“As we encourage more public engagement in the legislative process, I hope D.C. residents will take a moment to log onto the Madison project,” said Councilmember Grosso. “I look forward to seeing the public input on my proposed bills.”
“We are excited to support Councilmember Grosso’s unprecedented efforts to welcome residents – and their ideas – directly into the local lawmaking process,” said Seamus Kraft, co-founder & executive director of The OpenGov Foundation, on the nonprofit organization’s blog. “But what really matters is that we’re going to produce better City Council bills, with fewer frustrations and unintended consequences. These three bills are only a start. The ultimate goal of MadisonDC is transforming D.C.’s entire policymaking machine for the Internet Age, creating an end-to-end, on-demand collaboration ecosystem for both citizens and city officials. The possibilities are limitless.”
The DATA Act is the most significant open government legislation enacted by Congress in generations, going back to the Freedom of Information Act in 1966. An administration official at the White House Office of Management and Budget confirmed that President Barack Obama will sign the bill into law.
The DATA Act establishes financial open data standards for agencies in the federal government, requires compliance with those standards, and that the data will then be published online. The bipartisan bill was sponsored in the Senate by Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), and in the House by Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD).
The Senators who drafted and co-sponsored the version of the bill that the House passed today quickly hailed its passage.
“In the digital age, we should be able to search online to see how every grant, contract and disbursement is spent in a more connected and transparent way through the federal government,” said Senator Warner, in a statement. “Independent watchdogs and transparency advocates have endorsed the DATA Act’s move toward greater transparency and open data. Our taxpayers deserve to see clear, accessible information about government spending, and this accountability will highlight and help us eliminate waste and fraud.”
“During a time of record $17 trillion debt, our bipartisan bill will help identify and eliminate waste by better tracking federal spending,” said Senator Portman, in a statement. “I’m pleased that our bill to empower taxpayers to see how their money is spent and improve federal financial transparency has unanimously passed both chambers of Congress and is now headed to the President’s desk for signature.”
Pleased the House just passed my bipartisan #DataAct.Great news for govt transparency & taxpayers. Now to President for signature. #opengov
“The DATA Act is a transformational piece of legislation that has the potential to permanently transform how the Federal government operates,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in a statement. “For the first time ever, the American people will have open, standardized access to how the federal government spends their money. Washington has an abundance of information that is often bogged down by federal bureaucracy and is inaccessible to our nation’s innovators, developers and citizens. The standardization and publication of federal spending information in an open format will empower innovative citizens to tackle many of our nation’s challenges on their own. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people should be open to the people.”
“The central idea behind the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act is simple: disclose to the public what the federal government spends,” “>said Daniel Schuman, policy council for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“The means necessary to accomplish this purpose—increased agency reporting, the use of modern technology, implementation of government-wide standards, regular quality assurance on the data—will require government to systematically address how it stovepipes federal spending information. This is no small task, and one that is long overdue. The effort to reform transparency around federal spending arose in large part because members of both political parties concluded that their ability to govern effectively depends on making sure federal spending data is comprehensive, accessible, reliable, and timely. Currently, it is not. The leaders of the reform efforts in the Senate are Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), Rob Portman (R-OH), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Tom Coburn (R-OK), and the leaders in the House are Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD), although they are joined by many others. We welcome and applaud the House of Representative’s passage of the DATA Act. It is a remarkable bill that, if properly implemented, will empower elected officials and everyday citizens alike to follow how the federal government spends money.”
“Sunlight has been advocating for the DATA Act for some time, and are thrilled to see it emerge from Congress,” said Matt Rumsey, a policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation. “As I wrote while describing the history of the bill after it passed through the Senate, ‘Congress has taken a big step by passing the DATA Act. The challenge now will be ensuring that it is implemented effectively.’ We hope that the President swiftly signs the bill and we look forward to working with his administration to shed more light on federal spending.
