legislation

TechCrunch’s “CrunchGov” grades Congress on tech, pilots legislative crowdsourcing platform

In general, connecting more citizens with their legislators and create more resources for Congress to understand where their constituents and tech community stands on proposed legislation is a good thing. Last year’s Congressional hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act made it pretty darn clear that many technologists felt that it was no longer ok to not know how the Internet works. Conversely, however, if the tech world cares about what happens in DC, it’s no longer ok to not know how Congress works.

In that context, the launch of a policy platform by one of the biggest tech blogs on the planet could definitely be a positive development. TechCrunch contributor Greg Ferenstein writes that the effort is aimed at “helping policymakers become better listeners, and technologists to be more effective citizens.”

The problem with the initial set of tools is that they’re an incomplete picture of what’s online, at best. CrunchGov won’t satisfy the needs of tech journalists, staffers or analysts, who need deeper dives into expert opinion, policy briefings and data. (Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy and Technology, OpenSecrets.org, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation already offer those resources.)

Will “grading” Members of the House of Representatives on TechCrunch’s new Congressional leaderboard lead to them being better listeners? Color me, well, unconvinced. Will an “F” from TechCrunch result in Reps. Smith, Grassley, or Blackburn changing the bills they introduce, support or vote for or against?

Hard to know. True, it’s the sort of symbol that a political opponent could use in an election — but if Reddit’s community couldn’t defeat SOPA’s chief sponsor in a primary, will a bad grade do it? Ferenstein says the leaderboard provides a “a quantified opinion” of the alignment of Reps with the consensus of the tech industry.

Update: as reported by Adrian Jeffries at The Verge, this quantified opinion is based upon TechCrunch editorial and “data and guidance from four tech lobbies.”

Engine Advocacy, which represents startups; TechNet, which represents CEOs in areas from finance and ecommerce to biotech and clean tech; the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents major Silicon Valley employers; and the powerhouse conglomerate The Internet Association, which represents Amazon, Google, and Facebook, among others.

Ferenstein told Hamish McKenzie at PandoDaily that “We’re saying this is generally the view of many people who read our site.” If that’s the case, it would be useful to transparently see the data that shows how TechCrunch readers feel about proposed or passed bills — much in the same way that POPVOX or OpenCongress allow users to express support or opposition to legislation. At the moment, readers are stuck taking their word for it.

McKenzie also highlighted some problems with the rankings and the proposition of rankings themselves:

On three major issues – net neutrality, privacy, and cyber security – TechCrunch’s surveys found no consensus, which somewhat undermines the leaderboard rankings. After all, those rankings appear to be based mainly on three data points: a Congressperson’s position on SOPA, and his or her votes on the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. It might be true that CrunchGov takes a data-driven approach to its rankings, but when three data points out a possible set of six are omitted, it’s fair to question just how useful the measure is.

As much as anything else, that speaks to the complicated definition of “those in the technology industry.” The industry is so broad and varied, from solo developers creating social games in their basements to hardware executives wanting to drive profits on their devices, that trying to establish consensus on political issues across a broad section of a relatively amorphous community is probably an impossible task. It also overemphasizes tech issues among the myriad of policy concerns that people working in the industry hold, some of which might seem tangential but are actually inextricably tied to the industry. What of climate change? What of taxes? What of puppies?

Also, applying grades to legislators puts TechCrunch in the same camp as the NRA, Americans For Tax Reform, and the Sierra Club in terms of assessing representatives based on narrow, and politically loaded, interests. It’s a headline-oriented approach that provides low-information people with a low-information look at a process and system that is actually very complicated.

More effective citizenship through the Internet?

I’m not unconvinced these limited bill summaries or leaderboard will help “technologists” become “more effective citizens,” though I plan to keep an open mind: this new policy platform is in beta, from the copy to the design to the number of bills in the legislative database or the data around them.

Helping readers to be “more effective” citizens is a bigger challenge than educating them just about how legislators are graded on tech-related bills. The scope of that  knowing who your Representative, Senators or where they stand on issues, what bills are up for a vote or introduced, how they voted, The new Congress.gov will connect you to many of the above needs, at the federal level. It might mean following the money, communicating your support or opposition to your elected officials, registering to vote, and participating the democratic processes of state and local government, from schools to . Oh, and voting: tens of millions of American citizens will head to the polls in under two weeks.

To be fair, CrunchGov does do some of these things, linking out to existing open government ecosystem online. Clicking “more info” shows positions Representatives have taken on the tech issues CrunchGov editors have determined that the industry has a “consensus” around, including votes, and links to their profiles in OpenCongress and Influence Explorer. Bill summaries link to maplight.org.

When it comes to the initial set of issues in the legislative database, there’s an overly heavy editorial thumb on the till of what’s deemed important to the tech community.

For one, “cybersecurity” is a poor choice for a Silicon Valley blog. It’s a Washington word, used often in the context of national defense and wars, accompanied by fears of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Network security, mobile device security or Web application security are all more specific issues, and ones that startups and huge enterprises all have to deal with in their operations. The security experts I trust see Capitol Hill rhetoric taking aim at the wrong cybersecurity threats.

