on softening the budget blow to transparency websites.

Improved accountability, efficiency and civic utility from open government data, in other words, are issues that both sides of the aisle appear to support, although it remains unclear why, if that is so, the original budget was cut by 94%.

Senator Carper’s letter is embedded below.

Letter From Senator Carper to Vivek Kundra about the E-Gov Fund

Congress weighs deep cuts to funding for federal open government data platforms

Several core pillars of federal open government initiatives brought online by the Obama administration may be shuttered by proposed Congressional budget cuts. Data.gov, IT.USASpending.gov, and other five other websites that offer platforms for open government transparency are facing imminent closure. A comprehensive report filed by Jason Miller, executive editor of Federal News Radio, confirmed that the United States of Office of Management and Budget is planning to take open government websites offline over the next four months because of a 94% reduction in federal government funding in the Congressional budget. Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation first reported the cuts in the budget for data transparency. Schuman talked to Federal News Radio about the potential end of these transparency platforms this week.

Cutting these funds would also shut down the Fedspace federal social network and, notably, the FedRAMP cloud computing cybersecurity programs. Unsurprisingly, open government advocates in the Sunlight Foundation and the larger community have strongly opposed these cuts.

As Nancy Scola reported for techPresident, Donny Shaw put the proposal to defund open government datain perspective at OpenCongress: “The value of data openness in government cannot be overestimated, and for the cost of just one-third of one day of missile attacks in Libya, we can keep these initiatives alive and developing for another year.”

Daniel Schuman was clear about the value of data transparency funding at the Sunlight Foundation blog:

The returns from these e-government initiatives in terms of transparency are priceless. They will help the government operate more effectively and efficiently, thereby saving taxpayer money and aiding oversight. Although we have significant issues with some of these program’s data quality, and we are concerned that the government may be paying too much for the technology, there should be no doubt that we need the transparency they enable. For example, fully realized transparency would allow us to track every expense and truly understand how money — like that in the electronic government fund — flows to federal programs. Government spending and performance data must be available online, in real time, and in machine readable formats.

There is no question that Obama administration has come under heavy criticism for the quality of its transparency efforts from watchdogs, political opponents and media. OMB Watch found progress on open government in a recent report by cautioned that there’s a long road ahead. It is clear that we are in open government’s beta period. The transparency that Obama promised has not been delivered, as Charles Ornstein, a senior reporter at ProPublica, and Hagit Limor, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote today in the Washington Post. There are real data quality and cultural issues that need to be addressed to match the rhetoric of the past three years. “Government transparency is not the same as data that can be called via an API,” said Virginia Carlson, president of the Metro Chicago Information Center. “I think the New Tech world forgets that — open data is a political process first and foremost, and a technology problem second.”

Carlson highlighted how some approaches taken in establishing Data.gov have detracted from success of that platform:

First, no distinction was made between making transparent operational data about how the government works (e.g, EPA clean up sites; medicaid records) and making statistical data more useful (data re: economy and population developed by the major Federal Statistical Agencies). So no clear priorities were set regarding whether it was an initiative meant to foster innovation (which would emphasize operational data) or whether it was an initiative meant to open data dissemination lines for agencies that had already been in the business of dissemination (Census, BLS, etc.), which would have suggested an emphasis on developing API platforms on top of current dissemination tools like American Fact Finder or DataFerrett.

Instead, a mandate came from above that each agency or program was responsible for putting X numbers of data sets on data.gov, with no distinction made as to source or usefulness. Thus you have weird things like cutting up geo files into many sub-files so that the total number of files on data.gov is higher.

The federal statistical agencies have been disseminating data for tens of decades. They felt that the data.gov initiative rolled right over them, for the most part, and there was a definite feeling that the data.gov people didn’t “get it” from the FSA perspective – who are these upstarts coming in to tell us how to release data, when they don’t understand how the FSAs function, how to deal with messy statistical data that have a provenance, etc. An open data session at the last APDU conference saw the beginnings of a conversation between data.gov folks and the APDU folks (who tend to be attached to the major statistical agencies), but there is a long way to go.

Second, individuals in bureaucracies are risk-averse. The political winds might be blowing toward openess now, but executives come and go while those in the trenches stay, (or would like to). Thus the tendency was to find data that was relatively low-risk. Agencies literally culled their catalogs to find the least controversial data that could be released.