“With this legislation, big data is finally coming of age in the federal government,” said Daniel Castro, Director of the Center for Data Innovation, in a statement. “The DATA Act promises to usher in a new era of data-driven transparency, accountability, and innovation in federal financial information. This is a big win for taxpayers, innovators, and journalists.”
“After three years of debate and negotiation over the DATA Act, Congress has issued a clear and unified mandate for open, reliable federal spending data,” said Hudson Hollister, the Executive Director of the Data Transparency Coalition. Hollister helped to draft the first version of the DATA Act in 2011, when he was on Representative Issa’s staff. “Our Coalition now calls on President Obama to put his open data policies into action by signing the DATA Act and committing his Office of Management and Budget to pursue robust data standards throughout federal financial, budget, grant, and contract reporting.”
“The Administration shares Senator Warner’s commitment to government transparency and accountability, and appreciates his leadership in Congress on this issue,” said Steve Posner, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget. “The Administration supports the objectives of the DATA Act and looks forward to working with Congress on implementing the new data standards and reporting requirements within the realities of the current constrained budget environment and agency financial systems.”
Update: Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) signed the DATA Act on April 30, before sending it on to President Obama’s desk.
“From publishing legislative data in XML to live-streaming hearings and floor debates, our majority has introduced a number of innovations to make the legislative process more open and accessible,” he said, in a statement touting open government progress in the House. “With the DATA Act, which I signed today, we’re bringing this spirit of transparency to the rest of the federal government. For years, we’ve been able to track the status of our packages, but to this day there is no one website where you can see how all of your tax dollars are being spent. Once the president signs this bill, that will start to change. There is always more to be done when it comes to opening government and putting power back in the hands of the people, and the House will be there to lead the way.”
UPDATE: On May 9th, 2014, President Barack Obama signed The DATA Act into law.
Statement by Press Secretary Jay Carney:
On Friday, May 9, 2014, the President signed into law:
S. 994, the “Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014” or the “DATA Act,” which amends the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 to make publicly available specific classes of Federal agency spending data, with more specificity and at a deeper level than is currently reported; require agencies to report this data on USASpending.gov; create Government-wide standards for financial data; apply to all agencies various accounting approaches developed by the Recovery Act’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board; and streamline agency reporting requirements.
Rep. Darrell Issa issued the following statement in response:
“The enactment of the DATA Act marks a transformation in government transparency by shedding light on runaway federal spending,” said Chairman Issa. “The reforms of this bipartisan legislation not only move the federal bureaucracy into the digital era, but they improve accountability to taxpayers and provide tools to allow lawmakers and citizen watchdogs to root out waste and abuse. Government-wide structured data requirements may sound like technical jargon, but the real impact of this legislation on our lives will be more open, more effective government.”
Earlier today, Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced a comprehensive open government transparency bill on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. The aptly titled “Transparency in Government Act” (PDF) (summary) coincides with Sunshine Week, the annual effort to stimulate a national dialogue about the iopen government and freedom of information.
“The public’s trust in government has reached historic lows, causing many Americans to simply give up on Washington,” said Representative Quigley. “But the mission of government matters, and we can’t lead in the face of this deficit of trust. The Transparency in Government Act shines a light on every branch of the federal government, strengthening our democracy and promoting an efficient, effective and open government.”
As it has in its previous two iterations, the transparency bill has received strong support from most of the major government watchdog and transparency groups in Washington, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the Sunlight Foundation, Data Transparency Coalition, the Center for Responsive Politics, the Center for Effective Government, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
As Matt Rumsey noted at the Sunlight Foundation blog, this iteration of TGA is the third version to be introduced since 2010:
As we noted at the time, the original bill was inspired in part by model transparency legislation put together on PublicMarkup.org, a project of the Sunlight Foundation.
The 2014 version of the TGA includes a number of Sunlight Foundation priorities including, but not limited to, enhanced access to the work of congressional committees and Congressional Research Service reports, improvements to the current lobbying disclosure regime as well as increased transparency in federal contracting, grants and loans.
