Reports of the “Death of Open Government” have been greatly exaggerated

Last week, we saw yet another headline about the “death of open government.” Yesterday, the “demise of Data.gov” was incorrectly reported.

After a false report that made its way online in the absence of any fact checking, a call to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) or an email to the General Services Administration, I felt the need to shine a little sunlight where I think it’s needed.

First, I contacted Aneesh Chopra, the first federal CTO of the United States, who confirmed that the reports above were simply “untrue” and reported that out. According to Chopra, Data.gov will stay up and be an important part of the U.S. National Plan for Open Government. In the short run, tweeted Chopra, citizens should expect “agency support for data.gov communities. In the long run, Data.gov will become an open source open data platform. (More on that later.)

Second, consider this an “open letter” directed to Steven O’Keefe, founder of Meritalk, author of the latest article declaring that open government “is dead” because of reduced funding for OMB’s e-government fund in Congress.

Yes, people really care. Mr. Okeefe, if you aren’t against the concept of open government, why did you write an inflammatory headline about its “death,” particularly on the same week that a historic global Open Government Partnership launched?

I can think of at least 46 reasons open government is not dead. Last year, in your testimony before the United States Senate on government transparency, you said:

…We are very encouraged by the OMB and Recovery Board response to feedback from the Ogov study. President Obama’s open government initiative is analogous to President Kennedy’s commitment to go to the moon. It is a journey, and key stakeholders in government seem very receptive to building a better open government rocket
ship. The effort will doubtless yield many useful innovations along the way.

Mr. Chairman, it is our sincere hope that open government continues to build momentum in the Federal government. Much room exists for improvement. Our recommendations and observations are but a start toward establishing open government as a mainstream standard operating procedure in the Federal government.

A year later, that tune has changed. As I’ve said elsewhere to the editors of the site, I do not believe that this post was worthy of getting more exposure on on OpenSource.com. The flippancy of “pass the beer nuts” is simply not in-line with the gravity of the subject.

For one, it resulted in an error-filled post by Alberto Cottica that misreported that Data.gov was going to be taken down, a mistake that he failed to apologize for nor fully corrected until directly confronted.

For another, it’s just the next in a series of FUD-filled posts that seem designed to stir up controversy with the “is dead” trope that’s sadly endemic to lazy technology journalism as opposed to sober analysis of the issues. I’ll continue to read the Sunlight Foundation’s blog and will again try to unsubscribe from Meritalk’s “cup of IT,” an email newsletter that I somehow was forced to receive after speaking at the recent GOSCON summit.

There are indeed data quality issues on Data.gov, on the IT Dashboard and on USAspending.gov, as the Sunlight Foundation and other journalists have highlighted. The data problems are evident because of open government, not the opposite. A dashboard is only as good as the data put into it. There will be bad data in any large data set. By making data about the business or performance of government public, however, government officials can and do receive feedback upon the issues with it. And as the recently released GAO report on e-government emphasized, the open government platforms need better performance metrics aligned with their goals and improved data quality.

That said, there are larger considerations.

This moment occurs within a far broader historic context, however, than the posts referenced suggest. If you consider the larger sweep of the open government movement at the state, local and international level, any analysis of open government that declares it “alive” or dead based upon funding for the OMB’s eGov fund is limited by its premise, diminished by a myopic inside-the-Beltway perspective that does little to encourage the open source community to care and much more to cause the broader online audience and a global populace stressed by war, unemployment and corruption to be more cynical.

For those concerned about open government in the United States, talk to more journalists whose efforts at newspapers have been essential to holding local government accountable.

For those looking for a serious, well-reported assessment of federal open government policies, as seen through the prism of the media, read this CJR feature on government transparency. While the assessment of the Obama administration’s promises is not kind, the author does cede that there has been marginal improvement in the past three years.

For those who want an even deep analysis by an organization dedicated to open government, read OMB Watch’s assessment of progress of open goverment. Short version: again, improvement but a long road ahead.

Open government is not simply about open data nor OMB’s initiatives, although both are important at the federal level in the United States. Open government is a mindset, a cultural change, and an ongoing process that touches upon every citizen and government official, often indirectly. The conversations about it are supported by technology, its operations are enhanced by technology, and new possibilities are catalyzed by technology. That said, technology is a tool, not an end. Defunding some programs does not mean that “open government is dead” any more than it means representative democracy has expired.