CrunchGov has only one bill selection for the issue — the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) (H.R. 3523). The summary explains that CISPA proposes more information sharing, has a pie chart showing that “tech-friendly legislators” are split 50/50 on it, shows endorsements and opposition, links to 3 articles about the bill, including TechCrunch’s own coverage.

What’s left unclear? For one, that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) – an “A-lister” who TechCrunch writes “has received numerous awards and accolades from the industry,” supported CISPA. Or that organizations and advocates concerned about its implications for privacy and civil rights strongly opposed it. If you’re a technologist, legislator or citizen, honestly, you’re better off reading ProPublica’s explainer or the Center for Democracy and Technology’s CISPA resource page.

There’s also framing choices that meant a number of bills aren’t listed — and that the Senate is left out entirely. Why? According to Ferenstein, “the “do-nothing” congress made it impossible to rank the Senate, because they didn’t pass enough bills related to technology policy.”

It’s true that the Senate hasn’t passed many bills — but the 51 laws that did go through the Senate in the 112th Congress include more tech policy issues than that statement might lead you to believe, from e-verify to online leak prevention. It’s also moved laws that every citizens should know about, like the extension of the PATRIOT Act, given that provisions affect the tech industry. (Yes, digital due process matters in the age of the cloud: your email isn’t as private as you might think it is.)

Putting a legislative crowdsourcing platform to re-use

Congressional leaderboard and limited legislative dashboard aside, CrunchGov is trying to crowdsource legislation using a local installation of MADISON, the software Congressman Issa’s office developed and rolled out last December during the first Congressional hackathon. MADISON was subsequently open sourced, which made the code available to TechCrunch.

It’s in this context that CrunchGov’s aspirations for technology to “democratize democracy itself” may be the most tested. The first test case will be a bill from Congressman Issa to reform government IT procurement. For this experiment to matter, the blog’s readership will need to participate, do so meaningfully, and see that their edits are given weight by bill authors in Washington. Rep. Issa’s office, which has distinguished itself in its use of the Internet to engage the public, may well do so. If proposals from the initial pilot aren’t put into bills, that may be the end of reader interest.

Will other Congressmen and staffers do the same, should their bills be posted? It’s hard to say. As with so many efforts to engage citizens online, this effort is in beta.

This post has been updated, including links to coverage from Pando Daily and the Verge.

POPVOX shares its Top 50 bills for the 112th Congress (#SOPA is #1)

Last week, the Library of Congress launched Congress.gov in beta, its vision of the next generation of THOMAS, the online repository of the nation’s legislative data. The site features a “most viewed bills” list that lets visitors to the site see at a glance what laws or proposals are gathering interest the site.

The most viewed bills there, however, may not match up to the most popular bills elsewhere online. POPVOX**, a civic startup that is trying to bring the voice of the People into Congress, has posted the top 50 bills on its site for the 112th Congress, in terms of activity.

That the top bill is the Stop Online Piracy Act — and that the PROTECT IP Act is also in the top 5 — is unlikely to be a surprise to observers. The other bills at the top of the list — HR3035 Mobile Informational Call Act, HR2306 Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act and  S3240 Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act – may be more unfamiliar to many people. The complete list is in the infographic below, including whether POPVOX’s userbase supported or opposed them.

popvox infographic

Marci Harris, the co-founder and CEO of POPVOX, wrote in via email to note that, as the 112th Congress comes to a close, the sequestration issue is starting to pop.

**DISCLAIMER: Tim O’Reilly, my publisher, provided angel funding for POPVOX last year. He calls it “a kind of Google Analytics service for politics, bringing visibility and actionable insight to both Congressional staffers and advocacy organizations.”

 

Is the Facebook “citizen cosponsor” app open government 2.0 or clever e-partisanship?

Yesterday, the Office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VI) launched a new Facebook application, “Citizen Co-sponsor.” Rep. Cantor introduces it in the video below:

Since its introduction, I’ve been mulling over what to write about the new app. Here’s what I’ve read to date:

First, excellent reporting from TechPresident, where Sara Lai Stirland writes that the new Facebook open graph app makes lawmaking social:

The app enables people to use Facebook to track the progress of House legislation as it makes its way through the chamber, but also provides the majority leader’s office with an interesting new grassroots marketing tool for the Republican party’s ideas.

The new app makes use of Facebook’s Open Graph protocol, which means that once installed, updates to legislation that a user has expressed support for can be automatically posted to their Facebook profiles. It also means that these updates show up in users’ timelines, newsfeeds and tickers, giving the legislation more exposure to users’ networks of friends.

For now, the list of legislation that citizens can choose to support is controlled, of course, by Cantor’s office and is listed on a section of his web site. Citizens can click to “co-sponsor” legislation that they support, and see all the other citizen co-sponsors who’ve expressed their support. Each widget for each piece of legislation also shows a visual storyline of that legislation’s progress through the House.