The prospects for TGA to pass through the entire House don’t appear to be much better than the prior two versions. That said, as CREW policy director Daniel Schuman wrote today, the bill is a deep reservoir of transparency ideas that Congress can draw upon to amend other legislation or introduce as stand-alone bills:
Greater congressional accountability through improved disclosure of foreign travel reports, gift reports, how members of Congress spend their official budgets, and greater disclosure of personal financial information.
Greater congressional transparency through improved access to the work of committees (including meeting schedules and transcripts) and greater contextualization of floor votes.
Empowering public understanding of congressional work through public access to Congressional Research Service reports.
Better tracking of lobbying by broadening the definition of lobbyist, improving the tracking of lobbying activity (in part through the use of unique entity identifiers), and more frequent disclosures by lobbyists of political contributions; improved access to information on lobbying on behalf of foreign entities; and public access to statements by grantees and contractors certifying that they have not used money awarded by the federal government to lobby (the SF-LLLs).
Enhancing transparency for contracts, grants, and loans through improved data quality, better disclosure (including electronic) and improved compliance.
Making the executive branch more transparent by requiring online access to White House and executive branch agency visitor logs, providing centralized access to agency budget justifications, and allowing the public to see how the Office of Management and Budget OIRA changes draft agency regulations.
Improving transparency of non-profit organizations by requiring non-profit tax forms (990s) to be available online in a central location (replacing the current ad hoc disclosure system).
Improving the Freedom of Information Act by publishing completed requests online in a searchable database and requiring notice of efforts to carve out exemptions to FOIA. (Ourrecommendations go even further.)
Opening up federal courts by requiring live audio of Supreme Court hearings, publishing federal judicial financial disclosures online, requiring a Government Accountability Office study on the impact of live video-streaming Supreme Court proceedings, and requiring a GAO audit of PACER.
Require annual openness audits by GAO that look at whether data made available by the government meets the eight open data principles.
In aggregate, this is a bright beam of sunshine from Congress that everyone should stand behind, from citizens to legislators to advocates. The Project for Government Oversight is strongly supportive of its provisions, writing that “there is a lot to like in this bill, including more transparency for Congress, lobbying, the executive branch, and federal spending on contractors and grantees.”
Unless the Congress passes legislation to codify reforms and policies proposed or promulgated under a given administration, the next President of the United States can simply revoke the executive orders and memoranda passed by his or her predecessor.
Today, almost a year after its introduction, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (FOIA), H.R. 1211, will go before the U.S. House for a vote. If enacted*, it would commit the reforms to the Freedom of Information Act that the Obama administration has proposed but go further, placing the burden on agencies to justify withholding information from requestors, codifying the creation of a pilot to enable requestors to submit requests in one place, creating a FOIA Council, and directing federal agencies to automatically publish records responsive to requests online.
While these actions were proposed by the administration in its National Open Government Action Plan, Congressional action would make them permanent.
If it passed both houses of Congress and is signed into law, the FOIA Reform Act would carry into law the spirit of President Barack Obama’s Open Government Memorandum of January 21, 2009 and subsequent Open Government Directive, along with Attorney General Eric Holder’s FOIA memorandum: “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”
The bipartisan bill, cosponsored by House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA.), Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), and Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL), has received support from every major open government advocacy group in Washington, DC. The released a letter to Congress this week urging the passage of the FOIA Reform Act. The Sunshine in Government and Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council also published letters in support of the bill. It has not, however, picked up a sponsor in the Senate yet.
“Requests through the Freedom of Information Act remain the principal vehicle through which the American people can access information generated by their government,” said Issa, in a statement last March. “The draft bill is designed to strengthen transparency by ensuring that legislative and executive action to improve FOIA over the past two decades is fully implemented by federal agencies.”
“This bill strengthens FOIA, our most important open government law, and makes clear that the government should operate with a presumption of openness and not one of secrecy,” said Cummings, in a statement.