Looking back, this isn’t the first time this issue has come up. Jenn Gustetic dug into similar issues last October when there was a smattering of posts wondering if open government was dead. Luke Fretwell, of Govfresh, responded to Vivek Wadhwa’s well meaning but poorly informaed post on open government earlier this year, after Wadhwa’s Washington Post blog ran a similar headline.

As Nick Judd pointed out in his reporting on open government at the time, there are other reasons to believe that open government data may become more than an executive order soon. Stay tuned on that count.

In the meantime, we can and should do better by our communities.

Cato study rating Congress on open legislative data gives low grades for transparency

The school year may have just begun but Congress has already received an early report card on the transparency of its legislative data. The verdict? A 2.47 GPA, on average, if you don’t include the 4 Incompletes. That’s on average a bit better than a C+, for those who’ve long since forgotten how grade point averages are computer. It also means that while Congress “passed this term,” any teacher’s note would likely include a stern warn that when it comes to legislative transparency, the student needs to show improvement before graduation.

Rate Congress Transparency Report Card

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, analyzed the “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” and found it a bit, well, wanting.

If you’re interested in opening up the United States federal legislative system, you can tune into a livestream of special DC forum this morning where Harper and other open government stakeholders “rates Congress. Brandon Arnold, director of government affairs at the Cato Institute, will moderate a discussion between Harper, Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation.


A better data model

The Cato paper analyzes Congressional achievement through the lens of four basic concepts in data publication: authoritative sourcing, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability. “Together, these practices will allow computers to automatically generate the myriad stories that the data Congress produces has to tell,” writes Harper in a blog post today. “Following these practices will allow many different users to put the data to hundreds of new uses in government oversight.

That data model used to produce this analysis should be of interest to the broader open government data community, in terms of a good matrix for rating a given legislature. “Data modeling is pretty arcane stuff, but in this model we reduced everything to ‘entities,’ each having various ‘properties,’ explained Harper. “The entities and their properties describe the logical relationships of things in the real world, like members of Congress, votes, bills, and so on. We also loosely defined several ‘markup types’ guiding how documents that come out of the legislative process should be structured and published. Then we compared the publication practices in the briefing paper to the ‘entities’ in the model.”

While the obvious takeaway is that Congress could do better, Harper gives the Senate and House due credit and time to improve. “This stuff is tough sledding,” he allowed. “The data model isn’ the last word, and there are things happening varied places on and around Capitol Hill to improve things. Several pieces of the legislative process nobody has ever talked about publishing as data before, so we forgive the fact that this isn’t already being done. If things haven’t improved in another year, then you might start to see a little more piquant commentary.”

OpenCongress 3.0 empowers citizens to contact their legislators

Over the past 48 hours, the volume of citizens trying to contact Congress regarding the debt ceiling and budget debate has overwhelmed Congressional websites and Capital Hill switchboards. Citizens that want to reach their member(s) of Congress now have a powerful upgrade to one of the best options online: an improved version of Open Congress.

The upgrade of OpenCongress follows the launch of OpenGovernment.org in January, which is a free, open source online portal designed to make open state government available to citizens.

The new version of OpenCongress, which will launch this afternoon, puts new engagement features at the center of the site experience, writes in executive director David Moore via email. “It’s the culmination of more than six months of development, and the release is composed of two major new feature sets, Contact-Congress & MyOC Groups. One of the primary unique value propositions here is the ability to write all three of your members of the U.S. Congress at once, from one page, with our handy Message Builder, incorporating bill info & campaign contribution data and more, set it to public or private, and then send it *immediately* over email to official Congressional webforms. No other website offers this service in a web app that’s free, libre, open-source, and not-for-profit. As always, OCv3 is built by PPF with primary support from the Sunlight Foundation.”

Moore explained more:

“Clearly, with the debt ceiling debate and accompanying crashing and burning of Congressional communication channels, there’s a huge public demand for this service. OpenCongress is releasing it as a public service, free & open to everyone to be able to track & share their correspondence with federal legislators in a transparent public forum. MyOC Groups will complement Contact-Congress on OpenCongress by enabling greater self-organizing communities around bills and issues, as we’ve seen with unemployment extensions and other hot issues on our public comment forums and wiki.