Neither technical nor cultural changes will happen with the celerity that many would like, despite the realities imposed by the pace of institutional change. “Lots of folks in the open government space are losing their patience for this kind of thing, having grown accustomed to startups that move at internet speed,” said Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs. “But USAspending.gov really can be a vehicle for making smarter decisions about federal spending.”

“Obviously the data quality isn’t there yet. But you know what? OMB is taking steps to improve it, because the public was able to identify the problems. We’re never going to realize the incredible potential of these sites if we shutter them now. A house staffer, or journalist, or citizen ought to be able to figure out the shape of spending around an issue by going to these sites. This is an achievable goal! Right now they still turn to ad-hoc analyses by GAO or CRS — which, incidentally, pull from the same flawed data. But we really can automate that process and put the power of those analyses into everyone’s hands.”

Potential rollbacks to government transparency, if seen in that context, are detrimental to all American citizens, not just for those who support one party or the other. Or, for that matter, none at all. As Rebecca Sweger writes at the National Priorities Project, “although $32 million may sound like a vast sum of money, it is actually .0009% of the proposed Federal FY11 budget. A percentage that small does not represent a true cost-saving initiative–it represents an effort to use the budget and the economic crisis to promote policy change.”

Lee also pointed to the importance of TechStat to open government. TechStat was part of the White House making the IT Dashboard open source yesterday. “TechStat is one of the most concrete arguments for why cutting the e-government fund would be a huge mistake,” he said. “The TechStat process is credited with billions of dollars of savings. Clearly, Vivek [Kundra, the federal CIO] considers the IT Dashboard to be a key part of that process. For that reason alone cutting the e-gov fund seems to me to be incredibly foolish. You might also consider the fact pointed out by NPP: that the entire e-gov budget is a mere 7.7% of the government’s FOIA costs.”

In other words, it costs far more to release the information by the current means. This is the heart of the case for data.gov and data transparency in general: to get useful information into the hands of more people, at a lower cost than the alternatives,” said Lee. Writing on the Sunlight Labs blog, Lee emphasized today that “cutting the e-gov funding would be a disaster.”

The E-Government Act of 2002 that supports modern open government platforms was originally passed with strong bipartisan support, long before before the current president was elected. Across the Atlantic, the British parallel to Data.gov, Data.gov.uk continues under a conservative prime minister. Open government data can be used not just to create greater accountability, but also economic value. That point was made emphatically last week, when former White House deputy chief technology officer Beth Noveck made her position clear on the matter: cutting e-government funding threatens American jobs:

These are the tools that make openness real in practice. Without them, transparency becomes merely a toothless slogan. There is a reason why fourteen other countries whose governments are left- and right-wing are copying data.gov. Beyond the democratic benefits of facilitating public scrutiny and improving lives, open data of the kind enabled by USASpending and Data.gov save money, create jobs and promote effective and efficient government.

Noveck also referred to the Economist‘s support for open government data: “Public access to government figures is certain to release economic value and encourage entrepreneurship. That has already happened with weather data and with America’s GPS satellite-navigation system that was opened for full commercial use a decade ago. And many firms make a good living out of searching for or repackaging patent filings.”

The open data story in healthcare continues to be particularly compelling, from new mobile apps that spur better health decisions to data spurring changes in care at the Veterans Administration. Proposed cuts to weather data collection could, however, subtract from that success.

As Clive Thompson reported at Wired this week, public sector data can help fuel jobs, “shoving more public data into the commons could kick-start billions in economic activity.” Thompson focuses on the story of Brightscope, where government data drives the innovation economy. “That’s because all that information becomes incredibly valuable in the hands of clever entrepreneurs,” wrote Thompson. “Pick any area of public life and you can imagine dozens of startups fueled by public data. I bet millions of parents would shell out a few bucks for an app that cleverly parsed school ratings, teacher news, test results, and the like.”

Lee doesn’t entirely embrace this view but makes a strong case for the real value that does persist in open data. “Profits are driven toward zero in a perfectly competitive market,” he said.

Government data is available to all, which makes it a poor foundation for building competitive advantage. It’s not a natural breeding ground for lucrative businesses (though it can certainly offer a cheap way for businesses to improve the value of their services). Besides, the most valuable datasets were sniffed out by business years before data.gov had ever been imagined. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t huge value that can be realized in terms of consumer surplus (cheaper maps! free weather forecasts! information about which drug in a class is the most effective for the money!) or through the enactment of better policy as previously difficult-to-access data becomes a natural part of policymakers’ and researchers’ lives.

