In my Cato paper, “Publication Practices for Transparent Government,” I talked about the data practices that will produce more transparent government. The government can and should improve the way it provides information about its deliberations, management, and results.
“But transparency is not an automatic or instant result of following these good practices,” I wrote, “and it is not just the form and formats of data.”
It turns on the capacity of the society to interact with the data and make use of it. American society will take some time to make use of more transparent data once better practices are in place. There are already thriving communities of researchers, journalists, and software developers using unofficial repositories of government data. If they can do good work with incomplete and imperfect data, they will do even better work with rich, complete data issued promptly by authoritative sources.
We’re not just sitting around waiting for that to happen.
Based on the data modeling reported in “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices,” and with software we acquired and modified for the purpose, we’ve been marking up the bills introduced in the current Congress with “enhanced” XML that allows computers to automatically gather more of the meaning found in legislation. (Unfamiliar with XML? Several folks have complimented the explanation of it and “Cato XML” in our draft guide.)
No, we are not going to replace the lawyers and lobbyists in Washington, D.C., quite yet, but our work will make a great deal more information about bills available automatically.
And to build society’s capacity “to interact with the data and make use of it,” we’re hoping to work with the best outlet for public information we know, Wikipedia, making data about bills a resource for the many Wikipedia articles on legislation and newly passed laws.
Wikipedia is a unique project, both technically and culturally, so we’re convening a workshop on March 14th and 15th to engage Wikipedians and bring them together with data transparency folks, hopefully to craft a path forward that informs the public better about what happens in Washington, D.C. We’ve enlisted Pete Forsyth of Wiki Strategies to help assemble and moderate the discussion. Pete was a key designer of the Wikimedia Foundation’s U.S. Public Policy Initiative—a pilot program that guided professors and students in making substantive contributions to Wikipedia, and that led to the establishment of the Foundation’s Global Education Program.
The Thursday afternoon session is an open event, a Wikipedia tutorial for the many inexperienced editors among us. It’s followed by a Sunshine Week reception open to all who are interested in transparency.
On Friday, we’ll roll up our sleeves for an all-day session in which we hope Wikipedians and experienced government data folks will compare notes and produce some plans and projects for improving public access to information.
For some Wikipedians, particularly, this may be their first direct experience with the Cato Institute. We are known, of course, for policy positions that contest the current size and scope of government, but transparency, and the hope with getting data on to Wikipedia, is meant to provide the public with neutral information tools that all communities can use to oversee the government and advocate for what they want.
From Cato’s first event on transparency, and again in “Publication Practices,” I’ve emphasized that transparency is a sort of win-win bet.
Government transparency is a widely agreed-upon value, but it is agreed upon as a means toward various ends. Libertarians and conservatives support transparency because of their belief that it will expose waste and bloat in government. If the public understands the workings and failings of government better, the demand for government solutions will fall and democracy will produce more libertarian outcomes. American liberals and progressives support transparency because they believe it will validate and strengthen government programs. Transparency will root out corruption and produce better outcomes, winning the public’s affection and support for government.
Though the goals may differ, pan-ideological agreement on transparency can remain. Libertarians should not prefer large government programs that are failing. If transparency makes government work better, that is preferable to government working poorly. If the libertarian vision prevails, on the other hand, and transparency produces demand for less government and greater private authority, that will be a result of democratic decisionmaking that all should respect and honor.
By putting out data that is “liquid” and “pure,” governments can meet their responsibility to be transparent, and they can foster this evolution toward a body politic that better consumes data. Transparency is likely to produce a virtuous cycle in which public oversight of government is easier, in which the public has better access to factual information, in which people have less need to rely on ideology, and in which artifice and spin have less effectiveness. The use of good data in some areas will draw demands for more good data in other areas, and many elements of governance and public debate will improve.
Hope to see you March 14th and 15th.