We think it will be a popular new tool for government accountability, fighting systemic corruption, and facilitating a more deliberative democracy. And this is just the start, we hope, of a truly robust open API for constituent communication … but first, we need to give the public some user-friendly tools for sending compelling emails to their members of Congress, and then organizing their communities around them for greater effect.”

Moore told me that he expects the same features to be available on OpenGovernment.org as soon as the resources are available. Both OpenCongress and OpenGovernment are built using Ruby on Rails, so each will work well with the features. That message came with a hint: Moore is hoping today’s launch wil attract additional non-profit funding and support for more open-source development time to bring the OCv3 feature to OpenGovernment.

Moore also added that the Contact-Congress feature on OpenCongress is powered by open-
source software, the Formaggedon Rails plugin, which can be remixed &
applied to other websites & entities. More information on Formaggedon at the moment is available on today’s blog post on OpenCongress 3.0.

“Formaggedon will first be integrated with OpenGovernment,” writes Moore, which would make the site the only “free and open-source site that enables direct emailing of both your
state legislators, in upper & lower chambers. And subsequently we’ll bring over MyOG Groups.”

Designing better government with open government at the CFPB

Today, the local .gov startup goes live. While ConsumerFinance.gov went online back in February, today, on the anniversary of H.R.4173, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Consumer Financial Protection Board officially launches today, with Richard Cordray nominated to lead it. The Sunlight Foundation is liveblogging the Senate hearings this morning, for those interested.

Many questions about the future of the agency remain (Wall Street and Republicans have not been sparing offering criticism over the past year) but credit where credit is due: the new consumer bureau has been open to ideas about how it can do its work better. This approach is what led New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber to muse last week that “its openness thus far suggests the tantalizing possibility that it could be the nation’s first open-source regulator.”

When a regulator asks for help redesigning a mortgage disclosure form, something interesting is afoot.

It’s extremely rare that an agency gets built from scratch, particularly in this economic and political context. It’s notable, in that context, that the 21st century regulator has embraced many of the principles of open government in leveraging technology to stand up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Elizabeth Warren, the architect of the agency, spoke to how open government, citizens and technology factor into the bureau’s work earlier this year:

Better government by design

Open government isn’t just about first principles for accountability, open data, social media, transparency, cultural change, citizen participation, innovation or feedback loops, however, though all of those factors matter. As the work of Code For America has shown this year, design matters in open government. Better citizen experience, communication and customer service depends on better design.

Lois Beckett aptly connected how the dots about why design matters to the CFPB’s work this week at ProPublica, where she wrote about the challenges the innovative financial regulator faces as it starts up.

…as the political battle rages on and media scrutiny focuses on Elizabeth Warren’s political future, little attention has been given to what the bureau has actually done. And its initial efforts are interesting, especially because they show a commitment to open government and real public engagement. (Ron Lieber noted that its blog actually accepts comments—”unlike, say, the White House’s.”)

The bureau’s mission is to create transparency in an industry dominated by confusing claims and mouse print. Good design isn’t just a perk here—it’s fundamental to the bureau’s regulatory efforts.

Case in point: One of the CFPB’s top priorities has been streamlining the federally required mortgage disclosure documents. If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s worse on paper: two separate, complicated forms that are confusing for customers and, the bureau contends, also burdensome for many mortgage servicers to fill out.

The goal is to replace them with a single, two-page document that clearly answers the questions: “Can I afford this mortgage?” and “Can I get a better deal somewhere else?”

Two of the potential designs for the new form each have a note at the top, in bold print: “You have no obligation to choose this loan. Shop around to find the best loan for you.”

The bureau’s other projects include improving transparency about credit card prices and fees, the exchange rates used for remittance transfers of money to other countries and the credit scores sold to consumers and creditors.

Using heatmaps and 13,000 clicks to understand pain points for mortgage disclosure? Data-driven government may have legs.

It’s not just the heatmaps: the CFPB reports that they read and analyzed the comments themselves. “There is symmetry here,” write the Web staff. “Heatmaps make it easier to understand and compare data. We want to improve disclosure so it is easier for consumers and lenders to understand and compare when they evaluate mortgage loans.”