To be clear, open data and the open government movement will not go away for lack of funding. Government data sets online will persist if Data.gov goes offline. As Samantha Power wrote at the White House last month, transparency has gone global. Open government may improve through FOIA reform. The technology that will make government work better will persist in other budgets, even if the e-government budget is cut to the bone.

There are a growing number of strong advocates who are coming forward to support the release of open government data through funding e-government. My publisher, Tim O’Reilly, offered additional perspective today as well. “Killing open data sites rather than fixing them is like Microsoft killing Windows 1.0 and giving up on GUIs rather than keeping at it,” said O’Reilly. “Open data is the future. The private sector is all about building APIs. Government will be left behind if they don’t understand that this is how computer systems work now.”

As Schuman highlighted at SunlightFoundation.com, the creator of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has been encouraging his followers on Twitter to sign the Sunlight Foundation’s open letter to Congress asking elected officials to save the data.

What happens next is in the hands of Congress. A congressional source who spoke on condition of anonymity said that they are aware of the issues raised with cuts to e-government finding and are working on preserving core elements of these programs. Concerned citizens can contact the office of the House Majority Leader, Representative Eric Cantor (R-VI) (@GOPLeader), at 202.225.4000.

UPDATE: The Sunlight Foundation’s Daniel Schuman, who is continuing to track this closely, wrote yesterday that, under the latest continuing resolution under consideration, funding for the E-Government Fund would be back up in the tens of millions range. Hat tip to Nancy Scola.

UPDATE II: Final funding under FY 2011 budget will be $8M. Next step: figuring out the way forward for open government data.

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 oversight.house.gov.

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 USASpending.gov?” 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 USASpending.gov
  • According to Brito, “half of 3000 datasets on Data.gov 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 USASpending.gov; 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 USASpending.gov 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 house.resource.org, 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.

Question Time 2.0: GOP Leader on Quora, Rep. John Garamendi on Reddit

Last month, Matt Lira, a member of House GOP Leader Eric Cantor’s staff, asked how the United States Congress should use social media to enhance the legislative process on Quora, the hot question and answer website of the moment. To date, he’s received 19 answers, many quite substantive.

Today, Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) asked the Reddit community for “as many questions as he could get through” when he returned to the page at 8 PM tonight.

My name is John Garamendi, and I am a Member of Congress representing the 10th Congressional District in Northern California. Ask Me Anything. I will be back at 8 PM EST/5 PM PST today (Wednesday, March 2) to answer as many questions as I can get through.

I previously served as California Lieutenant Governor, California Insurance Commissioner, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Interior Department under President Clinton, a state legislator, and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

Garameni offered his House.gov website, YouTube channel and @RepGaramendi Twitter handle and Facebook page for Redditors to find him. When a member of the community expressed skepticism that it was “really him,” he tweeted that “Today I will join @reddit at 8PM EST for an #AMA Ask Me Anything. Thread will appear here: http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA.”

As of 6:40 PM EST, there were more than 1400 comments on the thread, with many substantive questions voted to the top. The online public will see how frank he’s willing to be in that context.

Whether this is a success or not, it’s good to see representatives exploring new platforms for participatory democracy. They may be far from perfect but the moderation mechanisms on Reddit and Quora, along with their associated communities, hint at the ways that the next generation of e-democracy platforms will evolve. Tune in at 8 PM EST to see if Representative Garamendi takes the top questions on the forum.

UPDATE: The Congressman did, in fact, log in to Reddit and answered questions for nearly an hour. Here’s the the top-voted question, by “anexanhume”:

John,
I am curious as to whether or not you believe that it is possible to be a politician that reaches any major political office (say for instance, state legislator or large city mayor as the least important office) without owing either a person, political organization or corporation some sort of favor for reaching your office. Moreover, is it ever actually possible to vote on your principles consistently without the fear of losing reelection or angering someone who helped you get where you are?

Representative Garamendi answered:

Thank you for the question. It’s a good one. I believe I vote consistently with my principles. Obviously there are some political interests who align with me more than others, and that will be somewhat reflected in whom they choose to support. And like everyone, there are personal opinions about individuals that I sometimes keep to myself for the sake of congeniality and relationships.