The subtext for the ‘Reforming Federal Procurement of Information Technology Act’ (RFP-IT), is the newfound awareness in Congress and the nation at large driven by the issues with Healthcare.gov that something is profoundly amiss in the way that the federal government buys, builds and maintains technology.
“Studies show that 94 percent of major government IT projects between 2003 and 2012 came in over budget, behind schedule, or failed completely, said Representative Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA), ranking member of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, and co-sponsor of RFP-IT, in a statement. “In an $80 billion sector of our federal government’s budget, this is an absolutely unacceptable waste of taxpayer dollars. Furthermore, thousands of pages of procurement regulations discourage small innovative businesses from even attempting to navigate the rules. Our draft bill puts proven best practices to work by instituting a White House office of IT procurement and gives all American innovators a fair shake at competing for valuable federal IT contracts by lowering the burden of entry.”
Create a U.S. Digital Government Office (DGO) that would not only govern the country’s mammoth federal information technology project portfolio more effectively but actively build and maintain aspects of it
Increase the size of a contract for IT services allowable under the Small Business Act from $100,000 to $500,000
Create a U.S. DGO fund supported by 5% of the fees collected by executive agencies for various types of contracts
“In the 21st century, effective governance is inextricably linked with how well government leverages technology to serve its citizens,” said Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA), ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee, and co-sponsor of RFP-IT, in a statement. “Despite incremental improvements in federal IT management over the years, the bottom line is that large-scale federal IT program failures continue to waste taxpayers’ dollars, while jeopardizing our Nation’s ability to carry out fundamental constitutional responsibilities, from conducting a census to securing our borders. Our RFP-IT discussion draft recognizes that transforming how the federal government procures critical IT assets will likely require bolstering ongoing efforts to comprehensively strengthen general federal IT management practices with targeted enhancements that promote innovative and bold procurement strategies from the White House on down.”
“This, I think, really works well alongside FITARA, which calls for increased agency CIO authority,” wrote Johnson. “What will hopefully end up happening if both bills pass, is that good talent can get inside of government, and agencies that perform well can operate independently, and agencies that don’t can be pulled back in and reformed, while still having operational continuity (meaning: while that reform is happening, IT projects can still be done well, and run by the DGO).”
In 2014, digital government supports open government. What’s unclear is whether this proposal from two Democratic lawmakers can gain a Republican co-sponsor in the GOP-controlled legislative body or if a federal IT reform-minded Senator like Mr. Carper or Mr. Booker will take it up in the Senate.
This is singular bill isn’t a panacea, however, Johnson emphasized, pointing to the need to fix SAM.gov, the error-prone website for contractors to register with the federal government, and reforms to registration for “set-aside” business.
“We’re not sure how Congress writes a ‘stop throwing errors when a user clicks submit on sam.gov’ law,” wrote Johnson. “That’s going to take hearings, and most likely, a digital government office to fix. And we think this is a bill that complements Issa’s FITARA. Since this bill is at the discussion draft stage, perhaps soon we’ll see some Republicans jump on board.
UPDATE: On July 30, RFP-IT was officially introduced. (Full text of the bill, via Rep. Eshoo’s office): “The Reforming Federal Procurement of Information Technology (RFP-IT) Act, introduced by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), Ranking Member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Ranking Member of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee, Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), Chairman of the Small Business Subcommittee on Contracting and Workforce, and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Ranking Member of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Energy Subcommittee, and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.)”
1) It would officially establish a Digital Government Office within the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), with the U.S. CIO at its head as a Senate-confirmed presidential appointee, reporting to the head of the OMB, shifting from “electronic government” to “digital government.” 2) It would codify the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. 3) It would expand competition for federal IT contracting under a simplified process that would ease the regulatory and compliance burden upon smaller companies bidding, bumping the threshold for information tech projects up to $500,000. 4) Establish a digital service pilot program 5) Direct the General Services Administrator to conduct an in-depth analysis of IT Schedule 70. 6) Direct the Comptroller General of the United States to produce three reports to Congress within 2 years of the law passing, on 1) the effectiveness of the 18F program of the General Services Administration, 2) IT Schedule 70, and 3) “challenges and barriers to entry for small business technology firms.”