As the newest .gov startup continues to scale, we’ll see if more experiments in open government design are given “freedom to fail,” a latitude that the father of the Internet, Vint Cerf, has hailed as an essential ingredient for government innovation. Stay tuned, and keep at eye on the CFPB.

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

Week in Review: Top Gov 2.0 and Open Government Stories

US Capitol Blooms

Open government made an appearance in popular culture, albeit not in an admiring sense. At the start of the week, Jon Stewart and the Daily Show mocked the Obama administration and the president for a perceived lack of transparency.

Stewart and many other commentators have understandably wondered why the president’s meeting with open government advocates to receive a transparency award wasn’t on the official schedule or covered by the media. A first hand account of the meeting from open government advocate Danielle Brian offered useful perspective on the issues that arose that go beyond a soundbite or one liner:

Gary, OMB Watch’s executive director, focused on the places where we have seen real change, including the Open Government Directive, the Executive Orders on Classified National Security and Controlled Unclassified Information, emphasis on affirmative disclosures of government information; and the President’s support of reporters’ privilege and shield law, as well as whistleblower protections.

Lucy, executive director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, pointed out that this was the first president in her 30 years of working in this field who had invited open government advocates into the Oval Office. She specifically thanked him for his strong support of a reporters’ shield law, which he affirmed he continues to support. Tom, executive director for the National Security Archive, emphasized that when it comes to FOIA reform and implementation we know it isn’t just a ship of state, but an entire flotilla including rowboats. And that while there has been notable improvement according to the National Security Archive’s survey of agencies, there continues to need be a need for leadership from the top to change cultures across the vast swath of government agencies. He also noted that we all believe the information we want to see is not simply that which is useful for consumers, but also that which holds the government accountable.

I knew my topic was likely to be sensitive. I began by thanking the President for his strong support of whistleblower protections, and noted that it was not for lack of effort on the part of the White House that the legislation didn’t pass at the end of the last Congress.

I noted, however, that the current aggressive prosecution of national security whistleblowers is undermining this legacy. That we need to create safe channels for disclosure of wrongdoing in national security agencies. That we need to work harder to shrink the amount of over-classified materials that unnecessarily prompt leak prosecutions.

The President shifted in his seat and leaned forward. He said he wanted to engage on this topic because this may be where we have some differences. He said he doesn’t want to protect the people who leak to the media war plans that could impact the troops. He differentiated these leaks from those whistleblowers exposing a contractor getting paid for work they are not performing. I was careful not to interrupt the President, but waited until he was done. I pointed out that few, if any, in our community would disagree with his distinction—but that in reality the current prosecutions are not of those high-level officials who regularly leak to the press to advance their policy agendas. Instead, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is prosecuting exactly the kind of whistleblower he described, for example one from the National Security Agency.

The President then did something that I think was remarkable. He said this is an incredibly difficult area and he wants to work through how to do a better job in handling it. He also agreed that too much information is classified, and asked us to work with his office on this. He wasn’t defensive nor was he dismissive. It was perhaps the dream moment for an advocate—hearing the most senior policymaker agree with you and offer to work together to tackle the problem.

Brian’s account is the most comprehensive account of the meeting on open government online. The irony that it was not recorded and released to the American people is, however, inescapable. For anyone tracking the progress of the Open Government Directive, the last six months have been an up and down experience. It was clear back in September that in the United States, open government remains in beta.

According to doctoral research by University of Texas academic, there are 358 open government projects in federal government. Former White House deputy chief technology officer Beth Noveck wrote about the semantics and the meaning of good government and open government mean in this context. One takeaway: don’t mistake open innovation policies for transparency guarantees.

The current White House deputy CTO for innovation, Chris Vein, wrote on the White House blog this week that the one year anniversary of open government plans were “a testament to hard work” at the agencies. As Vein acknowledged, “while there is always more to be done, we are proud of the important work that agencies have done and are doing to change the culture of government to one that encourages transparency and facilitates innovation.  We are committed to maintaining and building upon this momentum to make our Nation stronger and to make the lives of Americans better.”

