Obama Lags House Republicans on Data Transparency

by on November 3, 2012 · 0 comments

It’s time to roll out transparency grades!

This isn’t anything innovative, but part of my strategy for improving government transparency is to give public recognition to the political leaders who get ahead on transparency and public disapprobation to those who fall behind. So I have a Cato Institute report coming out Monday that assesses how well government data is being published. (Oversight data, that is: reflecting deliberations, management, and results.)

I went ahead and previewed it on the Cato blog last night. The upshot? I find that President Obama lags House Republicans in terms of data transparency.

Neither are producing stellar data, but Congress’s edge is made more acute by the strong transparency promises the president made as a campaigner in 2008, which are largely unrealized. My pet peeve is the lack of a machine-readable government organization chart, not even at the agency and bureau level. The House is showing modest success and promising signs with some well structured data at docs.house.gov and good potential at beta.congress.gov.

I hustled to get these grades out before the election, and maybe there are one or two marginal voters who this study might sway. How it might sway them is an open question, and I’ve had some interesting reaction to the release of the study, such as: Is this electioneering? Shouldn’t there be an assessment of Romney on transparency?

It’s not electioneering, which is advocating for a specific candidate or party. The study says nothing about what to do with the information it provides. I do believe politicians should be held to account for their transparency practices. The primary way politicians are held accountable is at the ballot box. Thus, communicating to the public about the performance of public officials in a given area at election time is one of the best ways to affect their behavior.

The methodology used in this report gives us the ability to track progress going forward, and it creates better incentives for improvement because you can tie the quality of actual important data to the officials responsible for it. But it doesn’t allow us to go back in time and grade the condition of data in the past (barring a huge effort to recreate what resources were available). And it doesn’t allow us to grade candidates for office, who don’t have any responsibility for any data we care about. So I can say, because I believe it, that President Obama is almost certainly better than President Bush was, and I’ve heard that Mitt Romney was bad on transparency as a governor. But I don’t have data to confirm these things.

We’ll do this study again—and better!—in two years, and again in four. We will be measuring progress and calling it out for the public to consider. We’ve put together a pretty good methodology for assessing data publication, I think, and the division of responsibility for data among political leaders is pretty clear. So this instrument will be a way for the public to assess progress on something they want.

Thanks to the folks at GovTrack.us, the National Priorities Project, OMB Watch, and the Sunlight Foundation, who helped me review the government’s data publication practices. (Their help does not imply agreement with MY conclusions.)

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