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Open Government Data Earns Bipartisan Congressional Support in Washington

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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.

The cost of good data

Since our conversation, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the DATA Act would cost the government $575 million to implement over 5 years, as reported by FierceGovernmentIT:

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.

As NextGov reported yesterday, efforts to require government-wide spending reports have advanced on the Hill, while President Obama has begun the process of establishing a similar board by executive order.

You can read more letters of support that extend from well beyond an Open Government Coalition online over at Scribd, including:

Open government as a bipartisan issue

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.

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