Naturally, some projects are always going to be judged more as more or less effective in delivering on the mission of government than others. An open government approach to creating a Health Internet may be the most disruptive of them. For those that expected to see rapid, dynamic changes in Washington fueled by technology, however, the bloom has long since come off of the proverbial rose. Open government is looking a lot more like an ultramarathon than a 400 yard dash accomplished over a few years.

That said, something different is going on during what Micah Sifry has aptly called the age of transparency. We’re in new territory here, with respect to the disruption that new connection technologies represent to citizens, society and government. It’s worth taking stock of what’s happened recently. It’s been a while since I first posted a Gov 2.0 Week in Review at Radar, and three months since the 2010 Gov 2.0 year in review.

There’s a lot happening in this space. Following is a quick digest that might provide some perspective to those who might think that open government is a better punchline than policy.

1. The government stayed open. The budget crisis on Capitol Hill overshadowed every other issue this past week. It’s harder for a government to be open if it’s closed. The secrecy of the shutdown negotiations left folks over at the Sunlight Foundation wondering about how open government principles matched up to reality.

2. Proposed deep cuts to funding for open government data platforms like Data.gov or the IT Dashboard appear to be least partially restored in the new budget. That will likely salve (some of) the concerns of advocates like Harlan Yu, who wrote about what we would lose if we lost Data.gov. John Wonderlich’s questions on the budget deal, however, include one on exactly how much funding was restored.

3. FCC.gov relaunched as an open government platform. In any other week, this story would have led the list open government news. Having sat out the Aughts, FCC.gov stepped into the modern age FCC managing director Steve Van Roekel and his team worked hard to bring Web 2.0 principles into the FCC’s online operations. Those principles include elements of open data, platform thinking, collective intelligence, and lightweight social software. What remains to be seen in the years ahead is how much incorporating Web 2.0 into operations will change how the FCC operates as a regulator. The redesign was driven through an open government process that solicited broad comment from the various constituencies that visit FCC.gov. The beta.FCC.gov isn’t just a site anymore, however: it’s a Web service that taps into open source, the cloud, and collective intelligence. In the world of Gov 2.0, that’s a substantial reframing of what government can do online.

4. What happens to e-government in a shutdown? This near miss forced hundreds of thousands of people to consider how to make wired government go dark. That discussion should not end with this latest resolution.

5. The first NASA Open Source Summit explored why open source is a valuable tool for the space agency. Open source is a pillar of NASA’s open government plan.

6. The Russian blogosphere came under attack, quashing an online parliament initiative. Needless to say, it will be interesting to see if a Russian Gov 2.0 conference next week addresses the issue of press freedoms or open government transparency.

7. Simpl launched as platform to bridge the connection between social innovators and government.

8. National Builder launched as a new online activism platform.

9. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) reintroduced the Public Online Information Act. With this transparency bill, the federal government would acknowledge the Internet, opined Mother Jones.

10. SeeClickFix launches its Facebook app.. “It looks like the entire SeeClickFix experience has been ported over to the Facebook environment,” writes Dan Kennedy. “Users can report problems and pinpoint them on a Google map, thus alerting government officials and the news media. I am far from being the world’s biggest Facebook fan, but it’s a smart move, given how much time people spend there.”

Editor’s Note This is by no means a definitive, comprehensive list. For instance, there’s plenty of open government news happening in countries around the world, from corruption mashups in India to the transparency challenges in various states. For a daily dose of transparency, make sure to read the Sunlight Foundation’s blog IBM’s Business of Government blog has also posted a weekly round up. If you have more stories that came across your desktop, inbox or television this week, please share them in the comments.

ProPublica: Understanding the budget standoff and government shutdown [CHEATSHEET]

This ProPublica story by Marian Wang (@mariancw) is syndicated under a Creative Commons license. If you found it useful, make sure to follow @ProPublica on Twitter and do what ever else you can to support their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting. For more on this story, the Sunlight Foundation has also provided a helpful guide to the possible results of a government shutdown. -Editor.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congress has two days to reach a budget deal to fund the government for the rest of the year or else come Saturday, the federal government will go into a partial shutdown.

But what’s the budget standoff all about and what would a shutdown really entail? Here’s our attempt to explain the basics:

Basics behind the budget standoff

The GOP and the Obama administration are currently locked in a standoff over a difference of $7 billion to $30 billion – miniscule amount of the total $3.5 trillion budget. (OMB Watch, an open government group, has a thorough account [1] of the budget battles that led up to this point.)