“Providing free and open access to the U.S. Code in XML is another win for open government,” said Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in a statement posted to Speaker.gov. “And we want to thank the Office of Law Revision Counsel for all of their work to make this project a reality. Whether it’s our ‘read the bill’ reforms, streaming debates and committee hearings live online, or providing unprecedented access to legislative data, we’re keeping our pledge to make Congress more transparent and accountable to the people we serve.”
House Democratic leaders praised the House of Representatives Office of the Law Revision Counsel (OLRC) for the release of the U.S. Code in XML, demonstrating strong bipartisan support for such measures.
“OLRC has taken an important step towards making our federal laws more open and transparent,” said Whip Steny H. Hoyer, in a statement.
“Congress has a duty to publish our collective body of enacted federal laws in the most modern and accessible way possible, which today means publishing our laws online in a structured, digital format. I congratulate the OLRC for completing this significant accomplishment. This is another accomplishment of the Legislative Branch Bulk Data Task Force. The Task Force was created in a bipartisan effort during last year’s budget process. I want to thank Reps. Mike Honda and Mike Quigley for their leadership in this area, and Speaker Boehner and Leader Cantor for making this task force bipartisan. I also want to commend the dedicated civil servants who are leading the effort from the non-partisan legislative branch agencies, like OLRC, who work diligently behind the scenes – too often without recognition – to keep Congress working and moving forward.”
The reaction from open government advocates was strongly positive.
“Today’s announcement is another milestone in the House of Representatives efforts to modernize how legislative information is made available to the American people,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “The release of the US Code in Bulk XML is the culmination of several years of work, and complements the House’s efforts to publish House floor and committee data online, in real time, and in machine readable formats. Still awaiting resolution – and the focus of the transparency community’s continuing efforts — is the bulk release of legislative status information.” (More from Schuman at the CREW blog.)
“I think they did an outstanding job,” commented Eric Mill, a developer at the Sunlight Foundation. “Historically, the U.S. Code has been extremely difficult to reliably and accurately use as data. These new XML files are sensibly designed, thoroughly documented, and easy to use.”
The data has already been ingested into open government websites.
“Just this morning, Josh Tauberer updated our public domainU.S. Code parser to make use of the new XML version of the US Code,” said Mill. “The XML version’s consistent design meant we could fix bugs and inaccuracies that will contribute directly to improving the quality of GovTrack’s and Sunlight’s work, and enables more new features going forward that weren’t possible before. The public will definitely benefit from the vastly more reliable understanding of our nation’s laws that today’s XML release enables.” (More from Tom Lee at the Sunlight Labs blog.)
Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, similarly applauded the release.
“This is great progress toward better public oversight of government,” he said. “Having the U.S. Code in XML can allow websites, apps, and information services to weave together richer stories about how the law applies and how Congress is thinking about changing it.”
Harper also contrasted the open government efforts of the Obama administration, which has focused more upon the release of open government data relevant to services, with that of the House of Representatives. While the executive and legislative branches are by definition apples and oranges, the comparison has value.
“Last year, we reported that House Republicans had the transparency edge on Senate Democrats and the Obama administration,” he said. “(House Democrats support the Republican leadership’s efforts.) The release of the U.S. Code in XML joins projects like docs.house.gov and beta.congress.gov in producing actual forward motion on transparency in Congress’s deliberations, management, and results.
For over a year, I’ve been pointing out that there is no machine-readable federal government organization chart. Having one is elemental transparency, and there’s some chance that the Obama administration will materialize with the Federal Program Inventory. But we don’t know yet if agency and program identifiers will be published. The Obama administration could catch up or overtake House Republicans with a little effort in this area. Here’s hoping they do.”
This article has been updated with additional statements over time.
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 … Continue reading →
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
…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.
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.
“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.
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.