Second, a post by Alex Fitzpatrick at Mashable on the Facebook citizen cosponsor app , in which he interviewed Matt Lira, the director of digital for the House Majority Leader.

“We have a startup mentality to it,” says Lira. “When Twitter first started, it was just going to be for cell phones, now it is what it is today. It’s evolutionary, so you want to see how users use it and if the engagement justifies it, we’ll expand it out.”

The new media team at Cantor’s office is drawing inspiration from both sides of the aisle. Lira says he’s a fan of Rep. Issa’s (R-Calif.) Madison Project as well as the White House’s “We the People” online petitions. He talked about online bill markups, hearings and expert roundtables as possibilites for ways to expand the Citizen Cosponsor in the future.

“We want the program to give more to users than is asks of them,” says Lira. “The only way this stuff works is if you have a tolerance for experimentation and a certain level of patience. I’ve been impressed with We the People and that’s very experimental — it’s in the spirit of ‘let’s throw something out there and see if it works.’ Otherwise, there’s the alternative: a conference room of ideas that never happen.”

Over at the Huffington Post, POPVOX founder Marci Harris published a long post with substantive concerns about the citizens cosponsors app. (Disclosure: Tim O’Reilly was an early angel investor in POPVOX.) Harris wanted to know more about who the sponsors of the app are (it’s funded by the Office of the Majority Leader), whether feedback will go to a citizen’s Member of Congress, whether “updates” will be neutral or partisan, who will have access to the list of constituents that is generated by the app, the capability to only express support for a bill, versus opposition, and the privacy policy.

In late 2007 when I, as a staffer, shopped an idea around within Congress to create a public platform for constituent engagement, I discovered that it was nearly impossible to build something like that within the institution of Congress outside of the partisan caucus system. You could either build a Democratic-sponsored tool or a Republican-sponsored tool, but there was no structure for building a nonpartisan CONGRESSIONAL tool (and don’t even get me started on how impossible integration between House and Senate was/is.)* My experience does not mean that nonpartisan strides are impossible — just challenging, and that any effort should be viewed with a critical eye.

Dave Copeland published a more critical take on the enterprise this afternoon at ReadWriteWeb, writing that the House Majority leader missed the mark with the Facebook app, asking a key question:

…why not use the publicly available data on all pending legislation and allow citizens to “co-sponsor” any bill currently being weighed by the legislature?

No matter how we feel about Facebook’s privacy provisions, we’ll be the first to admit that it is the default way to connect with people these ways. We’re not poo-poohing any initiative that harnesses social media that makes it easier for people to get involved in the political process, and we’re not bashing this from a partisan point of view. We’re bashing it from a point of view that cares about transparency.

Cantor’s ploy reeks of partisanship disguised as bipartisanship (nowhere on the main page of the site are the words “Democrat” or “Republican” used). And while the Cosponsor Project may be more participatory, it’s certainly not the “open, visible” platform he promises in his introduction.

That all adds up to a strong critique. As the app stands, however, it’s an important first step into the water for integration of Facebook’s social graph into legislation.

That said, there are some flaws, from an unclear Terms of Service to permissive data usage to a quite limited selection of bills that citizens can follow or support.

In addition, as a commenter on Mashable notes, “Unless there’s a way to show how many people are *against* proposed bills, this will not provide a clear picture as to the support they actually have. You might have a significant number of citizen cosponsors (say 25k), but that number loses its significance if the number of people against is, say 125k. You need both measures in order to get an idea as to whether or not a proposed bill is truly supported.”

I’ve asked Lira a number of followup questions and will file something for Radar if he responds. In the meantime, what do you think of the app and the initiative? Please let us know in the comments, keeping the following perspective  from Harris in mind:

As with any startup, the first iteration is never perfect. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, famously said, “if you are not embarrassed by your first release, you’ve launched too late.” In that sense, maybe the Majority Leader is learning from the startup world. In an email response to my questions, Matt Lira, Director of New Media for Majority Leader Cantor, seemed to indicate that there were iterations to come: “As was the case when I publicly defended We the People, this is an evolutionary step – there will be continual progress, as with all these things, towards the desired end of a modernized Congress.”

Update: “We’ve always characterized both MADISON and Citizen CoSponsors as digital experiments that we are both admittedly excited about and that I personally believe have great potential to grow,” responded Matt Lira, director of digital for the House Majority Leader’s office, via email.

“These are the type of projects that will modernize our country’s legislative institutions for the social media age,” he wrote. “We are trying really new things like MADISON and Citizens. We are successfully driving institutional reforms on a structural basis. We are the same people who created docs.House.gov, require a public posting period for legislation, and established a machine-readable document standard. In short, people who have done more to open the House of Representatives than anyone in history.”

With respect to “e-partisanship,” Lira noted that “from the moment it launched, the app included a bill sponsored by a Democratic Representative. Some of the other bills – like the JOBS Act – have widespread support on both sides. I launched with six bills, because I wanted to see how the app works in the field, before making any choices about its wider deployment, should that even be justified.”

This post has updated to include a disclosure about Tim O’Reilly’s early investment in POPVOX.

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.