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein has a simple summary [2] of the GOP’s budget proposal, put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan on Tuesday: It lowers corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy, extends the Bush tax cuts permanently, calls for repeal of both the health care law and Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and freezes discretionary spending at 2008 levels.

The Obama administration has offered to cut $33 billion from current spending levels but hasn’t given many specifics about what those cuts would entail

Political calculations

The negotiations have been a bit complicated for a few reasons. The first is that it’s not always clear what the two sides are using as the baseline [3] for cuts — whether it’s current operating levels or Obama’s proposed budget for 2011 (which never passed). Both parties have at times used the 2011 budget proposal as a baseline, making the cuts sound more impressive.

Another reason it’s been hard to nail down numbers is that Republicans haven’t always been on the same page.  The Tea Party-supported GOP freshmen, who aren’t at the negotiating table, have stuck to a hard line on the budget. House Speaker John Boehner, who is at the negotiating table, says there’s “no daylight between the tea party and me.”

But it’s clear that in the run-up to the November elections, the GOP pledged $100 billion in cuts, and when the House in February proposed [4] a list of somewhat scaled back spending cuts closer to the Obama administration2019s current offer, House leaders got grief from some GOP freshmen [5] and pledged the next day to cut a full $100 billion. (That’s using [6] President Obama’s never-enacted 2011 budget as a baseline, so it translates to about $61 billion in cuts from current levels.)

Boehner, moreover, pledged not to stop at $100 billion [7], according to Time magazine: “We’re not going to stop there,” he said at CPAC. “Once we cut the discretionary accounts, then we’ll get into the mandatory spending. And then you’ll see more cuts.”

But this week, he reportedly told President Obama that he could probably agree to about $40 billion in cuts [8] (using current levels at the baseline). That’s still $7 billion more than the administration has offered to cut. Democrats have complained that the GOP keeps shifting its goalposts [9] for compromise.

How a shutdown works

At agencies whose budgets are subject to Congressional appropriations, workers are put in two groups: essential or non-essential.

Essential workers keep working though they won’t get paid until funding is back again. Non-essential workers will be furloughed, so they won’t go to work until the funding issues are resolved, and they won’t get paid for days missed unless Congress specifically says so.

Which federal workers will be affected?

The Office of Personnel Management on Tuesday night posted some guidance [10] on what would happen in the event of a shutdown. Workers find out from their agencies whether they’ll be furloughed until today or, at the latest, Friday.

The Washington Post has a piece on how frustrating this has been [11] for some workers. And the New York Times has noted that the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union for federal workers, has sued [12] the Office of Management and Budget to get more information on agencies’ contingency plans.

The president and members of Congress, who aren’t subject to furloughs, will still get paid though a bill to reverse that has passed the Senate but not the House [13].

Lessons from the last shutdown

At this point, most of the predictions about what will happen in a shutdown are based on what happened in previous shutdowns. And most of the information cited on this seems to have been taken from a Congressional Research Service report [14] released in February [PDF].

The report notes that from 1995 to 1996, two shutdowns occurred- one that lasted five days and furloughed 800,000 workers; another that lasted 21 days and furloughed 284,000 workers. That’s a lot of variation, and keep in mind that entirely new agencies [15] have been formed in the 15 years since the last shutdown.

Which government services would be affected?

The New York Times has a handy list laying out how various government services might be affected [16]. Some things that would continue mostly unaffected are military operations, the Federal Reserve, the postal service, and Medicare and Social Security payments. An accompanying story also outlines some potential scenarios [17] in more detail:

The National Zoo would close, but the lions and tigers would get fed; Yellowstone and other national parks would shut down. The Internal Revenue Service could stop issuing refund checks. Customs and Border Patrol agents training officials in Afghanistan might have to come home. And thousands of government-issued BlackBerrys would go silent.

2026 In any shutdown, the government does not completely cease functioning, of course. Activities that are essential to national security, like military operations, can continue. Air traffic control and other public safety functions are exempt from shutdowns. Federal prisons still operate; law enforcement and criminal investigations can continue.

The Times also has a piece on how state governments may be affected [18] by a federal shutdown. The answer: not too much if it’s a short shutdown, but a long one could present real problems.