So the answer to your question is I honestly don’t think I “owe” any group my allegiance. I’ve been in public policy enough that I doubt there’s a single group left in America that has given me a 100% report card every year I’ve been in office.
Ultimately, public policy is about choices and compromise. When I’m on the House floor, after all the debate is done, after all the deals have been struck, I’m left with a choice: Yes or No. This means I’ve voted for bills that had elements I didn’t like (I was disappointed the public option wasn’t in the Patient’s Bill of Rights for example) and voted against bills that had some good policy (I voted against tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires even though the bill contained an important extension of assistance for people looking for work). It’s clichéd at this point, but we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

He answered two anonymous questions as well: Do you think a representative is elected to execute his own moral compass? Do you think a representative is elected to reflect the opinion of the constituency?

Good questions without an easy answer, but I’ll try. I fight tirelessly for the people of the 10th Congressional District, and luckily, priorities like transportation investments, job creation, Delta protection, health care access, fighting for veterans, ending the war in Afghanistan, and equal rights are both popular in the district and at the core of my policy goals.

My constituents have chosen me to be their voice in Washington, and that literally means making hundreds of decisions every week. I don’t expect anyone to agree with every decision, and there are times when I have access to more information than the public. Have I taken positions that a majority of my constituents disagree with at one point or another? Probably, but that’s the beauty of democracy. Every two years, the people have a chance to reevaluate who they’ve chosen to represent them.

There’s more on the Reddit thread, including answers on the budget, unions, entitlement reform, the financial crisis and more.

Congress faces challenges in identifying constituents using social media

Citizens are becoming more influential through social networks and influencing their peers. Research from the The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project suggests that government 2.0 an important trend, with respect to our understanding of what it means to be a citizen and how our actions influence those of our fellow citizens. The role of the Internet as a platform for collective action is growing but the authorities that control the levers of power offline still matters immensely.

Today, Politico reported that social media isn’t so hot on the Hill. Or, as FierceGovernmentIT.com reported, “Congress is using social media to talk, not listen.” Both media outlets were reporting on survey results conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation on perceptions of citizen advocacy by Congressional staffers.

A better headline, however, might have been “Twitter isn’t so hot on the hill with lawmakers,” given myriad challenges around identifying constituents online, automated campaigns and what Representative Culberson (R-TX) described as a “lot of trolls on Twitter.” (It’s even worse on YouTube, Congressman.) The question posed at the end of the Politico article — “Are lawmakers putting too much time — or staff resources — into social media?” is followed with Pew stats on *Twitter* use and penetration, not Facebook.

The complaints from numerous anonymous Congressional staffers about the time it takes to maintain social media are likely honest and parallel the experiences of higher-paid contemporaries in private industry, academia, media, fashion and the nonprofit worlds. Managing multiple social media presences can, indeed, be a pain in the a–. And it takes resources, in terms of time, that may be scarcer than ever. That said, social media is now part of the lexicon of Congressional staff trusted with constituent communications. If a Representative or Senator is speaking anywhere in DC, there’s an increasingly good chance that snippets of it may tweeted, unusual pictures will be tagged on Facebook and that any gaffes will be up on YouTube later.

Doing more than trying to fit the 20th century model of broadcasting to these platform requires time, expertise and commitment, along with a thick skin. Opening up these new online channels for Congressional communications created challenges, to be sure, but then so did adding the telegraph, radio, television, fax machines, cellphones and email. It’s not hard to find past news reports of Senators resisting the addition of dial phones to the Hill.

Every new communications technology has had an impact on Congress. In 2011, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube do each come with new wrinkles. YouTube and Twitter can work in concert to share video and share it instantly with the world. At the same time, on the Hill, automated campaigns using social media have followed the path of email and faxes deluges. Carefully edited videos can trim key context from statements, or audio from broadcasts. The risks and rewards for the use of Web 2.0 that pertain to federal and state agencies also pertain to Congress.

Take, for instance, Facebook, which is generally tied to the real identities of citizens. Engaging with citizens carries with it identity and privacy issues for constituents. That’s the rub, and it won’t come out easily. Look at how San Francisco integrated city services with 311 and Facebook for an example of how government can mitigate and address some of those issues. The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace might address some of the challenges as well.

In the meantime, Congresional staffers and citizens alike can hope that new, improved architectures for participatory democracy online come along soon to upgrade the status quo in Washington.

