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Project on Government Oversight

Two Pitfalls

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April 11, 2011

On April 12, 2011, POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian participated in a panel discussion as part of the Media Access to Government Information Conference (MAGIC). The conference organizers invited each panelist to submit comments in advance of the discussion. Here is what POGO submitted.

There are two pitfalls that could ultimately harm the media’s access to government information. First, although the Obama Administration has certainly emphasized the open government agenda, some of the most significant accomplishments in open government have been piloted by outside groups. While many of these outside efforts have been fruitful, we should be careful about relying too heavily on non-governmental actors for advancements in government transparency. Second, we should be careful about emphasizing the release of data over the release of information. Data that create economic opportunity and help people live healthier lives are valuable—but we cannot forget about other kinds of information that allow the public to hold the government accountable.

To date, the NGO world has piloted open government initiatives in several models: gathering and publishing government documents, unifying and presenting disparate government data, scavenging for government-related information using sources outside the government, and auditing or cleaning up the integrity of government data.

A few noteworthy efforts:

  • Both Open CRS and the Federation of American Scientists publish reports generated by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which does not proactively publish its own work.
  • By poring over congressional spending bills, Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) has identified over 10,000 congressional earmarks and gathered information about them in a comprehensive database.
  • In 2006, OMB Watch launched FedSpending.org, unifying data on federal contract spending, grants, loans, insurance, and direct subsidies found primarily in two government databases: the Federal Procurement Data System and the Federal Assistance Award Data System.
  • The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) stitches together data on campaign contributions and lobbying spending, personal financial disclosures of government officials, and more.
  • The Sunlight Foundation has also integrated government data with projects like Transparency Data and Influence Explorer. Additionally, Sunlight has highlighted deficiencies in the government’s reporting of spending data, identifying numerous inconsistencies, errors, and instances of late or incomplete reporting of information on USAspending.gov with its Clearspending project.
  • POGO has created a Federal Contractor Misconduct Database (FCMD) to compile instances of misconduct committed by the top federal contractors. Using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, agency press releases, court documents, and other primary sources, POGO has cataloged over 1,000 instances of misconduct committed since the database’s launch in 2002. POGO has also published numerous previously unavailable reports by agency Inspectors General (IGs). In January of this year, POGO compiled and published 29 reports by the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC’s) Office of Inspector General, 19 of which had not been posted on the agency’s website.

Some of these projects have influenced the way the federal government collects and presents its data. OMB Watch’s fedspending.org went on to serve as the basis for USAspending.gov. And with the passage of the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress directed the General Services Administration (GSA) to create a contractor responsibility database modeled after POGO’s FCMD. Originally, the database, called the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS), was to be off-limits to the public. But a provision in the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2010 directs the GSA to publish all FAPIIS entries except for contractor past performance reviews on a publicly available website.

So why then shouldn’t we be relying more on the private sector and non-profits to help journalists and the public access government information?

First, it’s unlikely that there will be commercial applications for information that helps the public hold its government accountable. Reports created by agency Inspectors General can help inform the public about instances of government waste and mismanagement, and agency visitor logs can help citizens understand who may be influencing the way their government is operating. An informed citizenry is an essential component of democracy, and so this kind of information has great value—but it does not necessarily present a good business opportunity for entrepreneurs.

Second, when it comes to some of the most important types of government information, only the government has the resources and the access to create comprehensive transparency. For example, for our Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, we do our best to track down information about settlements between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the top federal contractors—but we cannot guarantee that we have found them all. Furthermore, POGO only has the resources to search for misconduct related to the top 100 contractors. The Justice Department, on the other hand, of course sees every settlement between the federal government and contractors. Wouldn’t it be easier for DOJ to flag every settlement with a contractor and ensure that it is entered into a government database?

The Center for Responsive Politics faces a similar challenge with its revolving door database. CRP can do its best to track the movement of government employees in and out of the private sector, but likewise it cannot guarantee it will spot every spin of the revolving door. Meanwhile, some agencies in the government—such as the Department of Defense and the SEC—track precisely this sort of information. Isn’t it easier for the government to publish this information than the non-profit world? In many cases, we can only offer a less comprehensive—and therefore less meaningful—portrait of government than the government could itself.

A particular danger is the perception by some responsible for carrying out the Obama open government agenda that the purpose of open government is to enable venture capitalists and other entrepreneurs to create tools that would provide value added to consumers. There is certainly value in releasing data that creates economic opportunity. But what about the data that allows the public to hold the government accountable?

Unfortunately, this kind of information has not been a primary focus of agency open government efforts. When executive branch agencies released “high-value datasets” on data.gov in January 2010 as required by the Open Government Directive, good government advocates were, by and large, unimpressed. Data that agencies designed as “high-value” and released at that time included: population counts of horses and burros located in Herd Management Areas controlled by theInterior Department, a list of government recreation sites, and marital status of active duty forces. Data.gov is an excellent resource with great potential—but the problem with making it such a strong focal point of open government initiatives is that it could steer agencies away from accountability-related information. Sometimes the most important data isn’t found in spreadsheets and .xml files.

So what kind of information does allow the public to hold the government accountable? A coalition of good government groups has worked to develop a list known as the openness floor. Although this list continues to evolve, POGO believes that it should certainly include calendars of top-level agency officials, agency visitor logs, communications with Congress (not just congressional testimony), Inspector General reports, and more robust contracting information. Executive branch agencies may differ in their missions and budgets, but these are pieces of information that each agency should be able to release (with appropriate consideration paid to personal privacy and national security). Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica’s Director of Computer-Assisted Reporting, also offered a useful framework in a panel discussion during Sunshine Week, stating: “Information on anything that's inspected, spent, enforced, or licensed. That's what I want, and that's what the public wants.”

As it is now, few agencies make this sort information readily available. A recent audit by OpenTheGovenment.org shows that agencies are not yet consistently proactively disclosing such high-value information as visitor logs, contract and grant award documents, lobbying reports, and IG reports.

This pattern of behavior suggests that some key aspects of the Open Government Directive just aren’t sinking in. The Directive repeatedly cites “accountability” as a raison d'être for several requirements:

  • “To increase accountability, promote informed participation by the public, and create economic opportunity, each agency shall take prompt steps to expand access to information by making it available online in open formats.”
  • To create an unprecedented and sustained level of openness and accountability in every agency, senior leaders should strive to incorporate the values of transparency, participation, and collaboration into the ongoing work of their agency. (Emphasis POGO’s)

The Directive even cites the A-word right off the bat when it defines “high-value information”:

High-value information is information that can be used to increase agency accountability and responsiveness; improve public knowledge of the agency and its operations; further the core mission of the agency; create economic opportunity; or respond to need and demand as identified through public consultation. (Emphasis POGO’s)

At the end of the day, it is essential that the government accept—as part of its central mission—the responsibility of making its operations as open to the public as possible. That means releasing more information to allow the public to hold government accountable. Releasing scrapable datasets in multiple formats is all well and good—but let’s not forget about the other essential parts of open government.

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.