Follow on Twitter: @mariancw [19]


Multiple federal open data initiatives at risk under budget cuts

Earlier today, Virginia Carlson, president of the Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC), commented extensively upon proposed deep Congressional cuts to funding for open government data platforms. Carlson provided more context for other federal open data initiatives that may also be cut. Her thoughts are shared below as a guest post. -Editor

Recent news that data transparency initiatives at the federal level are set to be shut down are coupled with an attack on long-standing federal data initiatives that produce critical economic and demographic data.

In March 2011, H.R. 931 was introduced to make participation in the American Community Survey voluntary by removing the legal penalty for not responding to the survey. Without compulsory participation, the ACS likely would not capture the broad swath of the American populace it needs to, –such citizens in towns and rural counties– and would become inaccurate and thus irrelevant. Congress relies on ACS data to guide the distribution of $485 billion annually in federal grants to states and localities. Already cash-strapped state and local governments would be hindered in their ability to efficiently target tax dollars in public investments such as roads, schools and health clinics. Private sector investments that rely on economic and demographic profiles of people in places (real estate and media industries for example) would also suffer.

At the same time, the Census Bureau budget for Fiscal Year 2012 submitted to Congress proposes to terminate six programs for a total of $10.3 million, about 1 percent of the Census Bureau budget. Among those items on the chopping block are online and print versions of the U.S. Statistical Abstract, State and Metropolitan Area Data Book, Population Change in Central and Outlying Counties of Metropolitan Statistical Areas, and the Consolidated Federal Funds Report.

What does this apparent diminishing commitment to federal data leadership mean for our future ability to make good policy, prioritize public investments, and compete globally? One scenario is that we turn to other, perhaps less democratic and more expensive, sources: internet-generated data (social apps, web scrapes), business-gathered data (market research firms) or harnessing administrative data (from driver’s license files, Medicare records, etc.). Who then will be counted? How do we ensure privacy?

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.

Samantha Power: Transparency has gone global

Innovations in democratic governance have been and likely always will be a global phenomenon. Samantha Power, senior director and special assistant for multilateral affairs and human rights at the White house, highlighted the ways in which platforms and initiatives for transparency in other countries are growing on the White House blog yesterday.

While “Sunshine Week” may be an American invention, the momentum for greater transparency and accountability in government is a global phenomenon. In countries around the world, governments and civil society groups are taking new and creative steps to ensure that government delivers for citizens and to strengthen democratic accountability.

From Kenya to Brazil to France to Australia, new laws and platforms are giving citizens new means to ask for, demand or simply create greater government transparency. As Power observed, open government is taking root in India, where the passage of India’s Right to Information Act and new digital platforms have the potential to change the dynamic between citizens and the immense bureaucracy.

Power listed a series of global transparency efforts, often empowered by technology, that serve as other useful examples of “innovations in democratic governance” on every continent

  • El Salvador and Liberia recently passed progressive freedom of information laws, joining more than 80 countries with legislation in place, up from only 13 in 1990;
  • A few weeks ago in Paris, six new countries from Europe, Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East met the high standards of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), empowering citizens with unprecedented information about payments made for the extraction of natural resources;
  • Brazil and South Africa are pioneering innovative tools to promote budget transparency and foster citizen engagement in budget decision-making, along with tens of other countries that are making budget proposals and processes open to public input and scrutiny;
  • Civil society groups are developing mechanisms to enable citizens to keep track of what happens in legislatures and parliaments, including impressive web portals such as votainteligente.cl in Chile and mzalendo.com in Kenya; and
  • Experiments in citizen engagement in Tanzania, Indonesia, and the Philippines, are demonstrating that citizen efforts to monitor the disbursement of government funds for education, health, and other basic services, actually decrease the likelihood of corruption and drive better performance in service delivery.

There’s a long road ahead for open government here in the United States. While improving collaboration and transparency through open government will continue to be difficult nuts to crack, it looks like “Uncle Sam” could stand to learn a thing or two from the efforts and successes of other countries on transparency. Addressing FOIA reform and better mobile access to information are two places to start.

For more on how open government can have a global impact, click on over to this exclusive interview with Samantha Power on national security, transparency and open government.