Law in the Internet Society

Government Transparency: Simple Answers and Hard Questions

With Obama’s impending inauguration, the surrounding flurry of optimism seems to be obscuring some difficult questions that should be asked. Obama’s policy page calls for increased government transparency and citizen engagement. Noble causes to be sure, but vague sentiments such as “An Obama presidency will use cutting-edge technologies . . . creating a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America's citizens” ring of tokenism, where the underlying subject matter can be written about intelligently and concretely without the complex minutia of other areas such as patent reform. “Change” in this area is particularly necessary given rampant agency heel-digging unperturbed by the Paperwork Reduction Act (amongst others). EDGAR (as we know it) would not exist if a private individual, Carl Malamud, had not created an independent website providing the information for free and then closed the site, causing millions of reliant users to pressure the SEC to take it over. Malamud’s threat to repeat the process with the Patent and Trademark Office yielded the database currently available.

Some of the keys to government transparency are simple: provide documentation, which is already mandated to be publicly available, in easy to use formats online. Stop forcing people to either mail in information requests or visit Washington to get documents which are already on local computers anyway. Stop providing image PDFs of documents that can easily be displayed in HTML or simple text. This will greatly increase the searchability of government records and make it easier for others to effectively link to those documents. Obviously, providing documents in open formats would be ideal. Actually creating an efficient and well organized website that allows users to easily find and compare data is probably too much to ask for at this point, even with a federal Chief Technology Officer, but this would at least allow for more extra-governmental mashups and hacks such as the Washington Post’s Congress Votes Database or

Government sites should also utilize the web as an actual web, instead of treating it like a dusty file cabinet for document dumps. For example, a person trying to get information on Monsanto corn from the FDA website will find an announcement indicating when a new genetically modified organism is approved. Likewise, the person will find an in internal memorandum regarding the decision and the letter sent to the applicant. None of the documents are actually linked to each other. Nowhere is there a link to any of the actual studies submitted to the FDA, nor any follow-up requests made by the FDA nor what the FDA receives in turn. Consider the difference between the conclusory memo published by the FDA on a line of Monsanto’s corn and a full study published by the Austrian government. Clearly, the FDA website is just about the last place anyone would go to in order to learn about food safety.

Online citizen engagement has been a hallmark of the Obama presidential campaign, but there remains much to be done in that area. Many federal government websites are woefully inadequate in the information they provide, are not updated on a regular basis, or lack helpful links. Most sites do not provide a simple mechanism where one can suggest that something be added to a site, updated, or removed. At best there is a general email for contacting a particular agency, but such comments are neither expressly solicited nor is there any indication that they will be routed to someone who deals with the website. Wiki-fying these sites would go a long way to solve these problems. However, unlike other sites whose nature allows us to tolerate errors of a short duration, there is a strong argument to be made that there can be no such toleration with regard to federal government sites. Adding talk pages to sites, however, would be a good step. The more fundamental problem is that editing is the job of the few and even other agency employees do not appear to have any editing capability for the sites.

None of these ideas is remotely revolutionary, but the utter failure to mention simple, concrete solutions, which would have a significant impact on government transparency, is a worrying sign that government transparency is simply being paid lip service. Obama’s policy also fails to address how his administration intends to deal with even thornier issues such as government obfuscation and censorship – both of which are central to real government transparency. There is no simple solution for dealing with attitudes like Dick Cheney’s: “’I’m told researchers like to come and dig through my files, to see if anything interesting turns up . . . I want to wish them luck, but the files are pretty thin. I learned early on that if you don’t want your memos to get you in trouble some day, just don’t write any.’”

Similarly, inappropriate editorial control of scientific publications may or may not abate with the arrival of a more science-friendly administration, but without official policies and safeguards, it will continue to be a plague within this and future administrations. The Bush administration systematically silenced scientist. For example, all NASA employees (and especially those writing about global warming) were forced to submit all publications, website edits, and interview requests to public affairs staff. Dr. James Hansen, top climate scientist at NASA, was threatened with “dire consequences” for speaking out on the issue and he “was particularly incensed that the directives had come through telephone conversations and not through formal channels, leaving no significant trails of documents.” Restrictions have likewise been placed on the US Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

-- KateVershov - 02 Jan 2009

  • The structure is rough here; you seem, for example, to cut off in the middle of a paragraph. Too much space was spent at the top verbosely criticizing websites, so you slammed into the 1,000-word limit at the bottom like a bat out of .... well, say, .Net.

  • Your real subject is in between the details of how to wiki-ize government websites and the privacy consequences of government data-mining. Those are indeed endpoints the essay should touch upon, but its real emphasis is in between, where government process becomes more about informing and involving citizens, so that the real technology of government--the collection and evaluation of information, the iterative improvement of policy in light of multiple expectations and concerns, the acceptance of necessary compromise--becomes more accessible to the real people government activity affects, and who are thus enabled to play a more enlightened role in collective self-government.



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r2 - 02 Feb 2009 - 22:06:43 - EbenMoglen
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