Malamud: add bulk open government data access to Thomas.gov

An image of (insert name here), taken at about 2:30 this afternoon. (Photo by Abby Brack/Library of Congress)

An image of (insert name here), taken at about 2:30 this afternoon. (Photo by Abby Brack/Library of Congress)

Open government advocate Carl Malamud made a succinct recommendation for improving the United States House of Representatives on January 24th: “Open it up. Bulk access, developer day, an API, long-term open source model. People’s house.” Malamud linked to a letter at House.Resource.org to Representative Eric Cantor (R-VI), House Majority Leader in which he made the case for making bulk data access to bills and corollary data available to the public online through Thomas.gov:

Access to bulk data, both for the core Thomas system and for corollary databases, would have a huge and immediate effect. Hosting a developer day and making sure stakeholders are part of the long-term development will help keep the next- generation system in tune with the needs of the Congress and of the public.

As Malamud pointed out, long term plans to improve public access to the law are evolving, including the announcement that the Cornell Law Library would redesign Thomas.gov legislative/meta data models:

It’s finally official: The Library of Congress has selected us to work on a redesign of their legislative-metadata models. This sounds like really geeky stuff (and it is), but the effects for government and for citizens should be pretty big. What’s really being talked about here is (we hope) a great improvement not only in what can be retrieved from systems like THOMAS and LIS (the less-well-known internal system used by Congress itself), but also in what can be linked to and referenced. We’ll begin with a careful compilation of use cases, build functional requirements for what the data models should do, and go from there to think about prototype systems and datasets. The idea is to bring Semantic Web technology to bills, public laws, the US Code, Presidential documents, and a variety of other collections. Longtime LII friends and collaborators Diane Hillmann, John Joergensen and Rob Richards& will be working with our regular team to create the new models and systems.

Will the new GOP leadership take Malamud up on his proposal for an open developer day and bulk data? Stay tuned. As Nancy Scola wrote in techPresident that “Republicans in the House are making technology-enabled openness, transparency, and participation central to the public presentation of their core political values in a way that their Democratic counterparts never fully did.” Malamud has a track record that lends considerable credibility to his prospects: he helped to get the SEC online in 1993. More recently, “Washington’s IT guy” was able to work with the House leadership to start publishing hundreds of high-resolution videos from the House Oversight Committee hearings at House.Resource.org earlier this month.

If the new GOP leadership is serious about adopting the infrastructure to enable transparency and accountability in the House, perhaps adoption of open government data standards will be one of the enduring accomplishments of this 112th Congress.

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House 2.0: Building out the House.gov platform with Drupal and social media

As I reported for the O’Reilly Radar yesterday, when the House chose Drupal as the preferred web content management system for House.gov, it made the “People’s House” one of the largest government institutions to move to the open source web content management platform.

The House.gov platform is moving to Drupal but House.gov itself is not on Drupal quite yet. That will probably happen in the next several months, according to Dan Weiser, communications director of the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer in the United States House of Representatives.

In the meantime, the incoming Congressmen and Congresswomen do appear to have adopted Drupal as the platform for their official websites. For instance, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa‘s site, below, uses one of several templates on the Drupal platform. Notably, each of the new sites includes default modules for the leaders in the respective verticals in the social media world: Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Some questions remain about the cost and choices that representatives have as they choose their online Web presences. As NextGov reported today, while House websites can move to the open source platform – they don’t have to do so.

Given the context of citizens turning to the Internet for government information, data and services in increasing numbers, however, a well-designed Congressional website with clear connections to the various digital outposts has moved from a “nice to have” to a “must have” in the eyes of the digitally connected. (For citizens on the other side of the digital divide, the House switchboards are still available via phone call at (202) 224-3121 or TTY: (202) 225-1904).

If that’s a given, then the question is then why Drupal is now the preferred web hosting environment for the House. On that count, “Drupal was chosen because it is open source and widely accepted, therefore allows Members to leverage a large community of programmers which gives them more choices and innovation,” wrote Weiser in an email. “It should also be noted that Members still will have the option to use other platforms.”

Weiser told NextGov that, because, Drupal developers are in every member’s district, “that hopefully means expanded choice and more innovation for our members.”

The current content management system limits the choice of site programmer as well as innovation, said Dan Weiser, communications director for the chief administrative officer, in an e-mail. Drupal, which uses a common framework and code that can be customized, will allow members to leverage a large community of programmers, providing more opportunities for innovation, he added.

The House expects to save some money with the transition to Drupal, since the chief administrative officer will manage the infrastructure and members pay vendors only for development time, Weiser said.

The inclusion of social media is also no longer a novelty in the beginning of 2011. “We expected there would be interest by the incoming freshmen to have social media on their sites; it just seemed natural to offer the option,” wrote Weiser.

[Disclosure: One of the vendors involved in the House's Drupal effort is Acquia. O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is an investor in Acquia.]